Make room for mush­rooms with grow-at-home kits

The Progress-Index - At Home - - News - MICHELLE LOCKE

BERKE­LEY, Calif. — Col­lege stu­dents Ale­jan­dro Velez and Nikhil Arora were just a few months short of ca­reers in cor­po­rate bank­ing when they learned in a class lec­ture that it was pos­si­ble to grow gourmet mush­rooms on left­over cof­fee grounds.

Velez was so struck by the idea that he stayed af­ter class to see if he could learn more. Well, no, said the pro­fes­sor, he didn’t have any ex­tra in­for­ma­tion. But he could con­nect Velez with the one other stu­dent who’d asked about the con­cept — Arora.

That was back in 2009, and since then the two have be­come friends and busi­ness part­ners in their com­pany, Back to the Roots. Their Grow-Your-Own Mushroom Gar­den al­lows any­one to grow mush­rooms off re­cy­cled waste. The com­pany has grown to more than 30 em­ploy­ees and re­ceived an Em­pact100 award from the White House last fall, rec­og­niz­ing it as one of the top 100 en­tre­pre­neur­ial com­pa­nies in the United States.

Their idea is to tap into the resurg­ing in­ter­est in good food and in know­ing where that food comes from, help­ing even city dwellers get in touch with their in­ner farmer.

“Ev­ery­one wants to con­nect with their food,” says Arora.

The pair started small, ex­per­i­ment­ing in Velez’s fra­ter­nity kitchen. At that point, Velez had signed an of­fer to work in in­vest­ment bank­ing, but, Arora says, they thought, “what the heck, let’s give this thing a shot,” and started 10 test buck­ets of mush­rooms right be­fore spring break.

When they re­turned, they found that nine of the buck­ets were washouts. But one was so gor­geous they took it to Chez Panisse, the fa­mous Berke­ley restau­rant founded by Alice Wa­ters, a pi­o­neer in the eat fresh, eat lo­cal move­ment, as well as to the lo­cal Whole Foods Mar­ket. Spurred by the in­ter­est that ini­tial crop gen­er­ated — as well as a $5,000 grant for so­cial in­no­va­tion from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley — they came to a de­ci­sion: Bank­ing could wait.

The first chal­lenge was fig­ur­ing out how to grow the mush­rooms. They spent about eight months “just knee-deep in cof­fee grounds,” says Arora.

Their first sale was 3.14 pounds to Whole Foods. Soon, they were grow­ing 500 pounds a week. That’s when they launched the grow-your-own kits.

“We re­al­ized that our real pas­sion was

around cre­at­ing this ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Arora. “We had all th­ese peo­ple ask­ing if they can do it at home.”

The kit comes as a box that can be set on a win­dow sill, and just needs to be opened and misted twice a day (the mis­ter is in­cluded). Avail­able at Home De­pot, Whole Foods and other stores, as well as on­line, the kits cost $19.95 and grows up to 1.5 pounds of pearl oys­ter mush­rooms on soil that is 100 per­cent re­cy­cled-plant waste. The com­pany has switched from cof­fee waste to corn husks, wheat bran and saw­dust as the grow­ing medium, and has part­nered with Gourmet Mush­rooms in Se­bastopol to pro­duce the kits. The mush­rooms take about 10 days to grow; two crops are guar­an­teed and three are not un­usual.

Back to the Roots is one of sev­eral growyour-own kits on the mar­ket, which has seen ris­ing in­ter­est in fresh mush­rooms, ac­cord­ing to the San Jose-based Mushroom Coun­cil.

Kath­leen Preis, the coun­cil’s mar­ket­ing co­or­di­na­tor, cites sev­eral fac­tors in­clud­ing re­search, much of it spon­sored by the coun­cil, on mush­rooms’ nu­tri­tive ben­e­fits (they’re high in Vi­ta­min D and potas­sium, for in­stance). Mean­while, more va­ri­eties have be­come read­ily avail­able.

“Con­sumers are see­ing mush­rooms on the shelves. They’re see­ing them in TV shows. They’re see­ing th­ese grow­ing kits. There are more recipes for them. We’ve def­i­nitely no­ticed ship­ments have gone up, con­sump­tion has gone up,” says Preis.

The Coun­cil re­ported in Oc­to­ber that re­tail sales of mush­rooms in the sum­mer of 2012 was just over 3 per­cent greater than sum­mer 2011. The USDA’s National Agri­cul­tural Statistic Ser­vice, which re­ports an­nu­ally on do­mes­tic mushroom pro­duc­tion, re­ported in Au­gust 2012 that the value of do­mes­tic mushroom pro­duc­tion topped $1 bil­lion in 2012 for the sec­ond year in a row. The 900-mil­lion-pound crop from 2011-2012 ex­ceeded the pre­vi­ous crop year’s vol­ume by 4 per­cent and value by 8 per­cent.

A new way of us­ing mush­rooms is adding them, finely chopped, to meat as a way to add nu­tri­ents and re­duce calo­ries with­out shrink­ing por­tion sizes. Mean­while, con­sumers are branch­ing out a lit­tle. Al­though the fa­mil­iar, white but­ton mush­rooms are still No. 1, ship­ments of spe­cialty mush­rooms — i.e. crem­ini, porta­bella — are also ris­ing.

Back to the Roots, now based in Oakland, will in­tro­duce a shi­itake grow-your-own kit later this year. They’re launch­ing a new prod­uct this sum­mer, Aqua­Farm, a 3-gal­lon, self-clean­ing fish tank that grows food on top of the tank. You feed the fish and the fish fer­til­ize the plants. A pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tion is betta fish with basil or wheat grass grow­ing on the tank.

“It’s like an ecosys­tem right there on your kitchen counter,” says Arora.


Back to the Roots shows the founders Ale­jan­dro Velez, left, and Nikhil Arora with the com­pany’s Mushroom Kit and Aqua­Farm.

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