Rooftop veggie garden gets off the ground in Montreal

Montreal — The Canadian Press

Lauren Rathmell tends to some vegetable plants in the nursery at the Lufa Farms rooftop greenhouse in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Imagine an office where a basket of freshly farmed vegetables is only a flight of stairs away.

That's the vision of Mohamed Hage, the founder of what he calls the world's first commercial rooftop greenhouse.

At street level, there's little sign of natural life in this concrete-laden, traffic-heavy corner of Montreal.

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But inside, a small team of workers tend to what will soon produce an abundance of tomatoes, cucumbers, bok choy and more.

Mr. Hage has ambitions to set up multiple rooftop farms around the city like this one, which aims to provide 1,000 families with weekly veggie baskets year-round.

The project offers a solution for city dwellers seeking fresh, pesticide-free veggies with a minimal carbon footprint, he says.

"You can imagine how many people we can feed with the small percentage of the roofs in Montreal," says Mr. Hage, 29, who has been working to get the company - called Lufa Farms - off the ground for four years.

"The best advantage that we can bring to the consumer is the fresh produce all year round."

Mr. Hage says he came up with the idea as an answer to concerns over the impact of conventional agriculture on the environment and on food safety.

He sees the business as a logical progression of the local food movement, appealing to those who favour fresh, high-quality produce from nearby farms.

Mr. Hage says the facility employs controlled-environment agriculture, which allows the operation to yield as much produce as a conventional farm 10 times its size.

It also collects rainwater for its crops and recirculates water used for irrigation.

While some may scoff at paying $22 a week for a basket of veggies, environmentally conscious foodies who can afford it may be sold on the idea.

The limited packaging and minimal transportation make it a green-friendly choice, but the biggest selling point may be the improved taste.

"The primary reason it tastes better is because we're harvesting everything fresh, when it's ripe," says Lauren Rathmell, a McGill University biochemistry grad who oversees the cultivation of seeds on one side of the greenhouse.

"We can pick something in the morning and it's on their plate by evening."

If the setup seems like a no-brainer, why haven't such rooftop gardens become commonplace?

"It's the perfect project to say, 'You know, I quit,"' says Mr. Hage, explaining that outdated zoning laws and government regulations make it difficult to set up a commercial garden atop a building.

"A lot of trades had to come together [to make this happen]- engineers, architect, lawyers."

In his case, it took a year alone for the city to change the zoning to allow farming in the 3,000-square-metre space atop the office building.

"A lot of cities and government don't make it easy to get into this space," he said.

"You wonder why agriculture isn't simply permitted in the first place."

The Canadian Press

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