Organic Broadcaster

Successful farmer shares how ‘lean’ approach to business impacts his farm

By Jennifer Nelson, MOSES

Statistics from the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture show that, while the farming population in general decreased by about 4 percent over the past five years, the number of beginning farmers shrunk by 23.3 percent. One reason for this decline is that beginning farmers who enter the field with so much hope quickly burn out. Making a living at farming can be very difficult at the start.

Ben Hartman’s The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work offers solutions to beginning farmer burn-out. Hartman follows the “lean” approach to business, modeled so successfully by Toyota, in his thriving farm business, Clay Bottom Farm in Goshen, Ind. It’s a model we farmers, beginning or experienced, could do well to emulate.

I’ll admit I was skeptical when I started reading The Lean Farm. I thought, “Another young farmer with all the answers. And, if he’s farming, when does he have time to write a book?!” I’m a young farmer, too, and I certainly don’t have time to write a book. My initial resistance to the book resonated with many of the farmers I informally polled.

As I turned the pages, though, my prejudgment was challenged. Hartman himself says, “Business fads resemble diet fads, but lean enjoys remarkable staying power: it resonates in a culture of excess and greed.”

We want to farm. It’s hard work being a business owner and farmer. We want tools to figure out how to make a reasonable living and farm. The Lean Farm offers a system to help guide our choices to create less waste, increasing capacity for production, quality of living and income.

Hartman and his wife Rachel Hershberger had been farming a few years when they were introduced to the lean business concept by a farm customer, who was also a lean business coach and owner of an aluminum trailer manufacturing company. He invited them to visit his factory and despite initial skepticism (what does a trailer factory have to do with a farm?), they went.

Their customer toured them through the clean and efficient factory with skilled, valued employees. Hartman and Hershberger were impressed especially by the modest executive offices. Their guide admitted that they had considered new office space, but with the lean foundation of “what do our customers value?” in mind, they realized that their customers didn’t really care what the executive offices look like. So they put their resources into making quality trailers.

Hartman and Hershberger were hooked and went back to their farm ready to implement the “5S” system, which in Japanese stands for seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke. In English, the 5S system is sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain.

In the book, Hartman offers a simple definition from Taiichi Ohno, the founder of the Toyota production system. Lean is “looking at the time line from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing that time line by removing the non-value-added wastes.” Instead of producing more to make more money, the lean perspective focuses on producing the same amount more efficiently to make more money.

One tenet of lean is to guide sales through pull, not push. Very simply, pull thinking is replenishment of goods. Instead of producing more, having waste and pushing that on customers, have products available for customers when they want it, and restock it when they’ve used it. The customer guides production. Hartman gives some great examples of this in action. It’s simple: follow the market, and stop trying so hard to sell something that someone doesn’t want.

He offers many helpful tools for getting rid of production and management waste on the farm, then demonstrates how lean has been applied at Clay Bottom Farm through 10 case studies. After the initial process of cleaning up and setting in order, the foundational principle is kaizen, or continuous improvement. Hartman outlines tools for this process like developing improvement routines, focusing on most-need improvements, and constantly upgrading standards. When something is “fixed,” fix it again.

One of my favorite chapters of Lean Farm is “Respect for People: Lean and Farm Staff.” Managing staff along with all the other human resource functions that accompany employees on the farm is often one of the most challenging jobs a farmer does in a day. Many times I’ve heard myself and fellow farmers say, “I can just do it myself so much faster!”

Leaning is all about giving employees the tools to do their jobs, and trusting them to do it. It’s about encouraging them to be creative and think about how it can be done more efficiently.

“Respect for people goes hand in hand with kaizen,” Hartman writes. “Lean is not a race to bottom in pursuit of less expensive labor…. In lean workplaces highly skilled workers carry real responsibilities and are actively engaged in making improvements.” This is my ideal as a farm owner and manager; I want my employees to feel empowered and engaged so they will produce high quality work.

As farmers, whether the farm is big or small, we’re in this for good reasons. We value good food and stewardship of the Earth. Organic and sustainable farming gives us the opportunity to produce a quality product within these values.

As we embark each season, more resources to help us to continually improve our farm business are essential. I’m sorry I prejudged The Lean Farm! Thanks, Ben Hartman, for sharing your experience to create an insightful set of tools to put in my farmer/business-owner toolkit.

Farmers: get this book and at least put it on your bedside table to page through when you fall into bed this season. You can revisit in depth next winter. I know it’ll be coming back to my mind throughout my farming season as I look for ways to improve our capacity, cut waste and ultimately improve our quality of life.

Jennifer Nelson is an organic specialist at MOSES and owner of Humble Pie Farm.

From the March | April 2016 Issue

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