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Sustainable mushroom farm has UC Berkeley roots

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MAY 23, 2012

Although he is billed as a mushroom farmer on the currently-airing ABC television series, “The Bachelorette,” Alejandro Velez looks nothing of the sort.

Instead of toiling away in a field all day, the affable 25-year-old UC Berkeley alumnus spends his time in a West Oakland warehouse spreading knowledge about growing mushrooms and providing people with tools to make it happen.

Velez co-founded Back to the Roots — which creates grow-your-own mushroom kits — in 2009 with fellow alumnus Nikhil Arora, and the company has taken off as interest in sustainable agriculture spreads nationally and even internationally.

In 2009, during their last semester as students in the Haas School of Business, Velez and Arora met in a business ethics class and took to the idea of growing mushrooms in used coffee grounds.

From there, the two scrapped plans to take up jobs in corporate finance and consultation, respectively, and decided to take mushroom farming from a class-inspired experiment to a full-time profession.

“We went with our intuition, which is so hard to do when you come out of business school and you’re told, ‘This is the route you’re going to go, and this is what success looks like,’” Velez said. “Nikhil and I were very fortunate.”

After growing their first batch of mushrooms in the kitchen of Velez’s fraternity, the business started out in a small space in Emeryville, from which they grew fresh mushrooms and sold to local Whole Foods Market locations. Eventually, they began making mushroom kits, and then found their business could expand if it focused solely on the mushroom kits.

Velez said that he and Arora used to collect coffee grounds from local Peet’s Coffee & Tea locations early in the morning to grow the mushrooms with. The two have employees who help with that now, but the process is still the same — liquid is pressed out of the grounds with a converted wine press, the grounds are filled into bags, mushroom spawn is mixed in and then the bags are left to incubate for about four weeks.

Executive Coordinator Jared Abbott estimated that 30,000 kits were incubating in the warehouse, all awaiting the point where the white mushroom roots have spread all over the coffee grounds, at which point the kits are ready for sale.

Abbott said the kits are sold in Whole Foods markets nationwide, in Home Depot stores across California and the Pacific Northwest, in 30 local Safeway markets and in 30 Vons markets in Southern California.

“They tapped into a niche, have a sustainable product and continue to innovate their business model,” said Harvindar Singh, regional local food forager for Whole Foods Market in Northern California, in an email. “We’re happy to support their growth with Whole Foods Market nationally.”

Although the business is expanding — with machinery now starting to replace work such as  the tearing of coffee filters that was once done by hand —Velez said that his focus is never solely on mushrooms.

“Most of our customers are parents who want to give this amazing experience and experiment … (to) their kids and teach them about sustainability and growing your own food,” Velez said. “We want to create tools that educate and inspire kids.”

In order to help accomplish this goal, Back to the Roots donates a kit to the classroom of a customer’s choice if they take a photo of their growing mushrooms and post it on the company’s Facebook page.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8HXWxUnUMQ&w=560&h=315]

However, Velez said that he has seen himself grow along with his business, making him more aware of his “passions.”

“I genuinely liked finance … but what drives me every day is seeing the passion that our team has and watching it directly translate to our customers having that passion and sharing our same values,” Velez said.

The next step for Velez and company is a new box design for the kits. Currently, the bags that hold the mushroom spawn and coffee grounds are made of recyclable plastic, but those will be replaced with compostable bags.

In addition, the corrugated cardboard will contain seeds, so once a customer has grown all of the mushrooms that can be grown from the kit, the entire thing can be planted in the ground and will be able to grow and fertilize a vegetable plant.

“We never see ourselves as just mushroom farmers forever or coffee waste collectors forever,” Velez said. “We’re on a mission to prove that you can connect people to food again by creating really cool tools that inspire and educate.”

Christopher Yee is an assistant news editor.

MAY 24, 2012

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