Fresh from the city: The rise of urban farming

Already gaining steam before the pandemic, interest in urban farming — and hunger for hyper-local food — has soared. A look at three Canadian takes on the urban farming phenomenon

  • Jul 09, 2021
  • 2,278 words
  • 10 minutes
An illustration of a rooftop farm Expand Image

The early days of the pandemic threw well-established Canadian food systems into disarray. In April 2020, news reports told of dairy farmers across the country having to dump millions of gallons of milk down the drain due to supply management issues when restaurants, hotels and schools shut down. And, as borders closed, the fact that Canada imports more produce than it exports became both a worry and a talking point (in 2019, Canada imported $6.37 billion in fruit and $3.9 billion in vegetables, mainly from the U.S., China and Mexico). An ongoing conversation was launched. How much food should Canada obtain through major food importers and multinational companies? Would we do well to become more self-sufficient?

The global food sovereignty movement, which had been building momentum since its grassroots conception in the late ’90s, quickly gained traction with its focus on the rights of people everywhere to access healthy and sustainable food. One of the pillars of the movement lies in using local food systems to reduce the distance between producers and consumers. Three Canadian companies have successfully pioneered solutions aimed at bringing farms closer to home — and educating the next generation of agricultural innovators.

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Illustration: Colin White

From the rooftops: greenhouses in the skies

I can see bright blue sky through the glass of Lufa Farms’ greenhouse roof in the northern Montreal neighbourhood of Ahuntsic — while sitting in front of my laptop in my home office. Because of the pandemic, I’m unable to visit the farm for the type of educational activities Lufa Farms hosts to teach students, and curious adults, the ins and outs of urban rooftop agriculture and the role it can play in a city’s food supply chains. Instead, the organization’s public relations coordinator, Rosa Moliner, is giving an enthusiastic virtual tour of the hydroponic farm where they grow plants in water enriched with a nutrient solution rather than in soil. She explains how their closed-loop system works, recirculating about 90 per cent of the water that’s pumped through long, white plastic channels out of which plants are growing, with the other 10 per cent either absorbed by the plants or evaporated — which means water waste is at practically zero.

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Illustration: Colin White

“You can see the water trickling right now!” says Moliner excitedly, holding her phone up to one of the large channels that is emptying out excess water and doing a very convincing impression of a babbling brook. The trickling water is laced with minerals you’d find naturally occurring in soil — like magnesium, iron and potassium — and it drips into a trough that leads to a filtration receiving tank, where it is treated before being recirculated. The water reserves sit in the basement beneath this almost 3,000-square-metre greenhouse, Lufa Farms’ original facility. It was the first commercial rooftop farm in the world when it opened in 2011. The organization’s mission was clear from the get-go: feeding Montrealers directly with hyper-local produce available year-round to help reconnect them with where their food comes from. Lufa Farms has since opened three more, larger, greenhouses, with the newest Ville Saint-Laurent location in the city’s northwest launched during the pandemic — at 15,217 square metres, it’s bigger than the others combined and is the single largest urban farming facility in the world.

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Illustration: Colin White

Lufa Farms distributes its produce through customizable community-supported agriculture baskets (commonly called CSAs), which is a smart model for many small farms because customers generally pay for their full membership at the beginning of the season, right when farms have plenty of upfront expenses, like seeds and farming materials.

Right after Lufa launched in 2011, it had around 200 die-hard locavore subscribers. The farm soon built an online marketplace where, in addition to vegetables, people can order Quebec cheeses, meats, beer and plenty more. Now Lufa ships in the ballpark of 25,000 baskets a week.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with people trying to avoid trips to the grocery store, new accounts jumped — as did order sizes. Lufa’s expansive new facility opened not a day too soon. Its size might be record-breaking, but the Ville Saint-Laurent greenhouse’s production is laser-focused, growing exclusively eggplants and Lufa’s all-star crop: tomatoes. Co-founder and greenhouse director Lauren Rathmell, who studied biochemistry at the city’s McGill University, says, “We joke that when we started, no one on the team or anyone we knew had ever grown or sold a tomato.” Now, winter-hardened Montrealers go nutty for Lufa tomatoes, with various varieties available year-round thanks to this new location.  

Though its original facility is just one-fifth the size of the new behemoth, the Ahuntsic branch is still a crucial link in Lufa’s growing chain. Moliner shows off row upon row of channels sprouting peppers, fresh herbs and arugula, before heading further into the garden where they’re experimenting with growing microgreens in a vertical farming system: trays neatly lined with produce are lit by purplish LEDs and stacked about two metres high.

As this operation showcases, innovative indoor agriculture can play a key role in feeding an increasingly urban world in which space is a precious commodity. And growing food closer to where people live cuts down on transportation-related carbon emissions. Growing everything indoors also allows farms to produce next to zero water waste and avoid herbicides and insecticides (thanks, walls). Much like their space-efficient structures, the benefits stack up, so it’s no surprise vertical agriculture is expected to increase by more than 25 per cent globally by 2027.

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Illustration: Colin White

Well-stacked: Vertical farming on the rise

Gregg Curwin clued into the vertical farming trend a decade ago. Three years after founding the microgreens farm GoodLeaf in Bible Hill, N.S., in 2011, Curwin headed to Japan — where urban centres are notorious for being low on space — to learn more about the practice. He wasn’t alone in seeing the (highly controlled) light; vertical farms have been sprouting up all over the globe. In 2018, French start-up AgriCool raised $28 million to grow fruit in windowless containers just outside Paris, while the San Francisco-based agri-tech firm Crop One teamed up with Emirates Flight Catering that same year to build the world’s largest vertical farm in Dubai, where water scarcity makes the format a necessity. In the U.S. alone, the industry is projected to reach a value of US$3 billion by 2024.

