There are two seasons in Montreal: Winter and construction, or so goes the decades-old adage uttered by so many bitter locals. Save for its all-too-short summer, the city can often feel like a harsh and even inhospitable place to live. Given that its human residents often feel beaten down by Montreal’s conditions, it is hard to imagine that such a city could be a host to anything more delicate. However, hidden among its littered, pothole-ridden, poorly paved streets, there exists a handful of hidden oases where fresh produce of all kinds grows plentifully year-round.
Stephen Moss is the co-owner of one such agricultural haven. AquiVerti Farms, founded in 2017, is Montreal’s first vertical farm. Housed in an 8000 square foot warehouse in Ville Saint-Laurent, the agricultural endeavour combines aeroponic and AI technologies in its patented farming method. Famously, vertical farming is entirely soilless. Crops are stacked from floor to ceiling, their roots misted with or resting in oxygenated water. The technique uses no pesticides or herbicides and requires up to 95 per cent less water than traditional methods of farming. AquiVerti Farms specialize in growing curly lettuce.
Prior to his involvement with AquiVerti farms, Moss had no professional experience in the agriculture industry. His love of gardening, however, was part of the inspiration for starting the business.
“I was just born with a green thumb,” Moss said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “I should have been born on a farm somewhere, but I was born in the middle of Montreal, and so my farm was wherever I was living.”
Moss and his partner George Aczam began growing lettuce in a 100 square foot basement unit, where they were able to harvest up to 24 heads a day. Their first customer was the Mile-End staple Supermarché PA, which still carries their lettuce to this day.
Currently, the company has six employees, who deal with the corporate side of the business. Moss predicts that, in the near future, the farm will hire up to four more to accommodate their growth. However, robots perform all labour associated with the actual farming.
“We're investing a lot of money into automation and robotics right now,” Moss said. “The two largest expenses in urban agriculture are labour and power.”
Moss reports that, along with diminishing labour costs, automation technology also increases the farm’s efficiency, which results in a larger yield. In the coming years, Moss says that the next steps for AquiVeti farms will be to move into larger headquarters and further increase its output.
“Just like traditional farming, it's all about scale,” says Moss. “Right now, Canada imports 1.2 billion heads of lettuce a year [….] All of that can be produced locally [….] Our farm is going to be able to put out hundreds of thousands of heads of lettuce [per year] [….] It’s less of a farm than a factory.”
While companies like AquiVerti prove that urban agriculture can be a lucrative business endeavour, researchers like Dr. Mark Lefsrud are working to explore the social and environmental impacts of the field. Lefsrud is an associate professor of Bioresource Engineering at McGill and leads the Biomass Production Laboratory, located on McDonald Campus. In 2018, Lefsrud was an Academic Participant in NASA’s Activities in Controlled Environments.
“I wasn’t aiming for urban [farming]. My original focus was to try and grow plants in space,” Lefsrud said, “I was sixteen when I read a story about that and have been [aiming for it] ever since.”
Lefsrud’s experience in controlled environment agriculture lends itself to the work he does with the Biomass Production Laboratory. Currently, Lefsrud and his team are investigating greenhouse heating methods that use renewable resources. Many skeptics have rightfully pointed out that urban agricultural practices that make use of LEDs tend to use more energy than traditional farming. Biomass Production is researching a method that heats wood pellets using direct combustion and gasification, meaning that the atmospheric aerosol (the smoke) is converted into carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide so as to mitigate the output of fossil fuels.
Since coming to McGill, one of Lefsrud’s primary research interests is improving food security using sustainable urban agricultural practices. He believes that bolstering the local food market could be a viable avenue to accomplish both. Buying local produce can greatly cut down on transportation time and costs associated with importing fruits and vegetables. Not only could this have a positive environmental impact, but Lefsrud indicated that it would increase the quality and shelf life of the produce purchased, which could in turn diminish food waste.
Lefsrud used a head of leafy greens, which have an average shelf life of approximately three weeks and are often harvested in Mexico, as an example to explain the import process.
“If you’re transporting it from Mexico, for example [producers will] pack it up and ship it off to California first,” Lefsrud explained. “And then they repackage, which usually takes around five days, from the time it’s in the field to the time it’s in the package, then they put it onto a truck and drive it up to us. So at the absolute best, it's usually one week to 10 days in before we even get it. It will sit in storage for a day, and then it will go on the shelves.”
Lefsrud estimates that much of the produce consumers purchase in grocery stores can be up to two weeks old.
