Biochemistry degree + open mind = totally unexpected, cool career

SAC I

Lauren RathmellShe didn’t study biochemistry to become a farmer or an entrepreneur – but that’s how it turned out. After graduating from McGill in 2010 with a degree in biochemistry, Lauren Rathmell helped found Lufa Farms, a hugely innovative venture that grows food year-round in urban rooftop greenhouses. Today, she serves as Lufa Farms’ greenhouse director, overseeing operations, managing cultivation, crop planting, research and development.

“I wasn’t especially interested in rooftop farming as a student,” she says. “I come from Vermont, where we lived in an old farmhouse, but I never saw farming as a career. Then Lufa Farms came along at just the right time — and it all just ended up being great.

“After graduation, I was involved in a research project at McGill’s MacDonald Campus, learning about greenhouse growing and hydroponics,” she recalls. “As that was wrapping up, Lufa Farms was getting its first site under way, so I got involved with greenhouse planning and plant science.”

Construction on Lufa Farms’ commercial rooftop greenhouse – the first of its kind in the world — began in 2010 in Ahuntsic. The 32,000 square foot facility opened for business in 2011, and a second 43,000 square foot greenhouse opened in Laval in 2013. Together, the two facilities yield 190 metric tons of produce each year.

Challenges abound
Rathmell is in charge of both sites. She focuses on “getting things going,” analyzing data and building a strong foundation for plant science. Challenges abound. “We’re not necessarily doing anything the ‘standard’ way,” she says. “We’re applying greenhouse practice in a novel context since we’re growing many different things in a shared climate and irrigation system. This is a challenge because of the plants’ different needs.

“Also, we’re growing without synthetic pesticides, using only biological controls – that is, other insects. We recirculate all our irrigation water as mandated in the greenhouse industry but there’s no guide on how to do that, so we had to develop our own strategy. We also research different varieties all the time so we know what grows best in our greenhouse environments.”

Lufa Farms produces a wide range of greenhouse crops, including tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. They recently installed vertical growing systems with LEDs, and are experimenting with growing baby greens and salad greens in a vertical system.

Lufa farms quoteWhere are the bugs?
“The most important thing I learned at McGill is how to work with data,” says Rathmell. “The plant science we do in our greenhouses is entirely driven by data and metrics. We have to identify what data we need and use it in creative ways. For example, using biological controls has been a challenge. To meet that challenge we developed an iPad app to show us the locations of the pests and bios — the good bugs and the bad bugs — over time, using a hot-spot map. It sounds like science fiction but it’s crucial. “

To complement its core food production business, Lufa Farms has also developed a “local food engine,” buying goods from a network of farms, food makers and local artisans and selling them online. Most products are freshly harvested, brought to distribution centres very early in the morning and put into food baskets right away for pickup.

“Try different career options”
Rathmell advises science students who wonder what they’re going to do when they graduate to develop a strong work ethic and to experiment with different career options. “If you try something and find it’s not be for you, at least you’ll have gained experience and formed a better idea of what you want to end up doing.”

 

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