The Lean Micro Farm: How to Get Small, Embrace Local, Live Better, and Work Less. Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green Publishers, November 2023. 260 pages, 7 x 10 inches, with color photos, charts and diagrams throughout. $34.95.
Jump in and learn how to make a good living growing vegetables on 1/3 of an acre. Support two adults and two children and provide good-paying jobs for a small farm crew. The ideas and methods here can also be used by home gardeners seeking efficient use of time and space. Or first read Ben Hartman’s previous books The Lean Farm and The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, where Ben teaches how to cut out waste and maximize efficiency on a 1-acre farm, before this newest book. As in his farming, Ben’s books have minimal waste! Descriptions and explanations are concise, to the point, clear, thoughtful and inspiring.
Even after applying Lean principles (from manufacturing) to his previous two farms, Ben was working too much and not having enough time for family and friends. He and his partner Rachel embarked on a quest to make the same amount of income, and support their family on 1/3 of an acre instead of the one acre they had farmed for 11 years. They reduced their travel time by moving closer to schools and customers. All their produce is now sold within 1½ miles of their farm! All their crops grow within 60 paces of their barn-house.
This book is packed with ideas for maximizing efficiency on farms of all sizes, including finding hyper-local markets, using deep-mulch no-till beds with quick two-step bed flips, choosing ergonomic and efficient tools and focusing on five crops that maximize income. An appendix provides tips for seven more crops.
Rachel and Ben discovered, as other farmers have, that having children changes things. Even with a few years of careful planning, and streamlining all their farming systems before the children were born, they were overworked and stressed. More changes were called for.
Get-Small pairs well with Lean, especially with selling very locally. Applying the Lean system starts with decluttering and organizing, keeping only frequently-used items in the production areas. Next identify precisely what your customers value. Then cut out waste that doesn’t contribute to efficiently providing produce that meets those values. Overproduction, waiting, transportation, over-processing, holding excess inventory, wasted motion, defective products, overburdening, uneven production and sales, and unused talent are all forms of waste that Ben identifies. Lastly, practice kaizen, or continuous improvement.
Small farms can help combat climate change (less shipping), reduce food waste, reduce start-up costs (enabling new farmers of lesser means, including more cultural diversity), reduce food deserts, increase biodiversity, and stabilize food supply in times of disruption. Small farmers are providing 70% of the world’s food while using only 30% of the world’s resources. Macro-ag provides sugar, corn syrup, soybeans, corn, mostly used to make junk food for humans and livestock.
The Lean Micro Farm explains five principles of getting small, illustrated by six tiny-farm profiles from across the world, where farmers are choosing a resilient, ecological approach, with minimal waste, and less use of plastics, petroleum and fertilizer.
The five principles are:
- Leverage Constraint
- Build Just Enough
Leverage Constraint means to identify a few specific limits, based on your values, that you will use to steer your farm, and be more focused. By their seventh year, Clay Bottom Farm was very successful. They built their 4th greenhouse while working flat out 6 days a week, growing 60 crops and selling all they grew to 50 CSA customers, 10 restaurants and 2 grocery stores. The farm hosted interns, dinners, and parties. Then baby #1 arrived, and #2 followed 18 months later. Time to set limits on the farm work! Doing this pushed them to move location, starting with a land search in 2017.
Areas for limit setting can include income, work time, resource consumption, infrastructure, land, driving around. One boundary they agreed on is to complete their farm work in 35 hours a week, max. To achieve this, they hired people. Another is to grow on 1/3 acre or less, which they achieved by giving up low-value crops, reducing crop failures, and filling unplanted space within 2 weeks. Their third boundary is to sell only in Goshen, their home city. This greatly reduces driving time, gasoline use and their carbon footprint.
Unsurprisingly, introducing constraints also introduced some anxiety and emotional reluctance. The worries did not pan out. They discovered that clear limits help you do better, and having a written summary of goals and limits, and another person to check-in with, help prevent “limit creep”.
