How NOT to run an Urban Mushroom Farm

Part 3 of 3

The glorious mistakes that caused the downfall of Pad en Stoel

Pad en Stoel Zjef Joachim Bart

In recent years Zjef Van Acker, one of the founders of the 12 steps to farming, has been working hard on establishing another urban agriculture project: Pad and Stoel, an urban mushroom farm in the city of Antwerp (Belgium).

It was a beautiful journey, yet Zjef and the team made some crucial mistakes that caused the mushroom initiative to fail. Therefore we convinced him to share his hard learned lessons with the 12 steps community.

In the first episode of this three part series, Zjef shared the first two glorious mistakes that set the stage for the downfall of Pad en Stoel: Impulsivity while not having enough experience. In the second part you learned about three more miscalculations, and in part three you will learn about the two consequent crisises that lead to a unique life lesson.

If you haven’t yet, read part 1 and part 2

Crisis 1 - Too much is too much

Zjef Van Acker Pad en Stoel Eryngii

Even though we had a lot of stress and anxiety, we still grew the business. In the spring of 2019 we had grown and sold more mushrooms than ever before. Moreover, we had created a great and ambitious plan for expansion and professionalisation. And we had found 2 new amazing people to join the Pad en Stoel team and make the expansion possible: Els and Isabel. 

Yet, before we started this plan, we took some well deserved rest. In the summer of 2019 we took some time for ourselves to replenish our reserves.

During that time, I started realising that I had been doing too much out of my comfort zone and that I wanted to do more of what I truly liked and enjoyed: Communication, vision, strategy and business development.  Moreover, I started distrusting the ambitious plan that we had made. I started distrusting the plan that we had put so much time and effort into. I didn’t believe we could do it.

I wanted to change the way I was involved with Pad en Stoel, but Bart realised he was completely fed up with doing Pad en Stoel, and wanted out. So instead of expanding, Els and Isabel would be replacing me and Bart in operations.

Joachim (the other founder) had a much tougher situation than Bart and me when it came to mistakes 3 & 4 (finances and social life), yet he also had mistake 5 to deal with. It caused a big deal of miscommunication and broken trust.

As a result, in full preparation for a new mushroom-autumn, Joachim went way too far out of his comfort zone, into the traumatic zone. Right at the beginning of the new mushroom-year he went into a burn-out, and fell into a depression. 

The engine of the Pad en Stoel bus had broken down, and it started rolling backwards down the hill. 

Joachim Sohie Pad en Stoel
Joachim, the tower of strength for the farm

Crisis 2 - Respect thouselves

Pad en Stoel Els en Isabel
Els & Isabel brought a lot of new good vibes

Although I wanted a different job-content, I did what needed to be done to stop the Pad en Stoel bus from running downhill. Together with Els and Isabel (the 2 new team members) we had to find a way to run Pad en Stoel without Joachim. Luckily, Els & Isabel were much more capable than we could have dreamed. They were the light in the darkness during these troubling times.

In November 2019, two months after the first crisis, Pad en Stoel seemed stable. Els and Isabel had done an amazing job of learning the mushroom business fast, giving it new ideas and spirit! Also Joachim was healing and would be back again soo, ready to start pushing the bus back into professional land.

It seemed like Pad en Stoel had overcome a great challenge.

One month after that, in December 2019, we had finished a new and more realistic business and financial plan with a lot of help from Philippe Poelaert. This new plan was based on all our numbers from 2 years of experience, from work hours and expenses, to all the good and bad production figures..


Yeah…not much….actually,….

The financial plan was predicting a business that was….possible. With a lot of persistence and hard work we could get to a somewhat stable business in another 2-3 years. 

Pad en Stoel Eryngii King oyster
Pad en Stoel Bart Van Tuykom

If we would have had this plan (and all the experience) in the beginning, when we still had lots of good energy and motivation, I’m pretty sure we would have done it.

Yet, we were not in the beginning. We were 2 exhausting years further down the line. We had made many mistakes and had suffered a lot.

And after 2 years like that, you want a happy ending. You want to see that all the effort and troubles had been for a reason.

Instead, what we saw was a lot more uncertainties and less-than-average chances for a decent financial return in the long term.

So by the end of december 2019, we felt that it was not worth it anymore to keep on pushing. We had given enough of ourselves and we had come to a point where we realised that self-respect is also an important part of life.

