Tourisme Montréal this week unveiled the results of a comparative study: Montréal would be the world capital of urban agriculture. In this fertile land, commercial agricultural enterprises face a new challenge they didn’t see coming: competition.

“When we started, we were quite alone in the hyperlocal mushroom market in Montreal. We could almost choose our customers because we had a more limited production and the demand was strong. Now there’s competition,” says Dominique Lynch-Gauthier, co-founder of Blanc de Gris.

Born in 2015, this SME is a pioneer in urban mushrooms.

From the start, Blanc de Gris mushrooms were mainly intended for restaurants, as is much the case for oyster mushrooms, enoki or lobster mushrooms that grow in Montreal.

However, in addition to the proliferation of mushroom farms, the food inflation that is hitting the restaurant industry is adding pressure on this young industry.

Some are starting to say openly (or not) that the market is practically saturated, although most companies have plans to expand.

“I think there are enough of us to meet the demand in restaurants and the individual foodies who are ready to come to us for mushrooms, continues Dominique Lynch-Gauthier. On the other hand, there may be other market segments to develop. That of food processing, for example, is little exploited by urban producers. »

This is what 400 Pieds de Champignons does, which produces a dozen varieties in Côte-des-Neiges and continues to expand its range. The owner of the farm, Michaël Loyer, found his way to profitability by adding a few strings to his bow, including processing, by concocting vegan products made from mushrooms.

Since founding his business in 2018, he has seen several small farms appear in town, including a few mushroom farms. “Just in and around Montreal, there must be about ten of us,” says Michaël Loyer, who admits that “it’s starting to play elbow”.

According to the Urban Agriculture Lab, there are about 125 commercial urban farms in Quebec, and half are in Montreal.

It’s hard to say that there are too many of them, according to Éric Duchemin, scientific director of the Laboratory, who has seen almost all of them come to life since he started working in this field in Montreal.

On Thursday, Tourisme Montréal unveiled the report Montréal’s place among the major urban agriculture cities: a comparative study between 10 cities in Canada, the United States and Europe. Montreal comes first.

Urban agriculture entrepreneurs agree on this: rising food prices have completely changed the game for this niche market.

“Restaurants are having a hard time these days. They have the choice of buying mushrooms from Poland which are cheaper, almost half the price, or buying from Quebec. Very often, Poland comes first,” says Michaël Loyer. His 400 mushroom plants have also seen an effect of food inflation on his direct-to-consumer sales. This summer, its sales in public markets are down 40%.

The Ôplant Urban Farms, located in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district, are also seeing this change in behavior.

Spring and summer were less “enthusiastic,” says Benoit Gonneville-Damme, chief technology officer at Ôplant.

For sprouts, in addition to inflation, seasonality affects sales, he explains, noting that a $0.99 salad is more attractive than a tray of microgreens, which retails for five times as much.

Ôplant divides its sales between grocery stores and restaurants.

Surpluses, which are significant in the summer, are disposed of through the Too Good to Go anti-waste application or even food banks during weeks of very large surpluses.

The company is also in the process of revising its forecasts to include donations and losses, depending on the season.

As an indication, the first urban farm in Quebec, Pousse-Menu, was established in Montreal in 1988 – well before the beginning of the movement. According to Éric Duchemin, it may be the first urban farm in the world. Twenty years later, in 2011, Lufa Farms took root on a rooftop in the Ahuntsic district, with their first commercial greenhouses. Lufa now has four urban greenhouses on rooftops, will have a fifth, which is under construction at Marché Central in Montreal, in addition to a new indoor farm in Saint-Laurent.

With this rapid development of urban agriculture in Montreal, we cannot say that there are too many farms in the city, says Sarah Farley-Gélinas, President and CEO of Ôplant, who believes that the problem is rather the lack of space for Quebec products at the grocery store.

According to her, the industry is young and still in the process of defining itself. Ôplant is one of the few urban farms that have the volume necessary to supply a network of grocery stores.

The production cycles last two to three weeks, from sowing to harvest, which gives more velocity to the company. The greens are delivered the same day of harvest, at the latest the next day, and there are two harvests per week.

Ôplant sprouts are sold through the Sobeys network. In total, about fifty grocery stores currently offer them. The goal is to increase to a hundred by the end of the year and to supply all the IGAs in Quebec.

Over the past year, production has more than doubled at Ôplant, which is also exploring original diversification projects.

“There is a place for good players,” said Sarah Farley-Gélinas. There is a place for quality products. »

According to Éric Duchemin, scientific director of the Urban Agriculture Laboratory, farms need to have better public support. Especially, he says, because they are often caught between two ministries for help: the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAPAQ), since they are agricultural businesses, and the Ministry of Economy, Innovation and Energy, because they work in technology.

“We need to have a government vision, continues Éric Duchemin. To my knowledge, the Government of Quebec was the first government entity to have a strategy on urban agriculture in Canada. But this strategy has not been renewed. It’s been gone for three years. »

The Red Frog Farm model is a bit different: the idea is to make offspring. “A long-term vision is not necessarily growth at all costs,” says one of the company’s two co-founders, Guillaume Dagher. “The Montreal market is our first farm,” says his colleague, Gabriel Roy Doyon. The initial business plan already provided for the multiplication of production points, in Quebec, but also abroad. This would help decentralize agriculture, say the two entrepreneurs. And would give the possibility of practicing agriculture where access to land is an issue.

Mushrooms and microgreens are popular in urban agriculture; fish, a little less. This did not prevent two entrepreneurs from embarking on the breeding of arctic char at the Agricultural Center in Ahuntsic. Opercule is a very young farm: the activities really started in February this year. David Dupaul Chicoine, co-founder, explains that canvassing was more difficult than expected, despite a carefully crafted business plan. “We’ve been to over 200 restaurants showcasing the product,” he says. About forty have agreed to work with char from Ahuntsic, delivered by bicycle for all Montreal partners. In fact, explains the entrepreneur, the fish arrive so fresh that the chefs have to wait a bit before working on them, because they are too rigid…

Flowers grow on the roof, mushrooms on the third floor and cacti on the second. The Agricultural Center is next to a Canadian Tire, in a neighborhood little known for its greenery, where the economy circulates through recoveries and targeted investments. The Agricultural Center is a cooperative model where the members, 19 at the moment, share spaces, knowledge and services – for example, a fleet of electric vehicles, which will soon be larger. The circular economy is an essential common practice and will be for newcomers, as the Plant is on a growth spurt: it is expected to grow from 75,000 square feet currently to over 130,000 square feet, in the short term.