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‘Lean Farm’ partner shares six ideas for start-up success

By Lisa Kivirist, MOSES Rural Women’s Project

What makes a farm successful? Ask that question to just about any farmer and, while you’ll probably get a range of opinions and answers, there will be a few core common tenants: viable finances, a manageable workload, strong family life and relationships, the satisfaction of feeding one’s community.

You’ll definitely find those qualities at Clay Bottom Farm, a diversified vegetable operation in Goshen, Indiana. But scratch a little further, and you’ll find this small farm, operating on one acre, succeeds because of a commitment to innovation and not playing by someone else’s agricultural rules, keeping things lean and focusing on the most important pieces of the farming puzzle.

“If you want to succeed in farming, you need to get creative in how to get there,” shared Rachel Hershberger, co-owner of Clay Bottom Farm with her husband, Ben Hartman. Hartman’s recently published book, The Lean Farm, sums up Clay Bottom Farm’s fresh approach to farming: minimizing waste, increasing efficiency, and maximizing value and profits with less work.

Hershberger will be sharing her farming philosophy and experiences at the upcoming August 17 MOSES “In Her Boots” workshop for women farmers. (See details here.) In preparing for that event, she compiled six ideas for farm start-up success, harvested from her own experiences at Clay Bottom Farm.

Clay Bottom Farm, aka 'The Lean Farm,' in Goshen, Ind. packs a lot into one acre. See the farm firsthand when MOSES hold an "In Her Boots" workshop there Aug. 17. Photo by Rachel Hershberger

Clay Bottom Farm, aka ‘The Lean Farm,’ in Goshen, Ind. packs a lot into one acre. See the farm firsthand when MOSES hold an “In Her Boots” workshop there Aug. 17.

Photo by Rachel Hershberger

1. Grow Gradually
“We took the slow-and-steady approach to starting our farm,” Hershberger said. “Avoid getting in too deep and with too much debt from the start.”

After college, Hershberger and Hartman engaged in a variety of experiences to gain farming knowledge while building a plan and saving for their eventual farm. They ran a small gardening collective with a group of friends from college and found the work of Elliot Coleman and Wally Satzevich’s SPIN farming concept very helpful during this learning phase. “Coleman’s books really helped us with information on the growing side and SPIN farming helped us understand the business side of making farming work on small parcels.”

“Remember to start small,” Hershberger added. “I always tell our interns to start on a quarter acre or have 10 CSA members to kick things off and see how it goes.”

2. Access Land Creatively
That slow-and-steady approach served Hershberger and Hartman well in accessing their eventual farm purchase.

“We used our small savings after college to buy a house in town that was set to be demolished, so we could get it really cheap,” Hershberger explained. “For five years before we started the farm, we focused on fixing the house up and holding down other jobs while renting land to slowly start the farm business.” Then they sold the house and used that income toward a hefty down payment on their current farm property, purchased in 2011. Only then did they jump into farming full-time.

3. Embrace Cover Crops
“Our land is heavy clay, so we focused on cover crops the first couple of years to break down the soil and add nutrients,” Hershberger said. Daikon radishes, sorghum Sudangrass, buckwheat and crimson clover proved helpful in this effort.

Today, Clay Bottom Farm uses rotating crops to serve as cover crops for soil health. “We flip beds frequently, such as tilling the lettuce bed and planting kale. We till the lettuce in and that then serves as our cover crop.”

They also compost heavily using local organic chicken and duck manure on the beds needing nitrogen, such as kale. Green matter or a neighbor’s moldy hay goes on beds that don’t need as much nitrogen, such as peppers and tomatoes.

4. Embrace ‘Lean’ Philosophy
For Hershberger and Hartman, “leaning” their farm operation gave them language to embrace this systematic approach to increasing efficiency by minimizing waste, adding up to more profits.

“In many ways, our lean philosophy roots in what the old time farmers always did,” Hershberger explained. “Farmers kept things simple and lean because that’s what they had to do. Farming takes so many skills; they would be pulled into many directions otherwise.”

For example, one step they took to “lean” Clay Bottom Farm was to reduce the number of tools on hand, narrowing down to the key quality items that really suit their purpose.

“When we first started the farm, we went to rural farm auctions and bought lots of tools very cheap. This served us well when starting, but as we evolved and leaned, all this stuff didn’t serve us well anymore.” They took over four trailers of tools to local Amish auctions or the recycling center to lean down to the key tools they use, now storing the tools right where they are used, no longer all together in the shed. “The farm functions much better when it’s clear from junk and we can fully see our growing beds.”

5. Integrate Your Kids
“In the beginning when we became parents, I had this notion that I could have a hoe in one hand with a baby slinged on my back, which I think happened twice for about 10 minutes,” Hershberger said with a laugh as she reflects on running Clay Bottom Farm now with two young kids; Arlo is two and Leander was born in early 2016. Her approach as the children grow is to find ways to integrate them into the farm and instill a love for the land.

“We take regular evening walks around the farm to see what’s growing, pick some strawberries or whatever is in season. When Arlo started to walk, we got chickens as he could readily collect the eggs.”

The lean farm approach, being more profitable and less wasteful, positively impacts Hershberger’s family life as they can work 40 hours or less on the farm most weeks. They can also do something almost unheard of amongst small-scale, family-run farms: take some needed vacation time off-farm. The family takes several short camping trips during the summer as well as a weeklong vacation in October, during which workers on the farm could readily manage the harvest, CSA delivery and farmers’ market sales thanks to the lean systems in place.

6. Support New Farmers
“I’m keen on encouraging young folks to begin farming and help them access land, which can can be prohibitive. But, often creative solutions make it possible to farm in some capacity,” Hershberger said as she explained her motivation to host the MOSES In Her Boots women farmer workshop this summer. “Skills needed to run a farm aren’t the focus of our educational system, and many farm-related skills that once were commonplace are lost. Networking and workshops such as this MOSES event can fill in some of these gaps.”

Above all, farm success to Hershberger means providing healthy food for her community. “I believe that access to healthy food is a basic need that is often unmet in our society. We should produce food in a way that stewards the land,” she summed up. “Toward these ends, I strive to farm in a way that supports the health of the earth and the health of the people who eat the food that is produced on our farm.”

Lisa Kivirist coordinates the MOSES Rural Women’s Project. She and her husband, John Ivanko run Inn Serendipity Farm B&B near Browntown, Wis.

From the July | August 2016 Issue

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