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Back to the Future: Lufa Farms on Re-engaging Consumers With Local Food Systems

Thibault Sorret is a Chief of Staff at Canada-based sustainable agriculture and technology company Lufa Farms. Lufa Farms created the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse in Montreal, Quebec in 2011, going on to build two others in 2013 and 2017. It is currently building a fourth, due for completion in March 2020, which will become the world’s largest rooftop farm. Here, Thibault explains how Lufa uses its hyper-local model as a way to engage consumers, and how it hopes to overcome some of the remaining hurdles to making food systems sustainable.

Smiling man working in greenhouse

Lufa Farms is known for creating the world’s first commercial rooftop farms — how has this novel approach helped to differentiate the business? 

We were the first to farm at a commercial scale on rooftops in cities, and as we’ve grown, we’ve ensured we are vertically integrated, so we produce, sell, distribute and deliver food.

It's not such a new concept if you think about it. If you look at the way food systems operated throughout history, they were always very local, very small circuits, so we're going back to that in a way.

About 70% of our sales are products that are in inventory for less than 24 hours, and vegetables are harvested the day before a customer’s order is delivered. So, from the customer's perspective, it’s the way the food gets to them which is the real differentiating factor, more so than the actual model itself.

How have consumers responded to the products you’re offering? 

Consumers have responded very well. This is something people really want, so our biggest challenge has been keeping up with the demand. It’s quite easy to sign up somebody in Montreal in the winter, because when it reaches -20ºC and you give them a tomato that was harvested the day before that tastes like summer, they just light up.

They understand that the tomato they just ate is fundamentally different to the tomato that's traveled for three weeks and was harvested green in Mexico. We don't really have to sell all that much — you just give that tomato to somebody and the taste takes care of the story.

To what extent is the local, sustainable aspect of your approach important to your customers? And how are you engaging consumers with respect to that? 

One of the things we've learned is that today, people really want to know where their food is from. It definitely seems as though there's a growing movement of people wanting to reconnect with their food.

That's something we've tried to excel at over the last few years. We’re visiting all of our suppliers, so that all of our products will have supplier descriptions and photos. We’re sharing the story back with the consumer: when people buy a tomato, it's not a tomato from X country, it's a tomato from this particular farm with the story of the farmers who grew it.

The other thing we're doing to deepen engagement with people is literally opening our doors. We have monthly open houses where people can come and visit our greenhouses for free. We think it’s really important to show people how we're growing food and how this works in a city. This also helps overcome challenges that we face in terms of potential misconceptions.

Almost all of our open houses are sold out. We had around 8,000 visitors last year, and next year we're probably going to have 20,000 to 50,000 visitors in our farms. As soon as people see our food or taste it, they really get it. We live in a very digital world today, and reconnecting people to their food also needs a human, in-person element.

Does this engagement make a difference when it comes to building brand loyalty? 

I think the shift towards greater environmental awareness, towards the importance of local and of fresh, responsibly produced food, all of those trends have played towards a consumer mentality that looks at a system like Lufa Farms and says, okay, this makes a lot more sense.

I think with a lot of the people that we have as customers, there's a loyalty you wouldn't necessarily find in most supermarkets — a lot of our customers feel like they're part of the mission. And so, when we're going through a growth spurt and we have a few deliveries that are late, for example, people are going to be a lot more understanding because they feel like they're part of that mission, they're on this journey with us.

Do you think price remains the biggest barrier for a lot of consumers when it comes to changing their food buying habits? Is that a barrier that you will be able to overcome? 

I think most people understand that the food system is intrinsically broken and want to help fix it. A lot of people might feel like there's not much they can do about it, but food choices are definitely a big thing that they've been able to do.

In general, when people look at food-buying decisions they're looking at three things: taste, convenience and price. On price, we're on par for anything that's organic or pesticide-free for all of our products. We have people visiting supermarkets to check that’s the case. But the ultimate goal of Lufa is changing the current model to a better food model, and we think over the long term it’s possible to get the prices to match conventional produce by achieving great enough scale.

One of the biggest reasons is waste. If you look at the current food model, estimates suggest that 58% of food produced in Canada goes to waste. When you look at a system that's currently wasting so much of what it's producing, long term there is a possibility with a model like ours – where there's almost no waste – where you can be more cost effective.

By harvesting to order, we're able to cut out a huge amount of the waste that goes on in the supply chain. Right now, we're still at a small enough scale where we're on par with organic prices, but if you look at our latest site, Anjou, we've been able to bring down the cost of our Boston lettuce in the summer to one Canadian dollar per head of lettuce, which is cheaper than a conventional lettuce. So, we know it’s possible to produce this sort of food at this quality at a lower price. We're going to keep on growing, and so far, as we've grown our prices have dropped as well, which is the direction we want to keep going in.