The farm on top of the city

A new crop of urban farming businesses aims to feed locavores, save the planet—and turn a decent profit
Sarah Elton
Cyrus Dowlatshahi

On a rooftop farm in Brooklyn one sunny afternoon, dozens of tomato plants heavy with fruit swayed in the wind, a farmer stooped over rows of dandelion greens and the customers kept coming. They climbed through the door to the 65,000-sq.-foot roof of the Brooklyn Grange Farm, in the city’s navy yards, across the water from Manhattan, and without fail they exclaimed with delight. “I love it. This is beautiful!” said Giovanni Cipolla, a grey-haired man who bought a bunch of dandelion and remarked that the only other place he could buy greens this fresh was Italy.

At the vegetable stand set up in the middle of the roof, with the Manhattan Bridge visible in the distance, another man bought eggplants priced at $4 a pint. “My 99-year-old mother is going to slice them, fry them and make eggplant parmesan,” he said.

Unlike many large city vegetable gardens, this rooftop farm is not a social project or a community garden. Rather, it is a working farm whose owners are trying to achieve economies of scale and turn a profit. Like any rural family farm, the Grange has paid employees (five in this case), sells what it grows at farmers’ markets as well as to restaurants and runs a community-supported agriculture program. What makes it different is its urban setting—and that it’s an example of a new crop of urban farming businesses growing as numerous as early summer radishes across the continent, which are trying to prove that you can produce food and profits in a big city.

There are small ventures such as Red Pocket Farm in Toronto, where on about 2,700 sq. feet of land, Amy Cheng produces organic Asian vegetables such as bok choy and choy sum to capture part of the $21 million that Canadian consumers spend on imported Chinese vegetables each month. In the Vancouver area there are 10 mid-sized urban farms that typically use a few patches of land to grow enough food to meet customer demand, says Emi Do, who started Yummy Yards last year and now produces a range of vegetables on seven different plots. She generates enough farm income to invest in her business; she bought a cargo van and put in an irrigation system last summer.

There are larger operations too, and even big-ticket investors are showing an interest. Montreal’s Lufa Farms Inc. has been growing dozens of varieties of vegetables year round in its 31,000-sq.-foot hydroponic greenhouse, built on top of an office building with a $2-million investment by president Mohamed Hage. The business has been so successful selling a weekly food box to a subscriber base of about 1,000 people that it has recently secured $4 million in equity investments led by a venture capital fund and is not only building two more projects in Montreal but looking to expand into Toronto and the United States. In New York City, the Brooklyn Grange operates another rooftop farm in addition to the one in the navy yards, as well as an apiary. The two roofs together required investment of more than $1 million in private funds and grant money. And in Vancouver, a company called Alterrus that uses the VertiCrop system is constructing a 6,000-sq.-foot greenhouse in a downtown parking garage where it plans to grow salad greens and herbs.

These businesses all hope to tap into the growing consumer demand for locally produced food. While the size of this market is not tracked in Canada, Ontario’s Vineland Research and Innovation Centre found, when it conducted consumer research with grocery shoppers, that more than a quarter of the province’s consumers are considered to be “socially responsible locavores.” And a recent BMO study found Canadians are typically willing to pay anywhere from 16 to 19 per cent extra for produce and meat that’s local.

“I really do believe rooftop farming is the wave of the future,” says Sari Gonzalez, who volunteers at the Grange and runs a catering company while studying at Farm School NYC, a program that trains urban farmers, run by the non-profit Just Food. “Part of that is learning to make money out of it.”

Of course, equally important to these enterprises is a commitment to environmental sustainability and local communities. “It’s a triple bottom line,” says Michael Meier, the farm manager at the Brooklyn Grange, referring to the mantra “people, planet, profits.” “We won’t necessarily be making millions of dollars, but we are making money.”

Urban agriculture in North America has long been the domain of not-for-profits, such as the much-celebrated Growing Power, an astoundingly productive city farm headquartered in Milwaukee that was founded by Will Allen, a former professional basketball player turned Procter & Gamble executive whose expertise and star power has been sought out by many, including Michelle Obama. Allen has received a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation and $5 million from the Kellogg Foundation to train what he calls community farmers, who provide their neighbours with access to healthy food. Allen’s farms grow enough produce and raise enough meat and fish to feed 10,000 people, and his model of city farming is promoted for its capacity to help improve quality of life in impoverished urban areas.

In some ways, this social aspect is easier to understand. “One of the big challenges is convincing people that this is truly a business,” says Hage of Lufa Farms. “This model isn’t just a feel-good model but potentially a very big enterprise.”

Making a profit while producing food in the city is not new. Many cities in the developing world, such as Nairobi, have vibrant urban agriculture sectors. In these dense, often poor cities, farmers find ways to grow food in any space they can—even at the roadside, using plastic sacks. But even in the developing world, urban agriculture is not solely the domain of impoverished people looking to make money. Middle-class entrepreneurs are also producing food for profit, because of the business potential. When you grow food in the city, you locate your business in the midst of your market—a large market that needs to eat at least three times every day.

In North America, the urban-market advantage is similarly helping to fuel interest. Courses have sprung up at universities and colleges to train the new urban farming class. And in August in Toronto, an urban agriculture summit brought people together from the United States, Canada and Cuba to talk about issues such as zoning regulations and to share experiences and techniques.

Governments, too, are becoming supportive by changing by-laws to make it legal for people to sell what they grow in the city. (It continues to be against the law in some jurisdictions, such as Vancouver, where you can’t sell food grown on land that isn’t designated agricultural.) Responding to requests for information from both municipalities and private citizens, Ontario’s ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs has created the online Urban Agriculture Business Information Bundle to provide resources about topics like food handling and business development for city farm entrepreneurs.

Being a farmer “is not an easy living,” says Cathy Holtslander, director of research and policy for the National Farmers Union. For decades in Canada, according to her organization, the traditional family farmer has been struggling to earn a living wage. Most farmers must find other kinds of employment because they can’t support their families without the extra income. Even organic farms that are tapping into the same local-food movement as these urban farms are struggling. It remains true that the best way for farmers to make a lot of money in Canada is by selling their land for development.

But farming in the city isn’t the same as growing food in the countryside. There are many advantages in addition to the ever-present consumer base. Urban farms such as Vancouver’s Yummy Yards don’t need expensive tractors and can use hand tools instead. Small backyard-based businesses can turn on a garden hose to water their crops, rather than invest in irrigation. The larger operations with more costly greenhouses such as Lufa Farms benefit from growing specialty crops, rather than the low-value cash crops that so many rural farms produce, says Rod MacRae, an associate professor at York University who is a co-author of a Metcalf Foundation report on scaling up urban agriculture. A bushel of wheat was listed on the commodity exchanges recently for $9.60, whereas, at the Brooklyn Grange, that would buy you a pint of fairy tale eggplants, a small bunch of carrots and a few habaneros.

Whether or not these differences will mean that city farming businesses can succeed is an open question. “We are in this flux mode where new things are emerging that will hopefully get us on a more sustainable track,” says MacRae. “Exactly which of these things has legs is yet to be seen. You can’t really predict what’s going to play.”