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At 10 a.m. each morning, a subtle yet attention inducing alarm goes off at my desk reminding me to water my mushrooms. Mushroom growing? In an office? Yes, it’s odd. Quirky, at best. But when I acquired the Back to the Roots mushroom kit into my office, planning to grow my first batch of oyster mushrooms at home, my boss was intrigued and so I ripped of the cardboard top of the kit, cut the required slits in the soil bag and started watering.
From frat brothers to organic farmers, Back to the Roots has interesting roots itself.
Back to the Roots was founded in 2009 when Berkeley seniors Nikhil Aurora and Alejandro Velez realized that they could grow their own gourmet mushrooms with merely seeds, used coffee grounds and cardboard. A successful and popular experiment in their fraternity kitchen lead to turning down previous offers for consulting and investment banking positions for a career in small scale urban farming.
After five successful years in business, Back to the Roots continues to grow, with an office based out of Oakland. In addition to the boxed mushrooms growing in eco-friendly organic recycled waste (think corn cobs and saw dust), the company also sells a popular Aquafarm: a self-cleaning fish tank garden. Part of Back to the Root’s mission is to “create and promote food that is made in a kitchen not a lab,” ultimately reconnecting families and individuals with their food.
Using attractive packaging certainly helps. Both the mushroom kit and Aquafarm can be displayed as décor, like the currently stylish terrariums seen everywhere from coffee shops to hip apartments, only edible. And of course, educational. Back to the Roots works with schools to educate young students about ecology and farm to table dining, using their kits as fundraising tools for schools.
While items like the mushroom kit are fun and productive for the short term, a kit retails at $19.99, and the first harvest yields less than a pound of mushrooms. Lucky urban farmers can grow a second “bonus crop”, but there’s no guarantee. Organic, homegrown mushrooms certainly have more intrinsic value than anything grabbed off a supermarket shelf, but at over $20/lb, unfortunately the model is not sustainable for an all-out mushroom revolution.
Back to the Roots is working on some (allegedly) top-secret products for the new year (and thus, unable for interview at the current time), transforming urban kitchens into micro-gardens with minimal time, effort and cost.
Due to an irregular work schedule, and a 10am urge to rush to the coffee machine, I can’t say my mushrooms are 100% stir-fry ready (as I’d hoped they’d be after a few weeks, thanks to an enclosed recipe from Whole Foods) but the process of nurturing a potentially delicious food item during the workday is wholly appealing.
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