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A Vision for a Commercial-Scale Rooftop 'Farm' Nears Completion

Most people would not consider January an ideal time to plant crops, especially January in Montreal. But for Mohamed Hage, Kurt D. Lynn and Howard Resh, timing is one of the proof points of their project -- a commercial-scale rooftop greenhouse that's designed to yield produce year-round for an urban community.

Entrepreneurs Hage and Lynn and horticulture and hydroponics expert Resh are the brains behind Lufa Farms, which unveiled details last week about its 31,000-square-foot greenhouse being constructed atop a two-story office building in Montreal's Marché Central neighborhood.

Construction of the specially designed greenhouse began in July and is expected to be complete before year's end. Planting is scheduled to begin in January. On that timetable, the first crops would be harvested six weeks later.

"We're right on the threshold of completing the first commercial-scale rooftop greenhouse," said Lynn, Lufa Farms' co-founder and vice president, in an interview before taking the wraps off the project. "If it works in Montreal, it will work anywhere." and have featured several articles on urban agriculture: farms called VertiCrops that mostly have been planted on the ground and were recognized by NASA for fostering water sustainability, the prospects for soaring high rise farms of the future, and another rooftop greenhouse business called Sky Vegetables, which was the subject of a piece last fall by GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower.

While the idea of urban farming isn't new -- small-scale rooftop farms and herb gardens are key draws for green restaurants such as Uncommon Grounds in Chicago -- Lufa Farms lays claim to being the furthest along with a large-scale operation.

According to Lynn, he and his colleagues started batting the idea around about three-and-a-half years ago.

"The economics of food today forces us into compromises," Lynn said. "If I'm shipping things 2,000 miles, all along the way I'm increasing the handling of the food, affecting its taste, its freshness. It's a long food chain. My children don't know what a true tomato tastes like.

"Our goal simply is to be a neighborhood food source and raise the bar on the issue of traceability. We think it's important that people know where their food comes from, that they can say, 'Yes, I can see where my food is grown. It's grown right over there.' "

Lufa Farms, whose next project goal is a rooftop greenhouse of about 150,000 square feet, aims to be the produce source for about 2,000 households within a three- to four-mile radius of the nearly three-quarter-acre greenhouse. People will be able to purchase produce via a subscription system.

The crops will include more than 20 varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, bok choy, herbs, assorted greens and other vegetables, according to Lynn and his colleagues. The produce will be grown without pesticides or herbicides and be irrigated with harvested rainwater and recirculated water.

The greenhouse, which was designed to be lightweight but durable enough to withstand the rain, snow and temperatures of winter in Canada, will also be fitted out with irrigation equipment, heating, insulation, curtains, supplemental lighting and advanced computerized controllers. All are intended to maximize crop growth and minimize the resources used in the process.

Salad greens at the test project at McGill University.

Lynn said a Lufa Farm can yield 10 times the output of a traditional farm in an area of identical size. The business set up a 5,000-square-foot test farm at McGill University, and its bounty was shared among just about everyone associated with the project as well as a women's shelter and a food bank, he said.

"We had 200 heads of lettuce every other day," said Lynn. "We were overwhelmed with vegetables."

In addition to producing crops, the greenhouse in Montreal also is expected to provide benefits to the building that serves as its host. The greenhouse further insulates the building beneath it and by reducing the need for heating and cooling, helps the property owner save on utility bills. In terms of supply chain and distribution, the greenhouse crops won't require the refrigeration or the fuel expenditures typically associated with bringing produce to market.

"This is the ultimate green roof," Lynn said.

Project partners include Fonds de Placement Immobilier BTB, which owns and manages the office building where the greenhouse is being built, Westbrook Greenhouse Systems, the GKC architectural firm and FDA Constructions.

Images courtesy of Lufa Farms.

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