5 – Shiitake Happens
One of my favorite things about New Years is always the “best of” lists that highlight all the amazing moments from the previous 12 months. Whether it’s sports, news events, memes or movies, it’s always nice to reminisce.
Well I tried to brainstorm some stories to make a Best of Pilzling 2021 list, but somehow it’s always the stories of our biggest mistakes that kept making me smile, so instead I thought it was more fitting to write a highlight of our year’s failures. Failure is definitely a be a bit of an overstatement – but these are at least the top 3 moments of 2021 that made us cringe with startup pain:
1) Delivery Disaster
January is always an interesting month – some might even say it sets the tone for the rest of the year. By this point, we had already had a few successful harvests, built up a bit of attention in the community, and were now receiving our first multi-kg orders. It was exciting, and according to our production plan, we were going to have a really fat harvest on the upcoming Thursday morning. That was the plan at least…
Unfortunately, January is also not such a pleasant month when it comes to weather. Things were a bit chilly, even down in our basement. We knew temperature played a role in the mushroom production cycle especially when considering overall timing; however, the degree to which it played was severely underestimated. We had noticed early in the week that things weren’t growing as quickly as we had planned. Nevertheless, we still felt pretty confident based on our experiments in the fall that we could still make our deliveries for the upcoming weekend including the 4kg order for Thursday morning.
So Thursday came around, and I headed to the farm in complete darkness for 6am (customer specified he wanted the mushrooms by 7am at the market) to make the harvest. I knew it was going to be close whether or not we’d have enough mushrooms, but to my relief, we had just enough to reach the 4kg amount that was expected… not a mushroom more! I loaded up the mushroom bike, with several trays of mushrooms and off I went.
Now one thing that’s quite obvious about making bicycle deliveries is that everything needs to be secured quite tightly, but unfortunately (maybe due to lack of coffee, sleep, and/or time) I had to learn this the hard way. Speeding down Venloer Str, I decided to jump a curb with a little too much enthusiasm, and unsurprisingly, I watched as our weeks of hard work went flying off the bike and tumbling to the pavement! I was tired, stressed, and disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to complete one of our first big deliveries, so I would be lying if I said I didn’t almost cry.
Surprisingly we lost only about 1kg to spillage (virtually nothing in the grand scheme of things), and things proceeded onwards as normal. Our customer was happy for the 3kg he did receive, we continued on to make many other full deliveries in the months to come, and we learned some important lessons: running a farm takes patience, and bike deliveries need to be extra secure.
2) Who’s job is it anyway?
One of the most exciting things about starting a business is the first large order you get. You suddenly realize that people are actually interested in what you’re producing and that excitement sometimes leads you to forget some other important things… like making sure you have enough packaging!
We arrived at the farm ready to start harvesting for our first delivery at a Marktschwärmerei. In case you’re new to the term, Marktschwärmer offers an online platform for customers to order directly from producers, and once a week the produce gets dropped off to pickup location. It is sort of a decentralized farmers market, and it is a great way to distribute fresh products and connect with customers. Throughout the year, you could find us in several of Cologne’s Marktschwarmerei’s; though, our first one was in Sulz. It was really exciting when close to 40 people ordered mushrooms, and on the day of the delivery we arrived at the farm ready to quickly harvest, load the bike, and drop off the product on time.
One thing we’ve definitely learned as a startup, is the necessity in designating specific duties amongst us – who does what is really important in making sure the amount of work remains fair, but more importantly, that someone is actually responsible for completing a certain task. I guess at this stage in our development we still didn’t have a clear person in charge of ordering materials (or maybe it was me and I just forgot!), but as we arrived to the farm we realized that it was going to be a bit difficult delivering all these mushrooms with only six paper bags.
So we called Christian – he’s normally our guy when it comes to solving problems. He just seems to have a knack for making them disappear. He was still on his way, and said he could just pick up some bags from the supermarket on the way. Nice! Still lots of time to harvest and package everything, No need to panic right?… wrong.
Maybe Christian was having a bad day or something, but when he finally arrived, he handed over a stack of the smallest paper bags anybody had ever seen. Seriously, we could barely fit a single mushroom in the bag. So we traded duties: Christian finished off the harvest and off I went to hunt down something more suitable. You might be surprised to hear, but finding paper bags was not as easy as it sounds. I must have visited five or six stores before finally, with time running out, finding something that would work.
