Organic Broadcaster

Management ‘wall’ creates efficiencies, reduces labor costs for market farm

By Hallie Anderson

When I read The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman a couple of years ago, I was completely floored by the inefficiencies I could see in our farm operation. We have spent the last 2 years adapting to new processes, but by far, the way we changed how we managed our time—both within a single task and over the course of a season—has had the biggest impact on our bottom line and the overall stress on the farm.

Our farm, 10th St. Farm & Market, is a diversified vegetable farm serving a four-season CSA, wholesale markets, and a well-attended farm stand in Afton, Minn. When we started farming 8 years ago, our goal was to build an efficient, sustainable farm that two of us could run to serve our local community. Efficiencies were on our mind from day one and governed how we set up our markets. We thought we were fairly successful in our farm endeavor, utilizing our resources well, keeping costs as low as we could, and expanding each year.

But when I got to The Lean Farm chapter titled “Ten Types of Farm Waste,” I was struck by #2, “Waiting.” I started writing down all the ways our operation was plagued by this type of waste: waiting for the days’ schedule, produce waiting to be washed, time spent looking for a hoe, or taking the time to answer interns’ questions about their tasks while mine went unfinished.

This wipe-off chart maps out what’s growing in each bed. Photo submitted by Hallie Anderson  

After making this long list of “waiting wastes,” it dawned on me that we had set up management from a manager’s perspective and not from a job-is-done perspective. The manager-farmer, who wants to spend time farming, was doing a lot of managing tasks while the jobs themselves got done in the nick of time with a little luck and a lot of sweat. We wanted to re-think our system so that the jobs got done on time, the right way, decreasing the stressful part of the manager role.

The first thing we did was make a large map of our fields. We laminated it for use as a whiteboard and mounted it on the wall. Every bed is labeled on this map, making it easy to reference in our planting schedule and when explaining a task.

On this map, we write what is in the ground and the planting date. When we pull a crop and re-plant, we erase the first crop, add a tick mark on the left side of the bed, then write in the new crop. This way we know on the fly how many crops we have been planted per bed over the course of the season. We can also identify empty beds that are waiting to be planted.

As we go through the season and this map changes, we take a picture of it every Friday as a record of that week. This picture is automatically uploaded to a folder (Google Cloud) and stored chronologically so it is easy to access
when needed.

We have three movable un-heated high tunnels and one heated stationary tunnel on our farm so we do a lot of bed turning over the course of a year. With the movables, timing is key. This map helps bridge the gap between the plan on paper and what is actually planted. The biggest waste of space and time we can make is to move our tunnels over a crop that does not gain value from that structure.

Hallie Anderson uses task sheets to keep track of each worker’s daily chores. The tasks correlate to specific beds, which are also marked on this sheet. Photo by Hallie Anderson

In our heated tunnel, we want to make sure that we are not waiting a single day on an empty bed since we are spending the money to heat it; being prepared to replant a bed the day it is harvested is key. Also, having a visual of our fields in real time allows for meaningful decision-making to happen quickly rather than having to walk the farm or hope the paper plan is up-to-date.

The next thing we did was add a whiteboard for the week’s schedule next to our maps. This became our morning meeting place where everyone could look at the week’s list and the day’s tasks and could share in the responsibility to get it done. It also meant that everyone could anticipate and plan for the whole week.

This board also became a convenient place to write down notes and reminders in the middle of the workday without actually interrupting the flow of the job to have a conversation. This meant two things started happening: 1) meaningful conversations happened before or after the work was done; and, 2) important ideas and tasks did not get forgotten.

The third item we added to our management wall was the task sheet. These sheets are small (4×5 inches) and have the same map of our fields as our wall. They have room to write down the jobs to accomplish that day. At the top is a line for the name of the worker and the date.

