Rooftop Revolution

Farm-to-table dining doesn’t always mean country to city. Industrious Canadian entrepreneurs are using unused urban spaces for culinary cultivation.

This could be a moon colony. Overhead, a grid of glass panels stretches as far as the eye can see. Below, pristine white shelves are studded with coconut-fibre plant pods. An intricate network of tubes delivers water and nutrients to each seedling, controlled by an unseen hand – and an iPad app.

“Some of our advisers also work with NASA,” says Lauren Rathmell, Lufa Farms’ co-founder and greenhouse director (as well as an avowed sci-fi fan). “It’s easy to see some parallels with what we’re doing.”

The creation of former IT engineer Mohamed Hage, Lufa opened its original 3,000-square-metre facility in Montreal in 2011, then launched a second greenhouse in nearby Laval in 2013. Together, the facilities yield 190 metric tons of produce each year (tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce and more), distributed at pick-up points in biweekly food baskets. It’s not just another community garden: Lufa built the first commercial rooftop farm in the world. And it’s part of a network of urban farmers and entrepreneurs changing Canadians’ relationship with food.

Lufa Farms

Forget concrete jungles. Green projects, such as Lufa Farms’ rooftop greenhouses, are all over modern cityscapes.

While the value of the nation’s traditional agri-food industry cannot be downplayed (it contributes over $100 billion to the GDP and employs one in eight Canadians), urban farmers are concerned with more than just feeding themselves and their local communities. With over half the globe’s population now living in urban areas, supporting sustainability with technological innovation is more important than ever, and what’s happening in Canada is a potential model for the entire world.

Lufa Farms: The game-changer

“There was really no case to follow,” says Rathmell, a graduate of McGill University’s biochemistry program, about the early days of Lufa. Just finding a suitable location for the farm involved casting a wide (Inter)net: a Google Earth survey of Montreal’s unused rooftops. And the challenges aren’t always what one might expect in an urban centre.

For example, it isn’t the -30°C lows that employees dread – the greenhouse proves a pleasant escape from the cold – but the +30°C summer days. During heat waves, even with automated temperature and humidity control, staff work around the clock to keep the plants from wilting.

We come face to face with another obstacle while checking out some cucumber plants – or at least what’s left of them. Because Lufa employs hydroponic methods, they can’t technically be certified organic, but operations run according to organic standards, and that means no pesticides. Instead, a custom-designed app highlights pest hot spots that the company then attacks with bio-controls like aphid-eating ladybugs.

Lufa Farms

Produce from Lufa Farms’ two greenhouses in Laval and Montreal are delivered twice a week, along with products from local farmers and artisans.

“Most of the natural things taking place on farms, we don’t even know about them,” says plant-science project manager Nick Taylor, inspecting a half-eaten leaf. “My goal here is to turn this into a real environment. Not just introducing bio-pests, but getting them to stick around instead of flying out the vents.”

Taylor grew up on his family’s farm in Île-Perrot, Quebec. Like most Quebecers, “eating locally and seasonally” has meant a steady diet of root vegetables half the year. But like most of Lufa’s staff, he’s eager to figure out how exotic this greenhouse can get. Tucked away near the hot peppers, there’s a small section devoted to experiments: figs, melons, even coffee plants. Taylor reaches over and plucks a kaffir lime leaf, then hands it to me. It’s the real deal, glossy and fragrant, and it could end up in future food baskets – if it strikes a balance between profitability and consumer demand.

After all, while this is a real business, it’s one that’s succeeding through word of mouth. Between the rooftop farm and the bustling ground floor (where baskets are filled), office employees cater to devoted fans, aka “Lufavores,” posting recipes to the company blog and taking photos of new products from partner companies – everything from free-range eggs to locally brewed kombucha.

Urban farming

Lufa Farms (Photo: Dominique Lafond/Rodeo)

This expansion of their online marketplace makes good business sense, allowing customers to shop ethically in one place, but it also helps put a dent in a staggering statistic: The ingredients for the average Canadian meal travel between 1,000 and 3,000 kilometres. Employees are also getting the offices ready for one of their regular open houses, a chance for customers to see behind the scenes.

The ingredients for the average Canadian meal travel between 1,000 and 3,000 kilometres.

“Lufavores have supported us from the beginning, and we want to be transparent with them,” says Rathmell. “It’s not just about growing tomatoes.”

Alvéole: The secret ingredient

Another day, another hidden rooftop revolution. This time, I find myself atop Birks’ 122-year-old flagship store in downtown Montreal, in the company of 50,000 honeybees and Alex Mclean. He’s here to inspect the hives installed by his company Alvéole (French for “honeycomb”). The twentysomething’s demeanour is decidedly laid-back – he’s traded a beekeeper suit for an Oxford and khakis – so when he suggests I poke a tiny wax cell with my bare fingertip, I don’t hesitate. A drop of shiny amber liquid bursts out, sticky and sweet. “That’s about as fresh as you’re going to get,” he says with a laugh.

In his teens, Mclean and two friends (and future business partners), Étienne Lapierre and Declan Rankin Jardin, took a summer job at his uncle’s 2,000-hive honey production company in Manitoba. But it wasn’t until they checked out New York City’s Brooklyn Grange, the largest soil rooftop farm in the world, that they considered the potential of Canada’s unused urban spaces.

The trio started in 2013 with two experimental hives on the roof of a Montreal architecture firm. Now they oversee about 400 hives in Montreal and Toronto, with each producing up to 20 kilograms of honey per year, harvested in early autumn. (While the bees survive throughout winter – in fact, they create so much heat that they melt the snow around the hive – extreme cold can affect production.)