Anyways, in this case we were lucky. We packed everything up and after some frantic peddling (at least this time we strapped everything securely) we made it to our delivery destination. But we’ve learned that that’s just how it goes when getting started – it’s always the small things and no matter how well we plan and designate duties, there is always another challenge right around the corner!
3) Let’s build a farm!
This one hurts the most to write, since it was such an amateur-mushroom-farm mistake. Yes, we’ll admit we weren’t farming experts in the beginning! We’ve still got a ways to go, but learning is what we do at Pilzling.
So this mistake actually began in 2020 when we were constructing our farm, but it took until spring for the consequences to show up. When we designed our farm, there was still a lot of uncertainty about how long exactly our lease was going to be – we were told it could be as little as 9 months, but perhaps longer. As well, we originally just wanted to test a few ideas and not immediately jump into a full-size farm. Therefore, with such a short operating window and our plan to just experiment, we didn’t want to over-engineer our farm, and our construction plans were thus made to minimize costs and keep design simple (I wrote more about how we got started in blog post #2). To meet these requirements, we mistakenly designed the heart of our farm, the “fruiting rooms”, with shelves built out of untreated wood.
Our design worked – low cost, large capacity and simple to construct, but of course, untreated wood doesn’t do so well in a humid warm environment.
One of the most critical procedures in mushroom farming is keeping things clean and sterile, and in this manner, the farm is more like a biological laboratory than a garden. Well with wooden shelves, we were doing overtime on our cleaning duties, and it was very hard to keep things sterile. Around March, we were starting to see much higher rates of contamination in our production, and it was clear that our shelves were a key source of the contaminants.
This was a tough position to be in. We were spending several hours every day keeping things clean and things still weren’t working. Something needed to be done to address the problem, but we were running very low on our startup budget. Rebuilding wooden shelves just didn’t make sense, and new stainless steel shelves would set us back about 10.000 euros – money we just didn’t have. Plus, our production was running at 100%, so to shut everything down felt like we would ruin our production schedule and fall behind in our goals. Somehow we felt trapped, we knew we had to act, but we just didn’t have the capacity. It really felt hopeless, and our morale was low.
After a lot of research, we came across a technique of wood preservation known as charring – fresh wood is exposed to fire, and the charred surface acts as a natural way of suppressing contamination. Plus, it was cheap and could use the materials we already had on hand. The only problem was that it was going to take A LOT of work.
The plan was to complete the charring process during a room cleanout – the semi-monthly process when we empty the room of old mushroom blocks, and bring in the fresh. This was to ensure that we would disrupt the production schedule as little as possible. We gave ourselves two days. 48 hours to compost all the old blocks, uninstall all our sensors and monitoring system, deconstruct the entire room and shelving system, carry all the wooden pieces outside, burn everything with a flamethrower, brush down the charcoal, bring everything back inside, reconstruct the shelves, reinstall the sensors and monitoring system, and bring in the new blocks. To put things into perspective, the normal room cleanout takes the better part of a day with composting and cleaning, and when we first built our fruiting chambers it took us three weeks.
Writing it now somehow doesn’t sound so bad, but let me just say, that was probably the most labour intensive process that we had to endure during our 15 month tenure at Wandelwerk! (we actually had to do this twice since we have two fruiting rooms!) Fabi and Christian deserve a lot of credit, since they completed half the job without me, but even with a third set of hands, we needed a lot of Brezeln and beer to get things done.
As we shut down our farm last month, we had a nice laugh together as we remembered the hell that we went through during that week. It was an absolutely monumental task, but we came together as a team, made it happen, and to our surprise the charring process worked! Our issues with contamination were brought under control, and our yields flourished. Overcoming our mistake in our original farm design really made it feel like we could do anything, and this feeling contributed significantly to our success during the following months.
I think we can all agree that 2021 was a crazy year, and maybe our startup pains added to the craziness. Nevertheless, they were all valuable experiences that shaped our path, and taught us many important lessons. We remain optimistic that we can keep on learning, and that the next 12 months are just as fruitful as the last!
Happy New Year!
Trevor & The Pilzling Team