Even as more and more gardeners adopt the practices of organic, sustainable and regenerative horticulture, retailers still treat organic gardening products as a niche thing. My guests this week, Back to the Roots co-founders and co-CEOs Nikhil Arora and Alejandro “Alex” Vélez, are working to change that by making organic gardening easy and affordable.
The last time I saw Nikhil and Alex was 10 years ago for a season 4 episode of my public television program “Growing a Greener World.” They had made it big with their mushroom growing kit and had just started their countertop aquaponics kit. They remain headquartered in Oakland, California, but have grown their business exponentially to include seeds, soil, fertilizer, microgreens, raised beds and more.
There is an African proverb that comes to mind when I think about Nikhil and Alex’s successful partnership and mutual respect: If you want to go fast, go at it alone. If you want to go far, go at it together.
How Back to the Roots Got Its Start
With no background in farming, gardening or mushrooms, Nikhil and Alex started their company during their last semester of college at U.C. Berkeley in 2009. They both had plans of entering the corporate world upon graduating, and Alex even has a job offer in New York and a signed lease. However, with just three months of college to go, they latched on to something their business ethics professor said in class: mushrooms can be grown on coffee ground waste.
Nikhil and Alex each reached out separately to their professor — who didn’t even remember where he had heard that fact. Still, the professor connected Nikhil and Alex, who both loved the idea of growing food using waste. They started growing mushrooms in their dorm.
The pair received a $5,000 grant from their chancellor and set aside careers in investment banking and consulting to pursue urban mushroom farming. They collected coffee grounds from local cafes and grew mushrooms to sell fresh at farmers markets and direct to restaurants. Within a few years, they were selling 500 pounds of mushrooms a week and performing demonstrations at farmers markets and other venues.
Nikhil said they were most excited when they could teach people how to grow their own food, and people were most excited when they could come by the mushroom farm and take something home so they could try growing something themselves. This inspired them to create indoor mushroom growing kits.
“We have a chance to try to get everyone in the country, every home, every classroom, to kind of experience the same magic and growing,” Nikhil recalls thinking.
Their first mushroom kit was quickly followed by their aquaponics kit. Today, they also sell STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) gardening kits for kids as well as peat-free soil and more organic products.
From the start Nikhil and Alex knew their company would go beyond mushroom farming. That’s why they named their company Back to the Roots.
“We couldn’t articulate it then perhaps, but we knew there was something bigger here about what we were working on and it wasn’t just about mushrooms,” Nikhil says.
Learning from the Best
As they researched other ways to grow food and wanted to know more about aquaponics, they visited Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Founded by former pro basketball player Will Allen. Growing Power ran the last farm inside the Milwaukee city limits, with greenhouses, outdoor growing spaces and aquaponics systems.
Nikhil and Alex also worked with Sir Jony Ive, who designed the iPhone, on shrinking down an aquaponics system and making it more accessible. At the time I visited a decade ago, they had their first prototype in hand. They put the concept on Kickstarter with a $100,000 goal and ended up raising $250,000 through Kickstarter preorders — and then another $250,000 through their website.
“We realized we’re not a mushroom company,” Nikhil said. “We’re really a gardening company.”
Their aquaponics system, dubbed the Back to the Roots Water Garden, went on to win the Guggenheim industrial design award.
“What it taught us when we were in our early 20s is product is everything, number one,” Alex says. “Number two is not only the product, but how to think about the product.”
They also worked closely with Daylight Design on how to think about the future decades of the products their company could offer.
Nikhil points out that when they created the Water Garden and their mushroom growing kit, they were creating new product categories and teaching people about things that had never existed before.
He notes that they can’t assume that an answer that was true 20 years ago is true for a new generation today. Their gardening product isn’t about how many pounds of tomatoes can be grown. “But what else is this doing for people, and what are they really buying this product for?” he says. “And we started realizing that our products are this way for families to come together and connect.”
You really can’t find your way until you know your why. When Alex and Nikhil figured out their why, it put them on the path to operating a $100 million retail brand today.
Nick says their North Star question is: “How do we get more and more people to reconnect to the land, to their food?”
They also seek to have the highest standards of organic and regenerative agriculture built into the DNA of their brand while still being accessible.
A Counterbalance to Screens and an Alternative to Conventional Gardening
Nikhil points out that their products ascended as screens and technology started to appear everywhere you look. “In some ways, this brand has almost been a counterbalance to that too,” he says.
Their products help people connect with nature, the land and their food, he says.