The principle of Building Just Enough saves resources. When designing farm buildings from scratch, study traditional farm buildings in different cultures. Let the design follow from the flow of activities in the building. Build to last and be environmentally friendly. Making maximum use of the infrastructure you have helps spread fixed costs over a bigger base. The Barn-house is divided by a cement-floored workroom; a propagation greenhouse is attached to the south house wall.
The principle of Essentializing (Do less, but better) makes use of the Pareto Principle: about 20% of the products generate 80% of the income, 20% of the customers provide 80% of the cash. To apply this principle, first determine which crops are vital. There are three essential factors: the crop has to be one you can produce in high volume, with low costs, that sells at a good fair-market price. As well as cash crops for their income, Clay Bottom grows a home garden. I think the time spent on the homesteading crops doesn’t count as work within the 35-hour limit.
Also consider your customers and which are essential. You can’t include everyone! Keep customers that provide consistent high-volume orders, pay fair prices and are closest to your farm. You may also choose to sell at a discount to a worthy cause. Be sure the essential customers get what they need, and you get enough income. Be sure you understand what the customers really value. Don’t waste effort fulfilling imagined values.
The book includes bubble charts where crops, or customers, are represented by circles with areas showing their relative sales revenue. This is a visual way to learn that equal efforts don’t produce equal outcomes. If you want to work less, ruthlessly focus on the overlap between the 20% of vital products and the 20% of vital customers. Rachel and Ben are now able to make more than $85,000 in sales annually.
At Clay Bottom Farm, their five vital crops include tomatoes, salad mix, cilantro, spinach and kale. The four secondary crops are cucumbers, carrots, basil and sugar snap peas. As far as their vital few customers, they stopped delivery to 3 of their 7 restaurants, the winter farmers market, and paused their CSA.
Ben was transplanting tomatoes in the greenhouse on the day the restaurants closed with the Covid pandemic. They brainstormed and made a plan to deliver vegetables they’d planted for the restaurants, along with some fast-growing ones they hastily sowed, to CSA customers. The vegetables were delivered (without packaging) into coolers set out on their porches. Their quick pivot saved the business.
The Simplify principle applies particularly to fieldwork. Which tasks are truly essential? How can tasks be simplified? They introduced a no-till deep mulch system, which halved their bed prep time. They keep every tool visible under an overhang, and return them by the end of the workday.
Review completed tasks, and if needed, determine what to change to prevent failure next time. Don’t overplant because you expect failure! Divide possible solutions to a given challenge into four quadrants: complex and productive, simple and productive, complex and inefficient, simple and inefficient. Look for the solutions that are simple and productive.
The Swadeshi principle of weaving into the village includes opening your farm to other local people. Host meals, workshops, events for children. Provide good jobs for local people, host volunteers and interns. Don’t overstep your limits, of course. Localize fertility, by replacing inputs from far away, making your own good compost, inviting delivery of local street leaves, food production byproducts.
Part Two goes into designing and implementing efficient systems for high flow production. It starts with instructions for their deep mulch no-till system. You will need to get the book, as here I am only offering a broad glimpse of what is involved.
To set up a deep mulch system, clear your garden area and lay 4″ of good compost on the surface. Rake it smooth and plant into it. Every two years or so, add another inch of compost on the surface. Methods of clearing your plot include mowing, then tilling or tarping. Tilling is best if you have perennial weeds, or lots of grasses. Don’t be tempted to spread compost on ground with bits of grass growing! 4″ of compost will smother new weeds, but not established grasses. Lumpy compost is OK for this job, but it must be weed-free.
