How Back to the Roots Grows Much More Than Just Plants
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a green thumb or a large plot of land to grow delicious foods from the comfort of your home. One company helping to make that reality better understood on a wider basis is Back to the Roots. The sustainability-focused organic gardening company sells U.S.-grown organic seeds and seed packets, gardening kits, and live plants.
Co-founded by Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora, two of Well+Good’s 2022 Changemakers, Back to the Roots started in 2009 when the then-college classmates learned in a lecture that gourmet mushrooms can grow from used coffee grounds. The duo spent their final college months at the University of California, Berkeley, growing mushrooms from Velez’s fraternity house and scouring local coffee shops for leftover coffee grounds to use as fertilizer. Then, a big break: a $5,000 grant from the school’s chancellor. They then ditched job offers to become full-time urban mushroom farmers in Oakland, California.
After finding success selling mushrooms at the local level, they realized that the customers they interacted with were far more interested in how mushrooms are grown and doing it themselves. This led to their expansion from local farming to e-commerce on a national level and their first-ever at-home Mushroom Grow Kit product, which launched in 2011. At this point, Back to the Roots evolved from being a farming-only operation to company with a gardening product that helps folks grow their own food at home.
Today, the company has grown (quite literally) beyond their wildest dreams, focusing on their rapidly expanding e-commerce business and forming partnerships to emphasize the educational value of their products. Currently, they’re partnering with local education programs (like STEM), welcoming cookbook author and television personality Ayesha Curry to their board of directors, and raised $15 million dollars in series D funding in 2021, all to make the concept of farm-to-table more accessible to people everywhere. I recently spoke with Arora, who shared more about Back to the Roots’ goals and what’s coming up next. Basically, how Back to the Roots is watering the seeds it’s planted along the way.
Well+Good: How has Back to the Roots evolved since it officially launched in 2009?
Nikhil Arora: I think the biggest change for us was that along the way, we realized how excited people were about trying to grow food themselves. Their questions inspired us to realize, like, “Hey, we can’t just farm and grow food; we can help inspire people across the country to grow their own food and empower them to do it.” Now, our goal is to make it easy and fun for anyone to get into the garden—no green thumb or big backyard needed.
That’s why we ended up creating our little grown-home mushroom kit, which was our first gardening product that launched in 2011, two years after Back to the Roots was founded. We want to help a new generation discover how to grow their own food and reconnect with the land. It’s been really fun seeing that evolution because we know that one experience can trigger a whole lifetime of curiosity and connection to where things come from.
In 2022, we doubled down on being a full-serving outdoor gardening brand by expanding our product line, which now includes U.S.-grown organic seeds and seed packets, gardening kits, and live plants. We helped families start more than five million organic gardens last year.
W+G: How do you incorporate sustainability into your business model?
NA: We were collecting, at one point, like three million pounds of coffee grounds that our local coffee shop was throwing away. We became like valet waste collectors. While we don’t do that anymore, that’s still the ethos, heart, and soul of our brand: We will do our best to offer you the most sustainable product in this category. We want to build gardening products that are best for plants and the planet. But to do so, we have to be clear about what that means and hold ourselves accountable.
From a corporate governance perspective, we’ve been proud to be B-Corp Certified since the movement’s inception almost a decade ago. We look carefully at sustainability in all our different product lines.
As an example, we launched one of our biggest product lines, our line of organic soils, in the spring of 2021 in Walmart. Traditionally, the majority of every bag of soil you buy in the store right now is full of peat, made of an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter. Peat releases huge amounts of stored carbon dioxide when harvested, which adds to greenhouse gas levels, and it’s mined in Northern Canadian tundra, Europe, and Southeast Asia before getting shipped here. Eliminating the use of peat is one of the most important things to solve the climate cracks—peat harvesting areas account for about three percent of global land and hold more carbon than all the forests. It’s like the biggest carbon sink we have on Earth, on land. And we’re mining it to fill up American gardens.
We launched the first national peat-free soil, using all local composts, and we have 20 different blending facilities and work with regional waste streams and composting. Our line of soils focuses on domestic sourcing—our potting mix is 100 percent made in the USA, uses no plastic or synthetic fertilizers, and is peat-free, which is an increasingly important sustainability initiative in the category. I share this example because while we’re not collecting coffee grounds anymore, we try to have that same approach of building a national, scalable, successful business while doing so with the least impact on the planet.
W+G: What do you hope to inspire with your products?
NA: Aiming to inspire a new generation to reconnect with their food is such a huge part of why we do what we do. But beyond that, we want them to connect with the environment, the land, and everything around them. And that’s actually why we’re so passionate about gardening and building a gardening company.
It’s not about how many ounces of tomatoes you can grow. It’s about how gardening is such an important way to connect with what you’re eating, with the land, and with each other because you’re most often sharing what you grow with other people.
We’re not saying this brand in and of itself is going to solve world hunger because everyone’s going to grow their own food. Instead, we think of every product we sell as a way to spark curiosity in someone, especially kids.
W+G: What strides have you made to show a commitment to education?
NA: We do a ton of workshops with kids, and now there’s a big nonprofit called KidsGardening that I’m on the board of, and we’re integrating gardening into the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] curriculum in schools featuring our Garden Curriculum Toolkit that consists of a variety of fun, hands-on, ready-to-grow products that are perfect for learning.
We also have our #GrowOneGiveOne campaign that’s really personal. When customers share a photo of their Back to the Roots garden on social media with the hashtag #GrowOneGiveOne, we’ll donate an organic grow kit and STEM curriculum to an elementary school classroom of the customer’s choice. It’s not just like, you buy one and give one to something, somewhere. People tell us exactly which teacher they want to send the product to.
W+G: What’s on the horizon for 2023 at Back to the Roots?
NA: This next year will be a banner year for Back to the Roots. We will have kits, seeds, soil, plant food, and raised beds, across the board at major retailers including Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, and Home Depot. This is a shift industry-wide, because gardening has been so siloed until now. If you wanted to start a garden, you would have to buy seeds from one brand, soil from another, and plant food from somebody else.
For the first time, through Back to the Roots, you can start your 100 percent organic garden with one brand. And this year, if we do our jobs right, consumers will spend $100 million on the brand on gardening products. Alex and I pinch ourselves, remembering the first time we were demoing at farmer’s markets, where we sold one mushroom kit, made S20, and were on top of the world to now having the opportunity to have a brand at the biggest retailers this spring.
We’re excited about that, and we don’t take it for granted. The whole team is so fired up that we’re going to work our butts off to ensure we maximize this opportunity right now.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.