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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in organic food (4)


Government in the Garden

An exciting attraction for food lovers, who spend their summer vacation in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York, is the opportunity to buy fresh produce from local cultivators. Here, farmers grow fruits and vegetables in a sustainable manner and raise chickens that roam free. This production, offered weekly at Farmers Markets throughout the area, tastes better than the selection found in supermarkets. In the recent past, this food was also perceived to be healthier.

When interest in organically raised animals and produce peaked, the farmer-merchants were in an advantageous position to embrace this new trend in eating. Supposedly, all they had to do was to change the quality of the nutrients they fed both plants and livestock and avoid using harmful pesticides.

It was exciting and convenient for vacationing consumers to shop from local farmers. Now, not only was it possible to purchase tastier food, freshly harvested that same day, but also it was food grown in a sustainable, responsible manner, with a low carbon footprint because it was sourced nearby.

However, something changed this past summer. When we arrived at the market on the first day of our vacation, we were disapointed to see that the signs designating the stalls as organic were no longer posted.  That's when we began asking questions.

One chicken farmer told us that the price of organic feed had increased to a level that made it prohibitive for her to run a farm profitably. She assured us that she was using the next best alternative; a quality feed several grades higher than conventional.

A second farmer reported that she was unable to declare her food organic without paying for a permit and that she found the cost of government-certified organic labeling too costly.

The last stall owner we spoke to was dismayed by the constantly changing government guidelines. It had become too expensive to adapt his farm to newer regulations every season.

In the end, all the cultivators assured us that they had found alternative, eco-friendly and healthy solutions that were less costly and bureaucratic. They did remind us that unregulated organic practices still remains an option for those gardeners who choose to grow food for personal consumption.

Ironically, the debate on this topic is slowly coming full circle. Using organic pesticide that requires repeated applications is proving to be more harmful than using factory-produced pesticides that are effective with just one application. Furthermore, there is a growing realization among scientists that there is no empirical evidence to confirm that eating organic is healthier than eating conventionally grown food. There is, however, a consensus that the advantage to eating organic is that food tastes better. For some people, that is a sufficient reason to consume it, and to pay a premium for that choice.

However, for most of the world’s population, paying for certified organic remains an expensive and debatable alternative. Even supporting local non-organic farmers comes at a high price because the cost of their harvest is often much higher than supermarket food. However, when I am on vacation, I am happy to source freshly harvested, tasty food, locally grown by farmers I trust. It enhances the rural, outdoor experience and in some way helps us city folk reconnect with nature.


Update on an Urban Rooftop Greenhouse

Image by Lufa Farms

Several months ago, I wrote about the creation of a rooftop greenhouse that was about to open in an industrial park, here in Montreal. The now-functioning prototype is a 31,000 square foot greenhouse on top of an office building. The incentive to build this project arose out of a concern by its founder that it was difficult to find and get fresh produce in Montreal.

…food is often grown far away from where it is eaten. This meant that our food – whether grown in Quebec or in South Africa – would be handled, packaged, shipped, stored, refrigerated and reshipped perhaps dozens of times before it could appear on our dinner plates. And all along the way, it would become less fresh, less nutritious, less tasty, and be exposed to more potential hazards. The obvious truth was that it would be almost impossible to be truly fresh.

Diagram by Lufa Farms

The proposed business model included an expectation that consumers would pay in advance for weekly delivery of food baskets filled with freshly harvested and grown-close-to-home produce. Also anticipated was the participation of local, certified organic, Quebec farmers and nearby hydroponic growers whose output would supplement the baskets.

Image by Lufa Farms

After only six months of operation, and servicing 700 families, the greenhouse production maxed out, as it cannot meet the overwhelming demand that it generated from the local population. With this vote of confidence, Lufa Farms, which owns and operates the greenhouse, recently negotiated a business arrangement with a developer of industrial buildings to include greenhouses on the roofs of newly constructed buildings. Already in the planning stages is a second greenhouse that will be four or five times larger than the first.

The rooftop greenhouse in winter, image by Lufa Farms.

Lufa Farm’s project is newsworthy for several reasons:-

To be suitable for USDA Zone 4b, this structure is stronger than most other rooftop greenhouses, in order to support Montreal's heavy snow loads. It also had to meet very exacting urban building codes.

