Brownstein: Fifth greenhouse will be its most efficient so far, Lufa Farms says

Perched atop the Walmart in Marché Central, the new 127,000-square-foot structure “will yield approximately 18 to 20 per cent more produce than the standard models.”

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It’s not as seemingly incongruous with the company’s organic mission as the site of the previous Lufa Farms greenhouse, atop a nondescript warehouse in the St-Laurent borough, a cherry-tomato toss away from Place Vertu. At least this latest Lufa urban greenhouse is situated in the veggie-friendly Marché Central, albeit on the roof of the market’s Walmart.

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This greenhouse, set to begin sowing vine crops in March for harvesting in May, is Lufa Farms’ fifth. It may not be Lufa’s largest urban garden, at 127,000 square feet. That accolade goes to the St-Laurent borough facility, covering 164,000 square feet (the size of three football fields), which is purported to be the world’s largest rooftop greenhouse. But according to Lufa Farms co-founder Yahya Badran, the Marché Central location — a steel structure with aluminum mouldings and double-paned glass walls — will be its most efficient and technologically sound. More important in these wild inflationary times, its vegetable yield should lead to significant cost reduction.

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“This is an Ultra-Clima greenhouse, which is far more advanced than a standard greenhouse,” says Badran, also Lufa’s construction director. “With its diffused glass walls and other temperature controls, it will yield approximately 18 to 20 per cent more produce than the standard models, which will bring prices down.”

Lufa Farms is building a new grow centre atop the Walmart at Marché Central in Montreal, seen on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. The rooftop is constructed with diffused glass instead of clear glass, which helps to keep the building temperature down and is a better environment for the plants and people.
Lufa Farms is building a new greenhouse atop the Walmart at Marché Central in Montreal, seen on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

The rooftop on Lufa Farms' new grow centre atop the Walmart at Marché Central in Montrea
The roof on Lufa Farms’ new greenhouse atop the Walmart at Marché Central in Montreal is constructed with diffused glass instead of clear glass, which helps keep the building temperature down and is a better environment for the plants and people. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

With the addition of the Marché Central greenhouse as well as that at its one indoor garden farm, Lufa will have 550,000 square feet of vegetable-growing space. Like the other venues, this latest is a pesticide-free, hydroponic greenhouse. The company employs about 600 workers at its farms and distribution centre and is expected to hire another 40 when the Marché Central greenhouse gets going in March.

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Lufa now harvests 215,000 veggies a week from its operating locations. It has met its initial goal in serving over two per cent of Montreal, sending out 30,000 baskets a week to 62,500 subscribers.

But Lufa provides more than just veggies, including numerous varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces et al. It is also a giant online farmers’ market. The bottom floor of its St-Laurent warehouse serves as a distribution centre, wherein boxes of vegetables, fruits, breads, cheeses, meats and even wines, among other household products, are ordered by and prepared for Lufavores, Lufa’s individual and restaurant members.

Baskets are then shipped to 380 pickup points around the city. For an additional $6 charge, Lufa also provides home delivery, from Gatineau to Quebec City, to its Lufavores. At present, 70 per cent of them are opting for this service.

Deliveries of vegetables can be received within hours of ordering, and unless you’re growing your own, you would be hard-pressed to find fresher or tastier anywhere in town, particularly in winter.

A lufa, incidentally, is a squash/cucumber-like vegetable indigenous to Lebanon, where Lufa co-founder Mohamed Hage was born. While Lufa turns out just about every kind of veggie, it doesn’t yet produce a lufa.

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The first Lufa greenhouse was launched on an Ahuntsic rooftop in 2011. With expansion, business grew steadily for the next decade and boomed during the pandemic’s peak three years ago, largely due to the reluctance of people to go to supermarkets.

However, as Lufa communications director Yourianne Plante points out, business, like the pandemic, plateaued in 2022 when people ventured out again to supermarkets. While basket deliveries remained stable and demand for its vegetables was as strong as ever, inflation hit the company particularly hard on grocery goods it didn’t harvest, from cornstarch to chicken to cheese. As a consequence, the tab for orders that Lufa delivered was significantly reduced as consumers went to other sources for these non-veggie products.

But Lufa management remains optimistic about returning to its pre-pandemic levels of business.

“Our goal now, with the new greenhouse, is to be able to provide 10 per cent of all Quebec with our produce,” Plante says. “We are really positioning ourselves now as a viable online grocery, with about 2,000 products on the market.

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“Our belief is also that with the more greenhouses we can build, the more affordable our prices can be. For example, we are already seeing it with our lettuce at our indoor farm. We can produce up to 20,000 lettuces a day, and we’re now selling our lettuces for one dollar less than we were before.”

Plante notes that Lufa has other discount strategies in place to keep prices competitive with supermarkets. But the fact remains that consumers are being so hard hit everywhere with inflationary prices that many are turning away from staple goods, no matter how organic.

“These have been really tough times for us, too,” Plante says. “We had been used to growing at between 20 to 30 per cent a year, but for almost the last two years, we are just breaking even due to inflation, increased competition and consumers cutting back. But we are still lucky to remain in business. And our goal now is to get back to 30 per cent and increase our subscriber base by lowering our prices.

“From Day 1, our mission has been to disrupt the industry, and with every greenhouse we build and with our 450 partners providing us with our 2,000 products, we are becoming more efficient and becoming more able to give back to our clients directly. We no longer want to be seen as a niche service, but as a service that can be affordable, accessible and competitive for all. We now feel we can provide not only the best in quality, but in price as well.”

No surprise: Plante says a mammoth 200,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art rooftop greenhouse, at a yet-to-be-determined location, is already in the planning stages.

To learn more about Lufa Farms or to become a member, visit lufa.com.

[email protected]

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