Do-it-yourself projects are tricky.
In theory, they always sound like great, totally plausible ideas. “Just do this, this and this, and then you’ll get (fill in the blank with an awesome end result you never thought you’d actually be able to create).”
I’ve made this pitch in countless stories over the years, about canning, making kombucha, raising chickens and even growing vegetables in a backyard garden, but the reality is, when making anything from scratch, success is never guaranteed.
A few months ago, I wrote about the ups and downs of growing your own mushrooms from kits that several entrepreneurs are now selling. One of those companies is Back to the Roots, a California-based business that has garnered a lot of attention for its DIY mushroom kits and, more recently, the AquaFarm, an at-home aquaponics kit that first made waves when it was just a Kickstarter campaign.
The project got its funding, and less than a year later, AquaFarm is now available at Whole Foods Markets, Petco, Nordstrom and BackToTheRoots.com. It’s a small aquaponics system/fish tank in which fish fertilize the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish. At $60, it's a fraction of the cost of other home aquaponics kits that you can find online and a mere drop in the bucket for full-scale aquaponic farmers.
This summer, the Back to the Roots team sent me a kit, which I’d been eager to try since I first saw the crowdfunding campaign last year.
With the help of our two boys, we excitedly unpacked the box, carefully read the instructions and got to work building our new little ecosystem for our beta fish, whom we call Red Tail.
We planted basil and lettuce seeds, set the rock-filled planting containers in their tray, plugged in the pump, positioned the tank next to a South-facing window and waited.
The seeds sprouts quickly, but as soon as they reached about two inches tall, they stopped growing. After a few more weeks of waiting and watching (and no growth), I emailed one of the founders, Nikhil Arora, to see what I was doing wrong. He suggested that I thin out the seedlings so they weren’t competing for the nutrients that the fish was, um, outputting in the water. He also suggested trying wheatgrass seeds, which does well in the kit, he said.
I thinned the seedlings, planted some wheatgrass and waited some more. The wheatgrass shot up and grew an inch a day there for a while, but then it, too, stopped growing. Pretty soon, there was a white fuzz among the rocks at the base of the wheatgrass.
Once again, I went straight to the source for help. Arora was helpful in troubleshooting, suggesting that the pump might not be bringing enough water into the tray and that the plants might not be getting enough light. The pump was working correctly and unless we moved the kit outside or bought a grow light, the plants couldn't get any more light indoors. (In fact, I was worried that the strong afternoon Texas sunlight was perhaps too much for them.)
We just decided to dump the wheatgrass, clean the rocks, refill the tank with fresh water and start looking at the AquaFarm as an interesting, if not quite bountiful, aquarium for our fish.
Like many start-ups with neat ideas and even better marketing, Back to the Roots has reached plenty of customers but is struggling to fulfill expectations with products that only kind of work. I love the founders’ enthusiasm for education and experimentation – Arora shared stories and photos of people building elaborate set-ups or planting already-started plants like green onions or celery -- but, in a reality check that real aquaponics and mushroom farmers will appreciate, the products for me ultimately show that growing your own food isn’t as easy or simple as it might sound.
Arora and his business partner, Alejandro Velez, have been earning accolades since founding Back to the Roots in 2009, and I have no doubt that they will continue to come up with interesting, educational products that tap into our desire to learn more about food and have a hand in producing it. They are a socially conscious company, donating kits and gardening supplies to schools and creating “green collar” jobs in the Bay Area, and though I would recommend trying the AquaFarm and mushroom kits for good clean educational fun, don’t expect the lush harvest that the packaging might suggest.