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Setting the Stage for More Rooftop Farms

by Mohamed Hage

Environment Articles

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Published on this site: November 25th, 2010 - See more articles from this month

In 2010, Lufa Farms created the world's first commercial-scale greenhouse on the roof of a commercial office building. The event has been heralded as a milestone in urban agriculture and a potential "game changer". But creating this new type of city farm was a difficult task.

If everybody wants them, why don't more exist?

It is a significant social conundrum that so many people see the necessity of growing food within urban spaces and yet there are so few efforts to do so on a commercial scale actually exist.

Four years ago, as the founder of Lufa Farms, I contemplated the creation of the world's first commercial-scale rooftop farm - the question of why more didn't already exist was something I worried about - why weren't there more rooftop farms? To be sure, there was a lot of talk of such farms - Sky Vegetables, Gotham Greens and others had announced their intentions to create such enterprises, but by the end of 2009, no actual facilities had been built.

Why it's a good idea - start with the land:

The conventional arguments for rooftop farms are many. First and foremost is the loss of arable land. The easiest commercial development is on flat earth - farm land. As cities expand, the flat spaces of earth are consumed by shopping centers and other commercial develop. Farm land is lost. In the United States, for example, urban sprawl takes over nearly 400,000 hectares of farmland each year. The population is expanding, land on which to grow food is diminishing - not sustainable, not good. Rooftop farming is a way to take the land back from commercial development.

Food safety and food trust:

Every year there are more and more problems reported concerning food. Listeriosis, e-coli, salmonella, etc. are but a few that regularly emerge in the public food supply. Too, the overuse of pesticides, herbicides, GMO-doctored food and various soil treatments also add risk to the food supply. As more food is being produced outside of North America, the ability to monitor risks is diminished and traceability becomes almost impossible. The surest way to be able to trust the food you eat is to know exactly where it comes from and who grows it.

Quality of food:

Today, the tomato you buy in the typical grocery store is not much like the tomato you used to get at a grocery store 20 years ago. Why? Because it's a variety selected to be tough, durable, and decay slowly as a means of surviving the long trip from farm to warehouse to distribution center to retail warehouse to retail store. Moreover, food takes anywhere from 1 to 6 weeks to find its way from the farm to you. During that time, typically, more than half of its nutrient value has disappeared. Rooftop farming means farm-to-tabletop times of hours or a few days. The result is better food, and more nutritious food.

So with so many good reason, why rooftop farms are difficult?

I found out why. It's not because of the myriad of engineering issues that must be confronted to build a structurally safe and viable farm on a roof. No. It's because government, and the agricultural industry, have an intrinsic bias favoring traditional and conventional farms. We encountered such obstacles in almost every phase of the project.

The first that was encountered were building code specifications. Definitions existed for greenhouses on the ground, but not on building. The second, obstacle was zoning. In order to put the greenhouse on its office building the area had to be re-zoned as agricultural. Finally, while a variety of local and federal farm financing programs exist, few would recognize the concept of a farm in the city. It was difficult to even find a farm financing agency office within the city! At one point, my team and I had to drive almost an hour out of Montreal to meet with one farm financing agency at their office closest to the city.

What has to happen for the future of urban agriculture...

Based on ours Lufa Farms experience, if we want more urban farms to emerge, some things will have to change at the municipal, state/provincial, or federal levels. Among those things include:

  • Reassessment of certain zoning and tax ordinances to accommodate use of buildings as agricultural space. Incentives would be better yet.

  • Evaluation of city and national building codes to interpret appropriate codes for hybridized buildings. This is not a simple task but analyzing the codes in advance would go a long way to facilitating urban agriculture.

  • Developing policy on farm subsidies, crop insurance, and farm financing programs to explicitly consider how they will address rooftop or other urban farming activities.

  • Rethinking certain aspects of real estate and leasehold law to recognize that farms may be on leased property.

These represent but a few of the obstacles that must be overcome for an urban farm venture within a typical city. They can be solved but they won't get solved overnight, but municipalities and other levels of government should start thinking about them now - urban agriculture will only be increasing in the future!

Mohamed Hage is the founder of Lufa Farms in Montreal, Canada.
Lufa Farms is the world's first commercial-scale rooftop farm.
More perspectives on urban agriculture by Mohamed Hage can be
found at http://www.lufafarms.blogspot.com/.

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