When I started out promoting gardening 30 years ago, I had the intention of raising awareness of sustainability, environmental stewardship and organic growing. But at the time, using synthetic chemicals was just the norm. Everyone expected a simple answer and a quick fix: what can I spray to kill that weed or kill that bug? How do I make something in my garden grow bigger?
In those early stages, nobody was really asking, how do I do this in concert with nature? How do I do this ethically, so that I’m not making the earth worse off than I found it?
Today, I feel we are past that tipping point, where now the norm is to actually ask those questions. Gardeners seek out people like me and products like Back to the Roots to facilitate being able to garden and grow their own food and have control over what they feed their family in a way that doesn’t require them to do harm in the process.”
One of their inspirations is Michael Pollan, who was a professor at Berkeley. He recently published the book “This Is Your Mind on Plants.”
“His writings around food and gardening and how he takes these complex issues and breaks them down into super simple accessible pieces — he’s best in the world at it,” Nikhil says. “… In many ways we’re taking what he did and through writing around the food movement and trying to turn that into products.”
The tribe of folks in that arena also includes, according to Alex, former Annie’s President John Foraker, former Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg, Chez Panisse restaurateur and chef Alice Waters, and “gangsta gardener” Ron Finley.
“This is a whole tribe that’s wanting to change the way people look at food,” Alex says.
Making Organic Gardening Accessible
When an organization wants to identify and clearly explain the challenges it needs to overcome, it drafts “problem statements.” For Back to the Roots, the company’s problem statements are: How do we get a garden in every home and classroom? And how do we get every one of those gardens to be organic and support regenerative agriculture?
To meet the company’s goals, they work on making their products accessible. In fact, they launched the first nationally available peat-free soil at Walmart.
“We are the best value, period — not best value organic — best value, period, soil for consumers per quart,” Nikhil says. “And that to us is super exciting and energizing.”
Alex also points out that approximately 90% of the gardeners of today are buying their gardening products in the largest home improvement retailers in the United States.
Back to the Roots worked for years on their supply chain to build out the largest network of organic soil blenders.
To make every garden organic, the products need to have the best value, meaning the best quality for plants and the planet at a price point that is accessible, Nikhil explains.
One of the myths about organic is that it has to be more expensive.
You do see higher prices for organic products at the grocery store, and there are good reasons for that. There is a lot more work involved in organic growing, and organic farmers can’t take the shortcuts that synthetic growers can. There is a cost associated with that, and I, for one, am willing to pay it.
But for non-food, non-grocery retail products like bagged soil, Back to the Roots is demonstrating that organic doesn’t always come at a higher cost. It’s possible to be an organic gardener at home at less expense than conventional gardening.
Back to the Roots invested a tremendous amount of energy, capital and time into developing its organic soil network, but Alex also credits nature. “If you do this right, you’re essentially able to let nature do a lot of the work for you and let nature be your R&D department in many ways,” he says.
Their network is based on upcycling local waste streams and having facilities close enough to distribution centers. When they can do those two things, they can provide soils for less than the cost of conventional soils.
Walmart is the largest retailer there is in the country, so when it grows its organic, sustainable and regenerative offerings in the lawn and garden category, that’s really something. To reach the masses, Walmart is one of the prime places to do it.
Going peat-free is important for the future of the planet, and to do that, peat alternatives and peat-free mixes need to be adopted widely. Peatlands store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests, according to the U.N. Environment Programme, so the urgency of quitting peat can’t be overstated.
“We are pioneering sustainability when it comes to the garden industry,” Alex says. “When it comes to garden products, I would say we are better than anybody in the industry when it comes to driving sustainability and innovating on sustainability. In 10 years, we should be cringing listening to this and thinking we were doing enough. We’re not even close.”
Alex acknowledges that Back to the Roots sells its peat-free soil in virgin plastic bags, as much as the company would like to find an alternative. But the bags must hold up to prolonged exposure to sunlight in order for the products to be marketable as far as retailers are concerned.
“Our gardeners expect a perfect-looking bag for three years,” Alex says.
Until that changes, the bagged soil industry doesn’t have great alternatives to virgin, single-use plastic. It will take changes in consumer demands and behaviors before the industry gets away from single-use plastics that are made to last. Maybe in 10 years gardeners will be accustomed to bringing their own reusable buckets to the garden center for refills rather than buying soil in disposable bags.
“Gardeners are sick of buying virgin plastic that is single-use,” Nikhil says. “We don’t want to have to re-buy, and we don’t want to keep putting microplastic out into the environment.”
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Nikhil Arora and Alejandro “Alex” Vélez of Back to the Roots, you can scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
What have you learned this summer in the garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing, and harvesting your favorite vegetables: no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“This Is Your Mind on Plants” by Michael Pollan
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.