I know I've blogged about it before, but it's a bit of an endless conundrum of mine: how can you eat produce that is as local as possible with our crazy climate and short growing season? Of course, people have been growing things like tomatoes in greenhouses here for a while, and it seemed like a sensible solution... Until I learned that greenhouses are so expensive to heat and maintain that the carbon footprint of a single hothouse tomato is actually worse that if it had come from California, and 10 to 20 times higher than if it had been grown in a field.
But we can't escape our endless winter, and we also have to eat other things that root vegetables. It didn't seem like there was a solution but only have access to less fresh (less nutritious) produce from far-away lands, inevitably making our food-related overall carbon footprint much higher than people who were blessed to be born in milder climates.
But I was wrong! Just take a look at this project: Lufa Farms. The vision of a twenty-something Montrealer from Lebanese origin, who skillfully blended his business and technology background with his passion for food and agriculture. The result is the most impressive and well-though of initiative I've seen in a long time: a rooftop greenhouse to grow food.
How is it different?
Since it's on top of a building, the elevation means that you get maximum sun exposure. And since heat goes up, the greenhouse benefits from the building's heating system, and heating costs are very low. In fact, the higher the urban density, the lower the heating costs. Also, the rooftop means that no valuable urban square footage is wasted -the space is already available and under-utilized.
The prototype greenhouse, which was built for $3 million (from private funds) in the North End of the city, can feed up to 2,000 people. They grow no less than 40 varieties of vegetables and herbs, distributed in the form of weekly "baskets" -even in the dead of winter, people can receive local produce that they know has been picked on the same day. They use different microclimates that are specifically suited to different plants, and grow hydroponically, collecting and reusing rain/snow water. No chemicals are used, although their growing methods excludes them from receiving an official organic certification.
The people involved are looking for expansion opportunities, since they say it would probably take a greenhouse twice or three times as big (6,000 people fed) to ensure long-term profitability. We never think of large-scale agriculture in terms of an urban setting, but according to their research, it would only take greenhouses on 10% of the roofs in Montreal to be able to feed the entire population of the city (over 1 million people if you exclude the suburbs). And this, year-round. Positively awesome.
I REALLY hope this concept will take off.
(You can see a video (in French) of the project here -although I'm not sure it's available outside of Canada. Ande here's a NYT article about it from last May).