It’s hardly shocking that an electrical engineer who plans to “change how cities eat” by building rooftop greenhouses around the world has a radically different view of agriculture.
What’s surprising is Mohamed Hage’s prediction that all commercial farms will one day join him in making data and technology management Job No. 1.
“We couldn’t be doing what we’re doing without software,” says the founder and chief executive officer of Lufa Farms.
“Any business today is really a software business: you can’t escape it.”
Lufa has two greenhouses built over mixed-use commercial buildings in Montreal that produce nearly 1,000 tonnes of 40 types of pesticide-free vegetables and herbs in computer-controlled “micro-zones.” Produce is delivered to customers within 12 hours of picking.
“From Day 1, we’ve had a no-exception policy that we will never put a Lufa item in a basket that hasn’t been harvested that day,” says the 31-year-old Montrealer.
Customers can customize their baskets by going online and swapping, for example, one variety of tomato with another of the 22 types Lufa grows. Basket prices start at $30.
Customers also choose their pick-up location online from a list of more than 170 spots in Montreal, including restaurants, gyms, yoga studios, and florists.
Software automatically handles ordering, customization, payment, delivery date and pick-up location.
Lufa works with area farms that produce items it doesn’t grow, and all of that, from sourcing to paying those farmers, needs to be precisely co-ordinated.
Delivery routes must be customized every day, and to avoid disappointing customers, the company needs a really good handle on what to plant this week so they’ll have the right amount of every single item when orders come in weeks later.
Hage was fascinated by hydroponics as a teenager and initially dreamed of ways to use it on the small farms of his uncles and cousins in his native Lebanon.
However, he then realized that combining advances in greenhouse technology and e-commerce with a “close-to-market strategy” might just make rooftop greenhouses feasible.
“Seven years ago, I had this a-ha moment: what if you brought all of these advancements in technology together and started growing on rooftops with no pesticides, polyculture, capturing and re-circulating water and selling the food to the people who live in the building? That was the original plan.”
Hage, who has also founded a successful email marketing firm, says the greenhouses are profitable, although Lufa will have to build many more before investors see a return on their sizable outlay for research and development and start-up costs.
Two are planned for next year, and a major expansion may not be far off.
“Hopefully by 2015 or 2016, we’ll have brought down costs and we can start building farms in multiple locations,” says Hage.
“Ultimately, we see this technology being used in cities around the world. The sky is the limit.”
Lufa is both different and a sign of what lies ahead for all farms.
Precision farming pioneers already know it’s not about having variable rate equipment, satellite imaging and yield monitors.
The key is finding the best software, learning how to use it, adjusting management to make the best use of the information and then doing it all again as software and technology play their endless game of leapfrog. And just wait until yield monitoring drones and robots arrive.
However, Lufa is proof that the right software enables operators to juggle a hundred balls at once and opens up opportunities to find efficiencies and improvements in everything from crop planning and production to marketing and shipping.
It’s a daunting new world. Life was simpler when the most important equipment on the farm was in the shed rather than in cyberspace.
Hage is sympathetic, but says there’s no turning back.
“It’s not a walk in the park because there are a lot of tools out there and not all of them are helpful,” he says.
“But you have to embrace it.”