Unlike typical greenhouses, this site provides multiple climates as some vegetables require warm zones, others cool environments, while still others need microclimates.

To avoid using pesticides, herbicide, and fungicides, Lufa Farms uses other insects, certain naturally occurring bacteria, weed-free growing mediums, and rigid protocols for maintaining a clean, problem-free growing area.

In additional to individual temperature requirements, each type of plant flourishes in its ideal growing medium, with regulated irrigation, specific nutritional needs, and optimal lighting. Ongoing research projects will help further improve growing methods.

Taste preferences and nutritional values determine the selection of food cultivar grown. In partnership with McGill University, Lufa Farms has developed special methods of determining these values to ensure that their produce is superior to food available elsewhere.

Although water is not scarce in most parts of Canada, this facility treats it as a precious commodity. In three out of four seasons, rainwater is captured and re circulated. The reasons are twofold: - First, is to avoid over-burdening the city water supply and second, is to prevent nutrient-rich wastewater from entering the public water system, where it might contribute to high algae development or the overgrowth of other plants.

Farming in the city, and on top of urban structures, saves money, energy, and reduces emissions. The heating system absorbs natural heat from the sun before it supplements with high efficiency heaters. In addition, high tech energy curtains are deployed at night to reduce energy needs. Because Montreal is very cold in winter and humidly hot in summer, a rooftop location on an already climate-controlled building, helps to further reduce the energy consumption and costs of the greenhouse. Furthermore, this operation helps reduce the carbon footprint and time required to deliver fresh produce to consumer as it is located close to residential neighborhoods and fast-moving main roads.


Sustaining Our Health and the Planet: How Local Consensus Helps Get Things Done

In little over a month from now, those of us who are concerned about the health of our planet will be observing Earth Day, on April 22, 2011. Each year, Jan Huston Doble, who blogs at Thanks for Today, organizes a communal cyberspace celebration of this event. Fellow bloggers are encouraged to post a relevant item on their own sites with a link back to hers. Alternatively, readers may leave a comment about sustainability on Jan’s blog. This cyber-event generates so much traffic that several suppliers of gardening products and services are eager to contribute prizes to wining entrants. Yes, there is a contest! To participate in this unique observance, or to read additional thoughtful comments and opinions on the subject, click onto this link.

Preserving the earth and our health is a serious matter. Wherever it is realistic to contribute to sustainability, concerned citizens have been making incremental changes in the ways they conduct their lives. It is surprising how effectively local commerce and communities can rise to the occasion, without assistance from distant federal agencies, where and when there is a consensus among the citizens, that a status quo is no longer acceptable.

In an earnest attempt to preserve our health, our planet and our precious resources, here are a few examples [and there are so many more] of what is being done in some communities in North America:-

  • In order to reduce pollution in the core of the city, municipal officials in Montreal voted to install a bicycle rental program whereby citizens can rent a bike in one part of town, and drop it off at their destination.
  • Massachusetts, along with the states of California and New Mexico, has set targets to reduce carbon emissions. With a program similar to that of Montreal, the municipality of Brookline, Mass. has introduced a car service, using miniature automobiles.
  • There is at least one supermarket chain in North America that has accommodated customers who demand organically grown produce and organically raised cattle and poultry. Those who opt for these foods are the same ones that consume health and beauty aids made with safe ingredients. Decisions are made, about which safe toiletries to buy, only after consulting the Environmental Working Guide website.
  • Some utility providers conserve resources by offering energy at discounted rates outside of peak usage hours. This encourages consumers to run their appliances when energy demands are low.
  • In the Mid West, where water in drought season has become a scarce commodity, some local communities have installed cistern-type collection systems to recycle rain water for irrigation. Here the watering of lawns is regulated through community by-laws. Other home owners are reconsidering the need for resource-hungry lawns altogether. For some, self-sustainable gardens are a viable option.
  • Plants that are invasive and that threaten local ecology have been outlawed in many states.
  • In an attempt to moderate consumption of unhealthy food, New York City banned the use of artery-clogging trans fats and ordered that the caloric value of food be displayed on restaurant menus.
  • Most states ban smoking in public places, both indoors and out, and post signs in rest rooms instructing employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom.
  • In many communities, homeowners have been legislated into re cycling kitchen waste that is later converted into compost, while other refuse is sorted and recycled in order to reduce the size of land fills.
  • An increasing number of gardeners are opting to use organic matter to enrich their soil rather than commercial fertilizers. Also, they are attempting to grow crops for their personal consumption, even on tight little plots in urban areas.

