Agri-tech entrepreneurs eye the vertical landscape for new growth
Lufa Farms is taking to the rooftops to bring its sustainable urban farming vision to reality. The Montreal-based entrepreneurs have become recognized leaders in indoor farming innovation, steadily expanding and refining their rooftop greenhouse concept.
They’re not alone in exploring the potential of urban commercial farming. Lufa Farms is part of a growing number of agricultural technology entrepreneurs who are finding innovative ways to combine soilless processes such as hydroponics, aquaponics and/or aeroponics with advanced growing technologies to create commercial farming operations in urban markets.
With three rooftop sites up and running, Lauren Rathmell, greenhouse director and co-founder, says they’ll soon be ready to take their concept on the road to other major cities across Canada. “It’s urban agriculture at its best. Growing in a controlled environment allows us to produce crops all year round, closer to where people live, in a sustainable way. The beauty of moving to rooftops is that no new land is required.”
Their business model is vertically integrated, from building the facilities and production, to direct-to-consumer subscription sales through its online marketplace, which now averages 16,000 basket deliveries a week.
Given real estate is always in short supply, Rathmell says they took a simple approach when finding their first location in 2010. “We used Google Earth to scan the island of Montreal block by block to find a building that was big enough to support additional stories.”
They settled on a mixed use industrial building in the borough of Ahuntsic for its 32,000 square foot production site and headquarters, making it the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse, according to Rathmell.
Given they had no proof of concept, this project was funded by their friends and family network, she says. “Once people saw it, investors came on board and grants opened up.”
In 2013 they opened their 43,000-sq.-ft. Laval location. By the time they came to their largest (68,000 sq. ft.) and most technologically advanced Anjou location in 2017, the team was getting very proficient at building rooftop greenhouses at less cost, she says. “With practice we have cracked the challenge of building on rooftops cost effectively.”
As for expansion, Rathmell says there’s no rush. “Slow and steady is the most important thing for us. We’re not in it for fast growth and a rapid exit. We really want to build something that is sustainable financially and environmentally.”
In Calgary, Deepwater Farms is putting its own spin on repurposing urban commercial buildings for food production. In their case it’s the integration of aquaponics for deep water sea bass with hydroponics for growing arugula and kale.
It all started out as a science project for co-founders Paul Shumlich and Kevin Daniels. “We were both interested in the food system and local food scene,” Daniels says. “When the idea came up we said let’s give it a try and see if it works. The next day we began building an aquaponics system in Paul’s backyard.”
With that proof of concept, they were able to raise money from investors and build a pilot facility. By June 2018 they moved on to a 10,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in an industrial park in Calgary.
“One of the main draws was that because it is inside a controlled environment, farming can be done anywhere,” Daniels says. “And since we’re going vertical with the plants, we can get more production per square foot. It makes sense in urban centres where there is not a lot of available space.”
In terms of future plans, Daniels says they are still working on that. “At this point we’re 40 per cent of our capacity here. So this year is all about scaling this facility and maximizing our potential.”
Even without a locked-in expansion plan, Daniels says they’re not concerned. “There is going to be a huge demand in the market for this kind of concept. We’ve even been contacted by people in the Middle East about this. There is big potential for us in a lot of different areas.”