Sep 20, 2017
Q&A with ‘The Lean Farm’ author Ben Hartman

How lean farming works at Clay Bottom Farm

Ben Hartman wrote a book about lean farming, but first he had to work to implement those principles at his own farm.

Doing more with less meant getting rid of a tractor he liked, and other severe changes. Clay Bottom Farm is a five-acre property but he now farms less than one acre, including 9,000 square feet under greenhouses. Next year, he and his wife hope to relocate farming operations to a new property on the edge of the nearby town of Goshen, Indiana – within one mile of almost all of the farm’s customers.

“This will make it easier for them to pick up from our farm, and for us to deliver at convenient times for them,” Hartman said. “We still plan to farm less than one acre for our living.”

The farm sells to six local artisan restaurants, to a food co-op, at a farmers’ market and also participates in two multi-farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.

While implementing lean principles at his farm, Hartman cut the number of crops he farmed in half, from 60 to 30.

Hartman said he and his wife, Rachel Hershberger, narrowed the list by collecting data and choosing crops to grow based on three criteria:

  • The crop must yield $2 or more per square foot
  • The crop must consistently be in high demand
  • Hartman and Hershberger use a “field-to-cooler” metric that says that one worker must be able to harvest, wash, package and place in our cooler $100 worth of a product in an hour. “For example,” he said, “One worker should be able to harvest and package up at least $100 worth of tomatoes or carrots or whatever in the course of an hour. If they can’t, then we need to re-think our procedures or stop growing the crop. This keeps our farming focused on high-value crops.”

Of those 30 varieties, the farm’s focus is on seven “profit-makers”: tomatoes, baby salad mix, baby spinach, kale, carrots, beets and salad turnips.

“These crops are consistently in high demand in our markets and we supply them for a long window of time – six months out of the year for tomatoes, and nearly all year for the others,” Hartman said. “We also grow a few specialty crops like figs and ginger that have a high demand but short harvest window.”

Farm Smarter

In his 2015 book, “The Lean Farm,” author Ben Hartman described his efforts to take more-with-less Japanese manufacturing principles to his small vegetable farm outside Goshen, Indiana.

He and his wife, Rachel Hershberger, were putting in long hours at their small farm while struggling to increase revenue for their operation. Inspiration hit when a customer invited them to visit his factory, where he was using lean manufacturing principles.

Farming lean meant big changes for Hartman and Hershberger – they cut the number of plant varieties they farmed in half, drastically reduced the area they farmed and adjusted the tools and practices on the farm. Hartman wrote in the book the farm became more profitable as a result of the changes.

Hartman said that the work hours are also not as long, allowing them more time with their two young children. Husband and wife operate the one-acre farm with the help of one employee and “usually one intern.”

“The Lean Farm” was well-received, but Hartman said readers wanted to know more of the details about his specific vegetable- farming techniques. A second book, a 272-page paperback titled “The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables: More In-Depth Lean Techniques for Efficient Organic Production,” is due for release from Chelsea Green Publishing on Oct. 20.

VGN caught up with Hartman to ask him some questions about his new book.

VGN: What has changed since you wrote your first book?

Hartman: After writing “The Lean Farm” I traveled across the country talking to vegetable growers about using lean systems on their farms. I picked up a lot of clever ideas, as I shared what I’ve learned farming efficiently.

VGN: Describe the feedback you got from readers.

Hartman: The comment I heard the most was, “You inspired me to cut out waste from our operation as an effective and easy way to grow our profits. I don’t have to just get bigger all the time. I can get leaner.”

VGN: What made you want to write a second book especially for vegetable growers?

Hartman: I heard from readers over and over again, “‘The Lean Farm’ taught me the theory behind lean, but how do you grow your tomatoes? How did you apply lean to your processing room? How would you lay out a vegetable farm with lean principles? How did you get rid of your weeds?” This new book, then, is a field guide companion to “The Lean Farm” that answers those questions. It shows in detail how to apply lean to every aspect of our vegetable farm. Using lean thinking, we are able to earn a comfortable living on less than an acre of land, with just a handful of tools. We work sane hours and take vacations. This book shows readers how we do it, and how they can, too.

VGN: What can you tell us about your upcoming new book?

Ben Hartman’s new book is scheduled for release Oct. 20.

Hartman: This book is a detailed guide to vegetable growing. It explains our use of kanbans, or replacement signals, to maximize land use; germination chambers to reduce defect waste; and right-sized equipment to save labor. It shows how we use Japanese paper pot transplanters to transplant almost all of our crops. It explains how we lean up greenhouse growing. It reveals our simple compost-making recipe and technique. And it shows our lean techniques to eliminate weeds and pests.

Lean is not just about cost-cutting. Really, it’s about growing better – not cheaper – food, and about making farms more enjoyable places to live and work. My hope is that the book makes vegetable growers more successful, and that it eases their workload. I love this profession and I want to share my passion for growing vegetables with others.

VGN: What’s the first step toward lean farming?

Hartman: The lean system is like a coin with two sides. One side is value. You want to precisely identify what your customers want, when they want it, and the amount they want it in. Really research those questions, using surveys or just talking to the customer. And then focus hard on delivering on that value. The most precisely you deliver on the answers to those questions, the more profitable you will be. That’s the first step.

The other side of the coin is waste, or muda. Basically, muda is any activity that doesn’t directly add value to your product. There are 10 types, in the lean system – excess transportation, motion waste, overproduction, etc. So the second step is to scour your operation and get rid of the muda. I explain all of the mudas in both books.

A simple way to start getting rid of muda is to get rid of all the tools and supplies you don’t use. According to lean, the only items in your workspace should be those you use all the time. It’s amazing how much time and effort is wasted looking for tools and tripping over junk that’s in the way of your work. Lean offers a 5S system for organizing workspaces, which I explain in “The Lean Farm.”

VGN: What’s the hardest part about lean farming? For yourself, and for others you’ve talked to.

Hartman: The hardest part might be applying the discipline to really structure your business around the customer. When we started farming, we grew whatever we wanted to grow, because we found those items interesting. Now we put in a lot of work in to collect orders ahead of time – really listening to customers and growing what they want. Precision is key, so we are not overproducing and wasting effort on crops that don’t sell.

Also, it can be really hard to get rid of those tools that we think are cool but just aren’t using anymore.

VGN: What are some tools or treatments you gave up when you were simplifying your own farm?

Hartman: We sold a beloved Ford 8N tractor, and several discs and other larger implements that didn’t fit the scale of our small farm.

VGN: Does the lean farming impact your planting times or other aspects of crop management?

Hartman: Lean impacts our planting schedule. We meet with each of our six chefs in the winter to ask them what they might want in the coming year and when they want it. Then we plan around that. In this way, our production is tightly aligned with customer demand. We also carefully project farmers market sales based on sales in the previous year. We don’t seed at random.

We also use lean to stay nimble in our production. We are constantly adjusting our plans and crop mix based on changes in the marketplace. For instance, last year a restaurant added fennel slaw to their menu mid-season. We scrapped plans to grow fall zucchini and instead planted fennel to supply that customer. Many of our crops are short-season crops so it makes it easier to make these quick changes.

Stephen Kloosterman, assistant editor

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