I fill these out every day, one for each person on the farm including myself. Each task and the bed where that task will happen is highlighted in the same color. That way, no one is confused about where they need to go even if it is their first day on the farm. I also write down any tools they need and any other relevant notes to get the job done efficiently. Each person takes these sheets to the field with them so if they have a question they do not have to come and find me or go back to the barn, they can reference their sheet. At the end of the day, everyone puts them into a folder hung on the wall.

Adding these task sheets allowed people to get their jobs done efficiently, in less time. The sheets also allowed people to manage themselves rather than me having to check on them. This allowed me to get my jobs done. Before this system, I spent a lot of time answering questions or delegating, fixing issues, and problem-solving while my list never really got done.

Now I have a list in my pocket so when I get interrupted, which does not happen as often anymore, I pull my list out and get back on track. Another benefit to these task sheets is figuring out how long it actually takes to get specific tasks done. As soon as we started using them, we rarely worked overtime because we were able to schedule the right amount of time for each task and could assign tasks to the right people, utilizing each person’s skills effectively.

We then added all sorts of “cheat sheets” to our management wall, out in the greenhouse, and in our high tunnels. This made it easy for everyone to have the right information in the right place so tasks were not interrupted by looking up an answer in a book or doing some “quick” math. We learned that people can either think or do, but doing both at the same time took way more time. The cheat sheets took the thinking out of the equation.

The full “Management Wall” at 10th St. Farm & Market includes laminated (wipe-off) field maps that correspond to maps on individual workers’ task sheets for each day. At the end of the day, workers return the completed task sheets to the folder on the left, providing a record of everything done in each row. The cheat sheets on the right side of the photo outline how to do specific tasks, cutting down on time the owner needs to spend explaining tasks. Photo by Hallie Anderson

We saw results across the farm. Greenhouse transplants germinated better, and we had the right amount—not too many or too few. Plantings in the field were spaced correctly and our yields were dependable. It was amazing how many little mistakes made on a weekly basis had impacted our bottom line and how a simple thing like hanging up a reference sheet solved the problem.

After implementing this management system, I then put myself on a strict schedule of planning out the following week’s schedule on Fridays. This was the difference between planning on being successful and hoping to be successful. I would do a farm walk, write down all the field tasks that needed to be done next week, then factor in our harvest and sales schedule.

If I found that there was more on the list than could be accomplished in five days, I would have Saturday and Sunday to get caught up to be on-schedule or ahead of the game come Monday morning.

Being on schedule becomes the norm and allows me to have most weekends off. If I wait until Sunday night or Monday morning to plan, I find I operate all week in catch-up mode. When that happens repeatedly, it becomes much harder to get back on track.

Our new management system has decreased our labor costs significantly. In 2017, we spent almost $18,000 in hired labor costs compared to $11,000 in 2018 while producing the same amount. Our printed maps cost $80, the task sheets were $75 for 1000 sheets. With the cheat sheets, a whiteboard, and a couple of other organizing tools our investment grand total was $225 to save $7,000.

The real impact of the management wall, though, is how much stress is lifted when the farm is always on schedule. I have the freedom to spend time with family and friends in the middle of the season, and the farm has better cash flow to buffer emergency expenses or to grow when it needs to. It has also become a recordkeeping system, that in a way, keeps itself. I don’t have to spend extra time keeping records; I am collecting that data in tandem with planning my week’s schedule and task list. My task sheets have a detailed record of what happened each day, by whom, amendment/compost applications, plant varieties, etc. I organize them once a month into a paperclip, put a sticky note on top with the month they represent and place them in a shoe box in my office for easy reference later.

When you are making a profit on your farm, it is very easy to think you are doing everything as well as you can. But, as Ben Hartman explains in his book, we need to continuously improve; fix it and fix it again! Our management wall was step one. Efficiencies are compounding, and I am looking forward to building upon them this next season and seasons to come.


Hallie Anderson owns and operates 10th St. Farm & Market, a diversified vegetable farm in Afton, Minn.


From the March | April 2019 Issue

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