Brownstein: Atop a Walmart, Lufa's latest greenhouse is almost ready to harvest

The 127,000-square-foot urban greenhouse in Marché Central is bursting with cucumbers and peppers, and is its most efficient yet.

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A knowledge of agronomy can go a long way in determining when a crop is ready for harvesting. But little beats a human taste test.

So Mohamed Hage simply snaps a Lebanese cucumber from the vine and sinks his molars into the mini-cuke for a sampling.

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“It’s ready,” pronounces a beaming Hage, the founder and CEO of Lufa Farms. “It’s so sweet. I’m happy.”

I’ve never served in a Lebanese cucumber taste test before and, truth be told, have never been a big fan of this particular veg, but it’s hard to disagree with Hage after taking a bite of another cuke. I could almost have it for dessert.

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The official opening of Lufa’s fifth rooftop greenhouse takes place Tuesday atop a seemingly incongruous setting, the Marché Central Walmart and Decathlon shops in the Ahuntsic borough. This 127,000 square-foot urban farm may not be Lufa’s largest — that honour goes to its 164,000 square-foot, St-Laurent borough facility sitting atop a former Sears site. But Hage insists this latest greenhouse is its most efficient, anticipated to generate 20 per cent more yield than conventional greenhouses of similar size.

A large greenhouse sits on the roof of a Walmart store
The Lufa urban garden greenhouse above the Walmart store at Marché Central. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

It is now chock full of Lebanese and its longer English cucumber cousins as well as peppers. Even prior to Tuesday’s opening, the Lebanese cucumbers were being harvested and popping up in the baskets of Lufavores — Lufa’s members. The English cucumbers and peppers will be ready for picking shortly.

It’s hard to believe that six months ago this rooftop site was little more than a mass of glass and metal and that it’s now the largest cucumber-and-pepper farm in town. More than that, though, Hage cites the fact that with its state-of-the-art Ultra-Clima concept and its three-times more LED light intensity, insulated double-paned perimeter glass, diffused glass roof and double curtains, it is by far Lufa’s most tech advanced. (And with its temperature fixed at a balmy 27 degrees Celsius, it could also double as a tropical-like vacation spot year-round.)

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But ever the veggie visionary, Hage has more expansion plans for future sowing.

“As always, our end goal is to grow better food with less in our latest hydroponic greenhouses,” Hage says. “Less land, less energy, less water, less waste, less resources, less time and no synthetic pesticides. We rely mostly on electrical energy and incredible water-conservation properties in capturing all the resulting humidity. We’re expecting to grow 30 to 50 per cent more food per square metre here than at our St-Laurent rooftop greenhouse.”

Rows of plants are held up by strings as one worker on an elevated platform and two workers on the ground tend to them.
Lufa urban garden workers string cucumber plants in the greenhouse constructed above a Walmart at Marché Central. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Like just about most other businesses, COVID-19 also took its toll on Lufa. Prior to the pandemic, Lufa — which was first launched in 2011 in Ahuntsic, about 300 metres from this new site — was fast growing at between 20 to 30 per cent a year. But for a two-year period, Lufa was being hard hit due to inflation, increased competition and customers cutting back.

“It’s still challenging now, but we’re very optimistic about the future and we’re starting to see the tide turn,” Hage says. “When push comes to shove, we’ve shown we can rise up to the occasion and I feel we’ve done a good job in the last year to swim against the current and have kept moving forward. That optimism has really helped us and I really felt a big turn in the last few months.”

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Hage notes that Lufa also took a huge risk with its $50-million farm-cum-distribution centre in St-Laurent, but that’s now paying dividends.

“We ended 2023 where we were still losing money and we had three massive projects we had to bring to life that we didn’t necessarily need because the demand didn’t follow. This coupled with the cost of financing having skyrocketed, resulting in our paying interest that had doubled and tripled. But we kept going with our new distribution centre that is four times the size, which allowed us to ship out four times the number of baskets. And with that, our costs dropped.”

So Hage is starting to see blue sky above the new site’s diffused glass roof.

“One of the main things Lufavores have told us over the last year is that in light of the downturn in the economy, saving money is obviously very important to them. So we ended up reducing our pricing a lot, roughly by 10 to 15 per cent. It cut down on our profits. We had a couple of negative years. But we’re hoping 2024 will put us back into the black. It’s a small setback for our very long-term view of going forward and going from two per cent at present to 10 per cent in providing all of Montreal with our produce.”

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A woman looks up while handling strings attached to plants in a greenhouse
Lufa urban garden worker Mariana Hryha strings cucumber plants in the greenhouse constructed above a Walmart at Marché Central. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Lufa now harvests 215,000 veggies a week from its current operating locations in sending out more than 30,000 baskets a week to its 62,500 subscribers. But Lufa provides more than all manner of veggies. It is also a giant online farmers market. The bottom floor of its St-Laurent warehouse serves as a distribution centre, wherein individual boxes of vegetables, fruits, breads, cheeses, meats and even wines, among its more than 2,000 available products, are prepared for Lufavores. Baskets are then shipped to 350 pick-up points around the city for customers. For an additional $6 charge, Lufa provides home delivery, from Gatineau to Quebec City, to its customers.

“We want to be able to be, literally, a living grocery store.”

While revealing that a sixth Montreal urban greenhouse is in the planning stages, Hage lets slip that he is working on replicating the Lufa model outside Montreal. Outside Boston, in fact.

“That’s our ultimate dream,” he says. “No matter how important Lufa becomes to the local food system, we want it to become important to the global food system. And we can’t really do that unless we can show this model can work in other locations apart from Montreal. So we’ve narrowed down our search to one site specifically in New England, not too far from Boston.

“Montreal for us is a phenomenal R&D centre. We’re always experimenting. We have an amazing team that’s incredibly courageous. That’s going to continue. But ultimately as our food system matures, we feel we’re ready to bring our model to different locations.”

Bet the — greenhouse — farm on Lufa making its mark globally.

To learn more about Lufa Farms or become a Lufavore, visit

[email protected]

A hand holds a cucumber still attached to a plant
The Lufa urban garden greenhouse is currently growing cucumbers and bell peppers above the Walmart at Marché Central. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

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