All posts by Joel Balsam

Joel Balsam is a Montreal-based freelance journalist and travel guidebook author. His work has appeared in National Geographic, the Guardian, TIME, CBC, Lonely Planet and more.
Tomatoes growing on rooftop of Lufa Farms in Montreal

The World’s Biggest Rooftop Farm is in Canada — and Growing Fast

There’s an old debate that tends to come up when discussing local produce in Canada: how can we rely on local ingredients when we can’t grow essentials like tomatoes in the winter in our northern climates?

Tomatoes growing on rooftop of Lufa Farms in Montreal

Despite never growing a tomato in their lives, that question mulled around in entrepreneurs Mohamed Hage and Lauren Rathmell’s heads until they launched Lufa Farms together in 2008. Their response to that question? The world’s first commercial urban rooftop greenhouse, which first opened in Montreal in 2011. Produce is delivered to doorsteps and pickup points in customizable food baskets alongside food from nearby farms, as well as local artisans like bakers and cheesemakers.

Related: Building a Zero-Waste Kitchen is Easier Than You Think. Here’s How!

“We live in Montreal, so it’s really cold in the winter, you get a lot of snow, so a greenhouse is ideal because you can grow year-round,” said Lufa Farms’ communication director Caroline Bélanger. “Then to do it on a commercial scale allows more people to have access to local food that’s done responsibly and it’s just better for the environment in the long run.”

Lufa Farms building in Montreal

Growing food on a rooftop reduces the carbon-omitting kilometres it takes for food to get to grocery stores and then to our fridges. It also uses residual heat from the building it’s sitting on to save on energy in the winter. But perhaps most crucially, Lufa Farms grows its produce hydroponically in coconut fibre, meaning 90 per cent of water gets reused.

Related: The Ultimate Herb Guide: Varieties and Best Uses

Growing on a rooftop does have its drawbacks, though. Among them, Lufa’s produce can’t be listed as organic in Quebec because it doesn’t grow in soil, even though it does everything else required for organic certification (like not using synthetic pesticides). Lufa also can’t plant fruit trees with sprawling roots, so citrus and bananas are out of the question. Still, like the rows of bright green Boston lettuce in its greenhouses, Lufa keeps growing.

What started with one rooftop space in Montreal has expanded to four, including a 164,000 square-foot greenhouse on top of an old Sears warehouse that clocks in as the largest commercial rooftop greenhouse in the world. And ever since the pandemic hit, Lufa has ramped up its customer base (affectionately known as Lufavores), doubling to 25,000 food baskets per week, feeding 2 per cent of Montrealers.

Produce growing on rooftop of Lufa Farms in Montreal

“There was obviously a huge shift towards eating local and supporting local through more difficult times and we definitely saw that growth ourselves,” Bélanger said. “We don’t know for sure yet, but hopefully it stays that way and people really stop and recognize the need to support local businesses and farmers, as well as the benefit of being connected to where your food is really coming from.”

Related: Vegetables You Can Regrow in Your Kitchen

And Lufa Farms is far from finished its growth spurt. Bélanger said the company hopes to expand to more rooftops in Montreal as well as to other cities across the eastern half of Canada and the US.

“We never have enough tomatoes, we never have enough cucumbers, so continuing to grow in Montreal is something that we’re looking to do and our vision is a city of rooftop farms,” she said. “To be able to replicate this model elsewhere is definitely a goal, but when that happens, we’re not entirely sure just yet.”

Photos courtesy of Lufa Farms

Passover seder meal

How the Passover Dinner (and Passover Story) Are Becoming More Progressive in 2021

For generations, Jews across the world have gathered to scoop fluffy matzo balls from chicken soup and slice piping hot beef brisket — but before they dig into their festive Passover seder meal, they must read a Haggadah. “Basically the Haggadah is… a guidebook, it’s a workbook, it’s a resource all at once. If anything, it’s a lot like a zine,” explained Rabbi Andrea Myers who serves queer Jewish communities in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. In sum: the Haggadah is where you talk about the Passover seder plate, sing songs, ask questions and talk about struggles.

Passover seder plate from above

The Book of Exodus in the Torah (or the Old Testament) tells the Passover story of how the Hebrews escaped slave labour at the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh (spoiler alert: Moses parts the Red Sea and they get away). But while the Exodus text is always the same, there are hundreds, if not thousands of versions of Haggadot (plural of Haggadah), all meant to spark discussion about what we can learn from this collective historical trauma. “It’s not necessarily about the freedom per se, it’s really so much about the struggle,” Myers said. “And in our world today, we understand that we’re not the only ones that struggle.”

Rabbi Andrea Myers

Over time, Haggadot have gone beyond the Exodus tale, reflecting the struggles facing Jews and the communities they share the world with. For instance, the ornate Szyk Haggadah drawn in the mid-1930s highlighted links between Nazi persecution of the Jews and the Pharaoh. In 1997, the Stonewall Seder brought the plight of LGBTQ2+ communities to the forefront.

Lately, there are more and more progressive Haggadot being shared online about a plethora of progressive issues from food justice to refugee rights to incarceration to Black Lives Matter. There’s even a seder for the BDSM community.

Related: What is Food Insecurity? FoodShare’s Paul Taylor Explains (Plus What Canadians Can Do About It)

“The world is a very complex and fraught and grieving place and we need to just be real about that, which is what I think that these Haggadot are saying,” Myers said. “That’s why I love Passover so much because it’s an opportunity for us in our own communities and families or core groups or whatever constellations people have for each other to have these conversations.”

Different foods or cutlery are also now commonly added to the seder meal in order to ignite mindful discussion. “I use a blood orange to represent missing and murdered Indigenous women and it’s not something that people would know unless they’re asked about it,” Myers said.

Pile of blood oranges

Having Your Own Progressive Seder

Ahead of the meal, Myers suggests having a frank conversation with those gathering around your table, virtual or not, about the issues most important to everyone. You don’t need to focus on just one struggle since many Haggadot online are short (Haggadot.com is a helpful tool that lets you customize your own Haggadah).

The idea isn’t to start a fierce mandlen (soup nuts) fight but to show solidarity with other people’s struggles. “Are we going to be people who sit back and say, ‘Oh well, we got ours.’ Or are we going to follow the ethical imperative to look and say, ‘Hey, here’s what we learned, how can we help you?’” Myers asked. “I think [this] is a very valid conversation to have, particularly when there are kids involved when we’re trying to role model what it means to repair the world.”

Did you enjoy this interview? Read more! Here’s our chat with Joshna Maharaj (on food insecurity and inclusion in Canada’s hospitality industry).

Photo of Andrea Myers courtesy of Andrea Myers; food photos courtesy of Getty Images