After selling direct to consumers and local restaurants in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, Curwin’s GoodLeaf expanded to launch on a commercial scale in 2019, opening its main facilities in Guelph, Ont. Since the company now works primarily with large-scale wholesale buyers such as Loblaws and Whole Foods, this move was made to be as close to the customers as possible. Canada usually imports $2.5 billion worth of produce from California annually, so the border closing during the pandemic was a reminder for GoodLeaf that Canada needed to be more self-reliant. “With the borders closed and threatened to remain closed for some time, people started to be very nervous about the ability to bring fresh produce in,” says GoodLeaf farm manager Shawn Woods.

“When the pandemic hit, food insecurity was widespread.”

Selling tastier and more nutritious greens thanks to lowered travel time is GoodLeaf’s top concern, though — some vegetables can lose up to 50 per cent of their vitamin C within a week of being harvested. There are also a ton of other benefits to its agricultural model. Its growing facilities sit on an approximately 4,000-square-metre space, but thanks to stacked trays, they produce the equivalent of a 1.2-acre farm, with annual yields between 362 and 453 tonnes of baby kale, pea shoots and other microgreens. Because of improved LED technology, vertical farms are able to create so-called “light recipes,” fine-tuning the wavelengths to plants’ needs — and because they emit far less heat than halogen and incandescent lights, bulbs can be closer to the goods without scorching them.

Along with being a radical space saver, this format also means GoodLeaf’s farms use about 95 per cent less water than a regular farm. Massive air handling units remove heat and water vapour from the rooms, then condense and reuse the water, at a rate of more than 10,000 litres every 24 hours. Maybe most relevant in the long term, GoodLeaf has the advantage of never being at the mercy of the elements: it’s not affected by drought and rainfall patterns that have become increasingly unpredictable, or new waves of invasive pests brought about by the climate crisis. “We can grow foods just as well in the inner city as we can out in the country because we’re agnostic to arable land,” says Woods. “Because we grow indoors and create our own weather, [climate change] doesn’t affect our produce.”

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Illustration: Colin White

Its facilities aren’t greenhouses, mind you, since they’re windowless. Instead, these are hyper-controlled plant factories where the heavy lifting is done by custom-made robots, and into which they pump carbon dioxide to feed the plants. These types of facilities have shot up — even two years ago, Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, never thought we’d be having these conversations. “We’re looking at a technological revolution here. Over the next generation, a lot less of our fruits and vegetables are going to come from fields in California and a lot more of them are going to come from greenhouses and vertical farms in Ontario,” says Fraser, referring to strawberries grown by Mucci Farms in greenhouses on the north shore of Lake Erie, which are now ripe nearly year-round.

From nimby to fimby: Farming in my backyard

In 2009, Gray Oron and Ilana Labow started an urban agriculture experiment in Oron’s backyard in Vancouver. That experiment quickly became several backyards, one of which was next to a school, and the activities caught a teacher’s attention. From there, Oron and Labow’s community organization Fresh Roots pivoted to working with schools to grow gardens. Their goal is to get kids excited about agriculture and help them understand everything that goes into putting vegetables on their plate, from seed all the way to the farmer’s market.

Though Fresh Roots works primarily with two schools in Vancouver and the Suwa’lkh school in Coquitlam, the experience is not restricted to those who study there. Kids from different schools bus over to participate, bringing together people from diverse backgrounds as part of Fresh Roots’ mission of fighting discrimination and racism through shared agriculture. When the pandemic hit, food insecurity was widespread within large portions of the population. In the face of heightened need, Fresh Roots shifted its programming between April and August 2020 to focus on preparing about 70,000 meals for families. Though this temporary move filled a need, it’s not a sustainable model. One of the most important facets of what Fresh Roots does “is recognizing that emergency food and the food bank model is not a long-term solution to food security,” says the organization’s executive director, Alexa Pitoulis.

Instead, a key for building sustainable solutions is giving kids what she calls food literacy. “Sometimes the magic is that they see their peers eating kohlrabi for the first time, and all of a sudden, we have a whole bunch of kohlrabi lovers,” says Pitoulis. “But sometimes it’s just seeing the bees and understanding the pollinator role, and … it takes them off in a different direction.”

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Illustration: Colin White

An important part of Canada’s future food systems will be getting as many hands on deck as possible and engaging the interest of younger generations. Because it combines farming with new tech, GoodLeaf is in a good position to inspire young people with intersecting interests. Along with cooperating with food banks to minimize waste, the company works with young farmers to introduce them to their technology, and it has held seminars in junior highs and elementary schools to get kids excited about different ways to grow.

Lufa Farms is also keen to get the next generation involved in rethinking food. Here, capturing young imaginations lies in letting nature do its thing. During school field trips, staff explain how they introduce lady bugs and parasitic wasps into their greenhouses to control pests naturally rather than using insecticides.

“We’re looking at a technological revolution here.”

Before ending our video call, Rosa Moliner flips her screen to show a small box filled with sawdust hanging from one of the white plastic channels. Inside are wriggling parasitic wasps that will help control the population of aphids, small sap-sucking creatures that enter the greenhouse when the windows are open and proceed to snack on the plants.

Fraser says regardless of whether it’s hands-in-the-dirt or learning about robotics, the bottom line is that students need to better understand future food systems. Though indoor agriculture is fast-evolving, he says there are still gaps in robotics and harvesting technology that need to be filled by education and policy. “Universities and colleges have to start training students on technologies around vertical [farming], data, robotics and automation,” says the researcher. In other words, students need to start learning about Canada’s agricultural system when they’re young and be encouraged to think creatively about where, and how, our food comes to us as they move through the school years and beyond, because they will soon be the ones in charge of stocking our grocery aisles.


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