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Back to the Roots

During their last semester at University of California, Berkeley, Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora became inspired. They learned during a class lecture that it might be possible to grow mushrooms entirely from recycled coffee grounds. Intrigued by the idea that waste could be used to grow gourmet ingredients, they gathered used coffee grounds from local cafes and coffee shops and began experimenting. Soon enough, the pair succeeded in growing their first bucket of pearl oyster mushrooms, and an idea was born.

Growing a business

Since neither Velez nor Arora had any real culinary experience, they decided to take their mushrooms to one of the best restaurants in Berkeley for a taste test: Alice Waters's Chez Panisse. After getting two thumbs up from Waters herself, they knew they were onto something big. Though they had planned to pursue careers in investment banking and consulting, the two shifted course and decided to become full-time urban mushroom farmers. With a bit of start-up money from the UC Berkeley chancellor for social innovation, Back to the Roots Ventures, their mushroom supplier business, was born.

By early 2010, Back to the Roots was producing 500 pounds of mushrooms every week. Velez and Arora moved from selling their mushrooms at local farmers' markets to becoming a supplier for Whole Foods and forming a partnership with Peet's Coffee & Tea to collect used coffee grounds. All along the way, when customers and friends heard the story of Back to the Roots, they wanted to learn more about how they could grow mushrooms on their own. Velez and Arora decided to take advantage of this interest and the growing focus on the local-food movement by making it easy and convenient for families to grow mushrooms in their homes. The two shrank their growing operation into a countertop experience, in the form of the Mushroom Garden Kit.

"Our vision is to make growing your own food and connecting with your food as easy and fun as possible so any family can do it," said Arora. "You don't need a big backyard or a green thumb. Anyone can grow their own food at home."

Each organic kit contains just the basic ingredients necessary for customers to grow their own oyster mushrooms: about 3 pounds of organic substrate (composed of corncobs, wheat bran and sawdust) and oyster mushroom spores. The growing steps are just as simple as the ingredients: open the kit; mist with water twice a day using the included mister; and harvest the mushrooms once they have grown. The kits are guaranteed to produce two crops (the first one usually within 10 days), with many kits leading to three or more mushroom harvests. No outdoor garden space is required—just a shelf or counter that receives natural sunlight.

A new kind of ecosystem

The Mushroom Garden Kit quickly became a success, and the Back to the Roots team began to look for other ways to bring gardening and food production into the home. In 2012, the company launched Aquafarm, a tabletop aquaponics garden. In other words, the Aquafarm is a self-cleaning fish tank that also grows herbs and greens year-round—everything from basil to spinach to mint.

Here's how it works: The fish release waste into the water, which then breaks down into bacteria and nutrients that are essential for plant growth. The water is pumped up from the fish tank to the garden to water and fertilize the plants. The plants then clean the water, absorbing the bacteria and nutrients, so that it can then be pumped back into the fish tank. The kit includes everything you need to get started, including organic seeds and a coupon for a betta fish.

Ready to do some urban gardening of your own? The Back to the Roots Mushroom Garden Kit and Aquafarm Garden can be found in the Home department of your local Nordstrom store, or online at Nordstrom.com.


Back to the Roots

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