An example, that demonstrates how powerful citizens can be, may be observed in the way that huge, mass market retailers were forced to stop selling milk containing the growth hormone rBST, after female medical problems were reported in girls as young as 8 years old. Usually, too large a number of consumers deliberately disregard publicity about herbicides, pesticides, and other toxic substances found in the products that they use or consume daily. They also tend to ignore the nutritional deficiencies or health risks of certain food products. However, the disturbing side effects of pre-mature puberty in little girls were too serious to ignore and consumers voted with their wallets against purchasing the undesirable milk. That was a rare occasion when the powerful lobbying activities of a chemical company that supplied the growth hormone, were stymied by the actions of a surprisingly well-informed, determined public.

I’m not a big fan of rallies, pickets, protest marches, parades and other boisterous crowd scenes. I suspect that the only benefit from these manifestations is to supply camera crews with fodder for cable news and salaries for the bused-in professional protesters and their organizers. I am also skeptical of the actual net benefits of extreme ranting at the blog level. [Polite ranting is OK :)].

I believe in respectful grass roots initiatives that influence both consumer behavior and the agendas of local officials. Gardeners, farmers, conservationists, and citizens concerned about a large variety of issues that impact our health and our planet need to ensure that their opinions will be heard. In addition to educating the public, and voting with our wallets when we shop, it is important to remain active in our communities to make sure that somebody is listening. Politicians pay attention to their constituents. They also care about the number of bodies that turn out to vote for or against them. In most North American elections, only 35% of the population exercises that precious privilege. For the largest truly democratic continent on earth, that number is too low.


A Greenhouse Garden on the Rooftop

Handout, Architect's concept, Lufa Farms, Montreal.Montreal is surrounded by local farms that have a very short growing season. Consequently, supermarkets cannot rely upon them for year round delivery. Instead, produce is sourced from around the globe. Imagine how awful that food tastes once it has been genetically modified to withstand premature harvesting, packaging, on board ripening and retail handling. While the food imported from Central and South America, is very affordable and tasty, many avoid it because it is reported to be grown and harvested under extremely unsanitary conditions.

That is why I am so happy to have discovered that the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse garden will soon be built in Montréal. It will be a relief to have a reliable, local source of fresh, tasty food. This news made the front page of the Business section of our local newspaper, The Gazette, as reported by Alison MacGregor on October 28, 2010. The garden will sit on the roof of a two story building located within walking distance of the wholesale produce market that serves restaurants and independent grocers. The size of the greenhouse is expected to be 31,000 square feet, it will be operational by January 2011, and an expected first harvest will take place 6 weeks later. Produce grown here, hydroponically, will be herbicide and pesticide free and the growers insist that none of the plants will be genetically modified.

While the new greenhouse is expected to deliver its crops within 24 hours after harvesting, its business model does not include supermarkets. Instead, it will target the consumer with a home delivery program and it will appeal to local chefs. Some of the finest restaurants in North America are situated in Montréal. These establishments will be delighted to source superior tasting produce for their operations.

Rooftop gardening began as a decorative, aesthetic and environmentally friendly way to help offset the heat radiated into the cores of cities by buildings, pavement and automobiles. It was also intended to reduce pollution because plants absorb carbon dioxide. By insulating the structure below, the rooftop garden was also expected to reduce the consumption of energy needed to climate control the interior of the building.

Now that the rooftop concept is being modified by replacing an open garden with an enclosed greenhouse, I expect that the garden will offer no environmental benefits such as capturing carbon dioxide or reducing heat of city spaces. Furthermore, the saving of energy needed to heat and cool a two story building might be negligible because energy will still be required to operate the greenhouse. In the end, the greatest benefit from this project will be the opportunity to eat freshly harvested quality food. I can hardly wait.