Clay Bottom Farm does not use cover crops. They leave as much of their crop material in or on the bed as is practical, and make lots of compost. Steve Wisbaum’s low-input compost method is recommended, with turning three times at critical stages, but no fancy equipment or strange amendments. There is a home-gardener version, adding materials bit-by-bit. It only needs turning once a year and should be ready in 9-12 months. I believe our very high phosphorus levels at Twin Oaks are partly due to using lots of compost, and we have beefed up our cover crop practices. I suggest you test your soil every two or three years and see the results of whatever you have been doing.
Free Paperpot Webinar with Ben Hartman, March 7, 2024
Join Ben at 4pm EST on Thursday, March 7 to learn how to use the paperpot transplanting system, a Japanese method of planting with paper chains, to give your farm or garden a boost.
If you plan to use a paperpot transplanter, or think you might, design your layout with 75′ beds, as this is length planted by a half-chain of paperpots. Otherwise, choose somewhere in the 50′ to 100′ range for ease of access. Keep paths clear (no mulch) for ease of working with a wheel hoe.
The Two-Step Bed Flip process follows, saving huge amounts of time. For bed prep only two things are necessary: clearing the old crop (or weeds) and smoothing the ground ready for the next crop. Tarping saves a lot of effort, and enables you to plant more than one crop in a season. Cover the old crops with a silage tarp and let the plants decay. In sunny weather this will take just a few weeks. Clay Bottom Farm uses a 14′ x 75′ tarp that covers two beds (and three paths) at a time. Sandbags are set along the tarp edges every two paces. Remove the tarp and rake the surface, pulling any remaining debris into the path. Then replant the bed.
This system leaves the decaying roots in the ground, providing air channels and food for microbes. The decaying matter on the surface feeds the soil. In summer, small greens decompose in a few days. Two weeks is long enough for most crop breakdown in May-September in Indiana. Full size finished fall greens may take until spring to break down. Tall plants need to be cut down before tarping, so the tarp can lie flat and taut. You can plant the new crop between the rows of old crop remains, without disturbing the soil.
The Two-Step Bed Flip keeps the soil biota alive. Use a soil testing lab for nutrient levels and organic matter to assess biological life in the soil, and the Haney soil test to measure CO2 and soil aggregation. Ben has found that on both types of test their soil is improving each year.
If you need the bed sooner than tarping can provide, use a wheel hoe to undercut the old crop, rake it up into a pile at the end of the bed, and replant. Ben recommends the battery-powered Tilmor E-Ox electric wheel hoe for tough jobs.
They drastically reduced their tools to just 7 vital cultivation tools, removing rarely used ones to storage. For bed prep, they use the 30″ rake sold by Johnny’s and Earth Tools. PEX plumbing piping can be fit on tines to mark planting rows. A good wheel hoe with Hoss fixed blade (no oscillation) open sweeps is used to clear paths and loosen compacted soil. An aluminum scoop shovel is used to spread compost and grade paths. Buy one the same width as your paths. An adjustable width wire tine rack is used to tidy paths and between rows. A 6½” De Wit half-moon hoe (swan-neck hoe) performs many tasks around crop plants and a narrow collinear hoe cultivates between close rows of crops. Lastly, a Clarington Forge digging fork is used for removing root crops and tap-rooted perennial weeds. For harvesting, they use curved grape shears and 6″ stainless steel restaurant produce knives.
Learn how to convert a broken upright freezer or fridge into a germination chamber heated with a water-filled slow cooker controlled by an Inkbird thermostat. A working freezer is used in summer to germinate lettuce seeds, using the same thermostat. When the seedlings pop, move the trays to a grow-light table, using power-saving LED lights.
Field tools include the Jang seeder and the paperpot transplanter. Lithium-ion battery tools such as a brush cutter/string trimmer/edger, a leaf blower and a Jacto PJB backpack sprayer all make life easier for the aging farmer, meaning all of us, as Ben has found with the E-Ox, and the Tilther (good for lighter soils). The Quick-cut greens harvester from Farmers Friend is used several times a week for baby greens. Ben has added handle extensions (made from wiggle-wire channel) for improved ergonomics. Both the tilther and the greens harvester get power from a cordless drill.