And that was it. With a lot of disappointment and heavy hearts, we made the difficult choice to pull the plug on Pad en Stoel.

Pad en Stoel finish

What does this all mean?

Pad en Stoel zwammen

There’s a lot of takeaways to this story. A lot!

We could have avoided or overcome all crisisses if we had done things differently. But they didn’t go differently. They went exactly as they went and we cannot turn back time. We can only learn from the mistakes:

  1. Impulsivity has its benefits, but it can be damaging too. You need a decent amount of contemplation before leaping into an endeavor like this.
  2. Find a healthy balance between building on what you know, and learning new things
  3. Make sure the business doesn’t drain your personal finances, unless it’s an investment in that business.
  4. Make sure you put enough focus on a healthy and stable personal life
  5. It’s advisable to get consultancy from people with a lot of experience, even if that costs money

But there’s more. There’s a very personal lesson I want to add to this article.

In the toughest of times, when my body and soul were put under a lot of stress, I was shown many of my underlying emotional and psychological coping mechanisms. Some of them were cultural dogmas, some of them were rooted in childhood trauma. It doesn’t matter where they came from, it’s important to know that some were holding me back from living the life I wanted to live, and running the business I wanted to run.

Because all the above mistakes were fuelled by these dogmas or traumas, I learned a lot about myself. And although this undertaking feels like a failure, it has brought me an enormous amount self-awareness and insight.

Zjef Van Acker pad en Stoel Katja Retsin
Zjef Van Acker vraagt Pad en Stoel

Of course, the self-knowledge didn’t come instantaneous. After the downfall of Pad en Stoel it took me at least a year to heal from all of it. Now, February 2021, I can finally say that I am extremely grateful for all the mistakes, problems and crises that I went through with Pad en Stoel.

I also hope that next time that I meet someone that says: “You’re doing really amazing with your business”, that I can feel confident to accept the compliment.

I want to feel and believe that I am successful on the outside, because I am successful on the inside!

And I hope the same for you!

Muchos love


PS: A big Thank you

The biggest thank you goes to my partners in this crazy adventure: Joachim, Bart, Els & Isabel! We had enormous challenges and we faced them together.

There was a massive amount of pressure on all of us and its heartwarming to know how much loyalty and trust we had towards each other during these tough times!

But it was not us against the world. On the contrary. During our time at Pad en Stoel we saw A LOT of external solidarity. Hence there are many more thanks we have to give:

The many loyal business customers who were dedicated to pay more for a local and organic project, even though our service and logistics could be very crappy at times. Lokaal, Golden Gai, Lepelblad, Ohne, Brutal, wild project, Camion, Amor,…and many more: Thank you!

The many individual customers & subscribers who were rooting for us every step along the way, while being understanding of the many mistakes. Moreover, you were ambassadors spreading the word of Pad en Stoel, bringing people to the farm-shop, finding us restaurants to sell to, and getting others to purchase a subscription!

Loes en Krikke pad en Stoel
The amazing cooks from Loes & Krikke
Le seitanist Pad en Stoel
Janko – Le seitanist – with his delicious vegan mushroom burgers!

The collection points for the subscriptions. Really, for 1.5 years you did this out of the goodness of your heart. You did this because you supported a fellow local and organic project and because you wanted us to succeed! Thank you!

Le Seitanist. Thank you Janko for developing with us a great new vegan burger that used our leftover-products and created an extra income stream for Pad en Stoel. You believed in the coöperative and sustainability mindset and you went through a great deal of challenges with us.

VideoMe and Eskidoos, Lou, Thibault and Christophe, Our favourite video-maker, designer and web-developer! Even though you were a young startup yourself, you did so much free work for Pad en Stoel. We made great videos, great visuals and an amazing website!

Tim Ost, the incredibly talented and crazy designer. Thank you so much for making our new brand-identity in 2019. Thank you for believing in our product and bringing Pad en Stoel to the next level.

Philippe Poelaert! Philippe, all the times we sat together to investigate the numbers of Pad en Stoel, to discuss the operations and the business development. It was amazing how much we learned from you, and how much you did for us!

And of course, ALL of the people who bought our products, wanted us to succeed and sent us so much love.

Thank you thank you thank you!

Pad en Stoel urban mushroom farming