For all his enthusiasm for urban farming, Lefsrud acknowledges that, even despite decreased transportation costs, higher overhead fees for urban agricultural centres often render urban produce more expensive than traditional agricultural products. Still, he cautions that a cost-per-calorie approach to food security is limiting.
“So there's food security, as in, the cheapest food for the highest amount of calories,” he explained. “I’m not a fan of that food security mindset because it [suggests] that healthy food is not a requirement. It's just calories to keep people alive.”
Lefsrud maintains that urban agricultural practices can help to mitigate the existence of food deserts—that is, urban areas where access to fresh or high quality food sources is limited. He also believes in the positive impact that the implementation of urban farming initiatives could have on communities.
“If you look at it from a social perspective, so improving the social dynamics of the community [like]creating jobs [or] getting people involved in local gardening or local activities, then this is a critical methodology that's required,” Lefsrud said.
Santropol Roulant is a shining and much-loved example of such a community initiative. Many McGill students will be familiar with the café by the same name. Located at Avenue Duluth and Rue Saint-Urbain, Café Santropol is a popular study spot. Just four blocks away however, the lesser-known Santropol Roulant is a community food hub that offers a plethora of goods and services.
Currently, Santropol Roulant has three main agricultural sites. The Roulant Rooftop and the Roy Terraces are both located at Roy and Coloniale, in the heart of the upper Plateau. Meanwhile, Ferme du Roulant is a three-acre plot of organically certified land located in Senneville in the West Island, 35 minutes away by car, or, as they mention on their website, a two-and-a-half–hour bicycle ride along the Lachine Canal. The food grown at all three sites is harvested and used for Santropol Roulant’s Meals-on-Wheels Program and in their Organic Baskets.
Santropol Roulant’s Organic Baskets follow the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model. Members pay a lump sum to the farm in up to three installments made throughout the season and, in turn, receive a weekly basket of produce. To make the baskets accessible, approximately 20 per cent of harvested produce is reserved for low-income families and individuals. These reserved baskets are subsidized by a tax-deductible weekly fee paid by members.
“It’s a way to give to the community and to be directly involved in food security,” Urban Agriculture Manager Marie-Anne Viau said.
The Meals-on-Wheels program also contributes to the organization’s mandate of improving food security and social inclusion. Run by a team of volunteers, the program caters to nearly 100 clients living with a loss of autonomy. In accordance with the Quebec government’s social distancing recommendations the Meals-on-Wheels program is Santropol Roulant’s only service still in operation. Viau stressed that, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, the program is imperative. Santropol Roulant is actively recruiting volunteers, both for delivery services and kitchen preparations. Volunteers and organizers are taking every precaution to adhere to protocol and to provide contact-free delivery while continuing to serve the vulnerable members of the community.
“It’s more important than ever, but more complicated than ever,” Viau said.
Under normal circumstances, Santropol Roulant offers a variety of workshops and activities designed to teach the community about different sectors of the agricultural industry. The organization hosts five volunteer collectives whose services directly benefit Santropol Roulant’s various programs while providing educational resources to interested individuals. They include everything from the Santrovello collective to an urban fruit harvesting collective called Les Fruit Défendus. Les Fruit Défendus finds and identifies fruit trees growing throughout the city of Montreal. It also aims to educate fruit tree owners about how to properly care for and harvest from trees growing on their property.
Urban foraging and harvesting is now something of a niche hobby in Montreal and beyond. Foraging societies and mushroom hunting have become increasingly popular as a way to enjoy nature and the resources it provides. Several organizations even host grafting workshops, where tree owners can learn to grow multiple varieties of fruit on one tree. Grafting joins the tissue of their parent tree (called the ‘root stock’) with the tissue of another tree of the same family (called the ‘scion’). From their one grafted tree, owners can enjoy a variety of fresh fruit in as little as four to five years. Organizations like Santropol Roulant aim to capitalize on the recent popularity of such urban horticultural practices to further contribute to food security and to bring together the community.
Over the past several decades, consumers have become increasingly detached from the sources of their food. Most people buy produce without a second thought to its origins or to the often lengthy, and always fascinating, journey it took to arrive on their plates. But anyone who has tended to so much as an herb garden on their balcony can attest that growing one’s own food feels immensely rewarding. Similarly, investigating and participating in urban agriculture in Montreal can make the city itself feel friendlier and more generous. United by the universal experience of eating, Montrealers from all walks of life have joined together to make food healthier, more accessible, and sustainable.