Silver Donald Cameron:
Mohamed Hage, Mo to his friends, runs a very successful organic vegetable farm—up there.
This is the first rooftop farm in the world, located on the top of an industrial building in Northeast Montreal [Canada]. His second farm is a few kilometres away. In both farms, workers pick fresh organic vegetables in the middle of the night, and deliver the produce directly to consumers in the morning.
Yet Mo Hage says that his company, LUFA Farms, is not really a food company at all. It’s a technology company. But I call it a peek into the future of food.
Silver Donald sits down with Mo.
Tell me why I’m dressed this way [both men laugh].
Well, we ask all guests, essentially, to put on a Tyvek suit and shoe covers, because we’re trying to minimize the number of insects that come in from the outside. We grow our food here with no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides—no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fungicides—so we try to introduce other insects into the farm to create a level of… to really create an equilibrium in the farm, where all the pest pressures are maintained fairly low.
The key about growing food without having too many problems is to have enough insects, both good and bad. They keep themselves really busy and they leave the plants alone. It’s really funny, we, once a week we’d go in and we’d scout for all the bad insects, such as aphids; and I’m not the technical one here, at LUFA, but I know roughly how it works, and we essentially measure the densities of bad insects that we have in the farm.
And then we’ve got a, we built a small software that will allow us to understand what those populations, how these populations will vary over time, based on the humidity and the light levels. And we introduce insects, predatory insects, into the farm to balance them.
Yeah, it sounds much more effective than trying to actually prevent pests from getting in in the first place.
Yeah, I mean, you always want to prevent new pests from coming in. You always want to be able to control what you have in the greenhouse. We just built a brand new farm right now that has a technology that allows us to pass all the air through an insect screen, and maintain a positive pressure in the farm to prevent insects from coming in.
So we don’t have to deal with the outside insects, but we still have to deal with the inside insects. But when you have two or three species, it’s fairly manageable. It’s more during the summertime where we have, you know, dozens of species coming into the farm, that becomes a little bit more challenging.
What an interesting concept… that you, that technology allows you to be more natural.
People walk into the farm and the first thing they see, they see us wearing Tyvek suits, they see software, they see people with laptops, iPads and they go, “Well, is this really natural?” You know, you’re… there’s… it’s too controlled.
We like to think that we pick the best of, the best technologies, but technology… we cannot do it without. I mean, we… you know, I… when I look at the challenge we have here today, if we did… if it wasn’t for the software that managed our microclimates, that gives a different temperature and humidity and irrigation for each group of plants, we wouldn’t be able to grow without… we wouldn’t be able to grow in polyculture, we’d be growing in monoculture.
So technology allowed enables that [polyculture]. The fact that we’re able to, if someone harvests a head of lettuce, automatically know that lettuce is in demand and schedule more lettuce for planting.
Who is your typical consumer?
Our typical customer is a Montrealer, a local person that loves good food and understands sustainability. I think we only sell our food to consumers in a bit of a subscription-type model. So you get a weekly basket from LUFA, you’re able to see what’s in your basket and change the content of your basket. We start off with a [sic] LUFA veggies and we complement our production with the productions of about 40 different farms that are all in the area, that share the same vision of sustainability as LUFA.
So these are potato, carrots, beets, onion farms and we have a few a [sic] local food artisans that will bake your bread at midnight for your basket; soon we’ll have cheeses and local eggs as well. So the idea is not only do we have, not only do we sell our own food, but we also try to bring together the best, the treasures of the local community, over to our customers.
In the immediate future, you’ve got… so you’ve got Farm#1 in Montreal, Farm #2 in Montreal, Farm #3 in Montreal, or…?
We’re hoping Farm #3 will actually be in Boston. We’ve got a team in Boston, of two people in Boston that are dedicated to getting the projects up and running in Boston. And we looked at Boston primarily because it’s a very similar city to Montreal; we have a number of our team members and founding members that are from Boston, so we look at Boston as really the next city we want to expand in.
That’s interesting, because you also, you obviously have a very international flavour among your people. You’ve got a group of people brought together by ideas, visions and interests, right?
I’m a big believer that you live in the world, you know, you don’t live in… and I mean, I think we have to understand that this, for this to make, to be able to happen, you have to bring in people from all over the world. When we, whenever we take a group picture, it looks like a commercial for United Colors of Benetton [laughs].
Just [laughs] you’ve got everyone, they’re presented in there, and I… and we all love it, because it brings in new ideas, new ways of doing things. And when it comes down to expansion, it really simplifies things, because we literally have a person in every single expansion city that we want to be in.
Mohamed Hage, the youthful visionary who’s created the first rooftop farm in the world.
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