Three types of cart haul the bounty: a Vermont garden cart, an electric golf cart and a 24″ wide flatbed cart for moving harvested greenhouse tomatoes between the rows.
Following the tool discussion comes a chapter on designing and building the infrastructure, including dealing with city permits and officials. Rachel and Ben sought a studio lifestyle, like that of other artisans working from home. They got their engineer-drafted site plan approved by the planning department. After that were several building inspections, including farming, mechanical and environmental inspections. Don’t underestimate the costs of all the permits and inspections. From his hard-won experience, Ben offers useful tips, starting with holding an interdepartmental meeting including the fire marshal, engineer, building inspector, planning department and anyone else who might have a stake in the project. Before the meeting date, prepare a good description of your project, with drawings and photos. Hand this out and ask the meeting if the project fits in with the city’s vision, and whether they are willing to work with you in addressing concerns. If possible, include at the beginning any changes you might want in a few years.
For this review I will skip over the sections on electric and solar energy systems, building design, passive heating, wells and more. Those who need that info, especially anyone making a new wash-pack space, will find the book helpful. (I am intrigued by learning of constant pressure well pumps, that adjust the amount of pressure according to the water in use, giving better performance and saving electricity.) Instead of a walk-in cooler, they use a three-door refrigerator cooled with an air-conditioner and a CoolBot, saving a lot on electricity. Produce is delivered within four hours of harvest.
The two plastic greenhouses use rack-and-pinion peak vents and sensors that activate them. In summer they pull shadecloth over the peak of the roof. Peak vent systems are becoming affordable – theirs came from CVS supply, an Amish manufacturer in Ohio (1-877-790-8269) – and can be retrofitted. Installation takes time, but is no more difficult than constructing the greenhouse.
Clay Bottom Farm has several automated greenhouse systems that have proved very worthwhile. One system opens and closes the peak vent and the sidewalls and can act as a thermostat for the heating (VCU2-24 from Advancing Alternatives). A Wi-Fi-enabled system from Orisha Automation sends phone alerts if temperatures get out of range. All of the farm’s automated systems can be controlled remotely.
They built their greenhouses with walls 2′ higher than normal, to maximize useful space; concrete sidewalks across each end wall inside and out, with a lumber and foam sheet thermal barrier directly under the wall; bifold doors that slide up, creating a small overhang when open; steel hat-profile baseboards; a “Swedish skirt” of 1″ foam insulation along the sides of the greenhouse, covered with landscape fabric fastened to the baseboards and edged with steel landscape edging to keep out the weeds;
The book includes a new invention, the ultra-low tunnel, a boxed bed covered with rowcover supported on crosswise cables and held down by bungees. This is used to get an early start on spring crops.
There is a Five-Step Quick-Start Guide for those just starting up in farming, using a 5,000 sq ft plot in your backyard to grow $20,000 worth of produce. The 50′ x 100′ plot is divided into 12 beds. Allow 6 months to set up the infrastructure, starting the fall before your first growing season. Expect to spend $7,700 on seeds, compost, tools and a starter hoophouse, and to spend two or three days a week tending your crops in the peak season. This plan would work for a half-time grower. Buy the book – you know it will be worth it!
Rachel and Ben “Leaned” their farm to have a more satisfying life, less rush and more peace, with more time for their family. I loved seeing the photos of their two young boys at work. They are clearly applying themselves to their tasks, and show a lot of confidence and skill, and enjoyment.
While I fully support farmers figuring out which are the best, most profitable crops to grow, and specializing in those, I’m left with a concern about the bigger picture: when all the growers focus on greens, who will supply the local, sustainably grown potatoes, sweet corn, and squash? We have a two-part food system, with some lovely local organic crops and some jet-lagged pesticide-laced crops. I hope we come up with a more cooperative unified scheme before too long.