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Canada: Roftop farms cited as answer to growing urban food demand

Growing up in Lebanon, Mohamed Hage’s mother would send him on a two-kilometre trek, across a chain of small hills, to collect wild asparagus that grew in a valley at the edge of their village.

It’s a romanticized vision of agriculture, one where communities grow and source their own food from nearby lands. “But we’re already past the point where the land we have can suffice for this form of consumption,” says Mr. Hage, the co-founder and president of Lufa Farms, which built the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse in 2010. “What we offer is the next best thing.”

Sitting on top of an office building in Montreal is a 31,000-square-foot greenhouse. Inside are rows of hanging vines and trays bearing tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, which are all grown hydroponically with no pesticides.

In downtown Vancouver, Alterrus has built a greenhouse on top of a parking garage, where it grows herbs and salad greens in water using its VertiCrop system — a series of stacked trays that move on a conveyor belt. Similar farms are spreading in cities throughout the United States, especially in Brooklyn, N.Y., where at least three commercial rooftop farms are operating, with more planned.

Responding to the growing demand for local food, these farms have the lofty goal of revolutionizing the way cities feed themselves, while also trying to make a profit. “This is the way people want to produce food and this is how they want to get their nutrition — locally,” says Christopher Ng, chief executive of Alterrus, which started construction on its 6,000-square-foot greenhouse in August.

Basing operations gives the farms a direct consumer base and one that is likely to increase.

Some rooftop farms, such as Brooklyn Grange in New York, have been subsidized by public money, leading skeptics to question whether these businesses can thrive at a commercial level. But Joe Nasr, a lecturer at Ryerson University’s Centre for Studies in Food Security, says it’s not unusual for incubators to get support. “I would say not to treat this any differently from any other industry that’s getting R&D funding to jumpstart innovation.”

Mr. Ng says that there are limitations to farming on rooftops, like moving produce down multiple flights of stairs and finding appropriate buildings that can support the weight of a greenhouse. “We doesn’t necessarily see rooftops as the answer,” he says, “ but we do see that high-efficiency technology, like ours, in urban environments is key.”

Source: business.financialpost.com

Publication date: 11/26/2012


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