Alvéole sets up hives in gardens and on balconies for hobbyists; others are for businesses like Birks and Cirque du Soleil, which pay for set-up and upkeep as well as workshops for their staff. The companies also, of course, reap a more tangible reward: branded jars of honey. “It’s better than a pen with a logo,” remarks Mclean.

Alex Mclean

Alex Mclean of Alvéole checks on a rooftop hive in downtown Montreal.

It also looks pretty sweet on a company’s Corporate Social Responsibility report. While Mclean says Canadians currently import about 50 percent of our honey, the urban beekeeping movement isn’t just about eating locally – it’s about protecting the earth. Amid all the buzz about colony collapse disorder, one message has become clear: Save the bees, save the world. Out of the top 100 food crops, 70 are pollinated by bees. Surprisingly, it’s urban bees that may actually have an advantage over their rural cousins, since pesticides commonly used in traditional farming are banned in city centres.

But the biggest obstacle to urban beekeeping isn’t concrete. It’s fear. “People confuse wasps and bees,” explains Mclean. “Basically, wasps are carnivores, they go out and hunt. Bees are vegan and organized. They send out scouts and plan out their movements, which is why you won’t see them appear as soon as you open a soft drink. They’re not out to bother you.”

While Alvéole didn’t start the corporate beekeeping trend, they’ve managed to set themselves apart from regular apiarists with their online presence. They tweet links to live hive-cams, have an app that tracks all the tree varieties in Montreal, and share hive data (humidity, weight, sound) with university labs, with plans to release it to the public. It’s a strange juxtaposition – using hypermodern tech to monitor an almost perfect natural process. But there’s something comforting about that. Even Zen. “You can be a CEO with an Apple Watch, but you’re still working with tools – smokers, frames – that haven’t changed in hundreds of years.”

They’re also no strangers to slick branding, putting out cheeky semi-nude calendars (with strategically placed hive frames), opening an Alvéole café in Montreal’s trendy Mile-Ex neighbourhood and creating a product designed for gourmet grocery stores. (No squeeze-bottle bears here.)

“We’re the only ones crazy enough to do this,” says Mclean, handing me a jar labelled Plateau, then another marked Westmount. Alvéole extracts each batch of honey by individual hive, rather than mixing them all together. The process is laborious, but the result is remarkable: From one borough to the next, a honey can go from pale and creamy to dark and glossy, all because of the flowers the bees feed on. It’s an instant, tasty way to show people a connection between food and the environment, says Mclean. As is beekeeping in general. “You just can’t look at a hive without understanding the bigger picture.”

Edible vapour "clouds"

Future Food Studio’s projects include a mechanism that creates edible vapour “clouds.”

Future Food Studio: The next gen

To look at the next hundred years of food, I speak with someone who’s used to predicting the future. Dr. Irwin Adam Eydelnant, co-founder and scientific/creative director of Toronto’s Future Food Studio. Eydelnant, fresh off a TEDx Talk in London, England, considers the food that goes into a meal from all angles: packaging, taste, health, economics. “Local and organic – they’re standard, but the conversation is changing,” he says. “There’s a lot more to food security than just knowing where it came from.”

A trained chemical and biomedical engineer, he leads a team of designers, scientists, artists and chefs in reimagining the act of eating and drinking for major brands. In-studio projects include utensils that add their own flavours to food, and a drinkable “cloud” developed at a pop-up bar on Queen Street West. Put simply: “We take tech that exists and apply it to food.”

As Eydelnant points out, it’s not enough to grow vegetables on city rooftops – we need to know how their nutritional value is affected. He foresees a day when ingredients can be broken down to their components and measured against real-time health-monitoring apps.

He’s also not convinced that the diet of tomorrow will look anything like today’s food trends. “There’s really a broad spectrum right now, from Soylent shakes to the KFC Double Down,” he says. What about 3-D-printed pizza? “I don’t know if it will be useful, ultimately, but it’s important conceptually, looking at producing food products at the point of use.” Detoxing? “I think we should design our lifestyles around moderation, so there’s no need for it.”

Future Food Studio

Future Food Studio draws a crowd at SXSW in Austin, Texas, making carbonated drinks.

While travelling to give talks or collaborate has broadened his perspective, he’s also learned a great deal closer to home, spending over a year with a small group of high school students as part of his company’s FEED (Food, Education, Entrepreneurship, Development) program. Through research projects, factory visits and running a small frozen-banana business, the teenagers exhibited a broad range of dietary wisdom, some subsisting on packaged snacks, others cooking for their whole families, “shopping like a mom, touching and tasting everything.”

Eydelnant also got to witness some harsh realities of contemporary food policies created with good intentions. For example, stocking one cafeteria with healthier (often pricier) items sent kids to a nearby dollar pizza place. “The school janitor told me he can tell when the kids don’t like the food – he just checks the ceiling.”

But he’s also seen how Canadians use food systems to circumvent broken social policy. “There are community gardens where they bring in people on disability, people who can’t work regular jobs or they’ll risk losing their disability cheque. So they work – and it’s therapeutic work – in exchange for credit, and with that get fresh fruits and vegetables they couldn’t normally afford. They’ve essentially created an alternative economy.”

Ultimately, Eydelnant thinks farm-to-table and high-tech are not in competition – they just need to work toward cohesion. Not just for businesses like his, but for the future. “A friend of mine, a chef, said, ‘We can change the world with our mouth.’ The choices we make about what to eat dictate how our entire world functions.”

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