Book Review: The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman


The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work,

Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green, August 2015. ISBN 978-1-60358-592-7. $29.95

When I heard of this book, I immediately wanted to read it, sensed that I needed to read it, that our farm would benefit from exploring the ideas in it. At the same time, I felt some awkwardness: I might be tempted to hide this book from some of my crew, because gardening is something they’ve chosen because it’s in some ways opposite to factory work. If I introduced some of these ideas would I be seen as trying to make our farm more like a factory? It is unfortunate for simplistic thinking that the lean system ideas came from car manufacturing. As Ben Hartman says, “In some circles, to pair the terms ‘factory’ and ‘farm’ is sacrilege.” Factory farming causes many problems. And yet we should not dismiss the ideas because of this connection. That would be a knee-jerk prejudice. The ideas have value that is useful for other occupations, including farming. Farmers work hard, and we can use good ideas on how to reduce wasted effort so that we can be less stressed, more successful at producing food and happier, with more satisfying lives.

And yet, both factories and farms are places of production. Factory work uses inert consistent raw materials. In farming the raw materials are unpredictable, variable, liable to change. Farmers need to adapt their plans to the situation on the ground.

It’s not even really accurate to say that farmers grow food or raise animals. Farmers adjust environmental conditions as far as they are able, to maximize a plant’s or an animal’s chance of making its own growth.

The Lean System is not geared to taking the fun out of farming. It is geared to make farms more pleasant places to work, places where we can do better work, and leaving us time for other pursuits. Lean is just a tool – you keep you core values. In fact you focus on them more centrally, in addition to respecting your workers. Ben Hartman describes their early days as farmers, working endless days, and gives his reasons for trying the lean system. “Our production . . . was erratic: every week we seemed to seesaw between over-producing and under-producing. We had a sense that if our farm was to survive for the long haul, the chaos would need to settle down.”

Taiichi Ohno, the author of inspiring short books in English on the Lean system describes the method as “looking at the timeline from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing that timeline by removing the non-value-added wastes.”

The book explains the five principles of Lean:

  1. Precisely specify what the customers value (not just the products, but also the presentation, timing, and packaging or not).
  2. Identify the value stream for each product (the steps in the process that create value).
  3. Make value flow without interruption (remove waste).
  4. Let the customer pull value from the producer (don’t over-produce and dump/push).
  5. Pursue perfection (continuous improvement).
  6. Yes, he said 5. Respect the workers (harness the collective wisdom).

One place to start reducing waste is to physically clean up the farm. There are five tools with Japanese names beginning with S (the 5S tools). Translated and keeping the S theme, they are Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain. The idea is to cast off the physical junk and waste that weighs down the farm. This reminded me of the domestic “Japanese tidying” craze that has got several of my friends. You get rid of anything that doesn’t bring you joy. The premise is that there is a cost to keeping and storing things. If you get rid of the things you don’t use, and store the useful stuff well, it will be quick and easy to find what you need. You can start with a Red Tag room where you put things no one uses. Once a year you send the unused things on their way. “Shine” means clean well-lit uncluttered spaces. “Standardize” means not just less confusion, but also having a designated result of daily cleaning and restoring order, with a posted photo showing what the area should look like when clean-up is finished. I can really see where one picture can be much more effective than a check-list of a thousand words. The Sustain part is about improving the work environment so that everyone feels good working there, happily absorbed in their task without distraction.

It is important to identify what your customers value. Sometimes Steve Jobs is right and people don’t know what they want till you show them, but often it’s not true. The important bit is not what you think they ought to value, but what they actually value. Observe, ask. Find out which of your activities add value and which add waste. There are four kinds of distraction:

  1. Technology fascination, gadgets. Beware of unhelpful complexity.
  2. Product fascination: weird and wonderful shapes and colors of vegetables.
  3. Process fascination: unusual methods of growing crops.
  4. Letting supply determine value. More kale is not always better!

Customers usually value a mix of goods and services such as presentation or reliable deliveries. You can add a small percentage of surprises, but not too many.

Learn to see value and distinguish the tasks that create actual value from the tasks that don’t (wasted movements, waiting time). It may help to write out all the steps of a task in a list and consider the value or wastefulness of each.

There are two main types of waste. Type 1 is tasks that are necessary but do not add actual value. Type 2 waste is pure waste that achieves nothing. This part of the book was very challenging for me. I feel a bit insulted, disregarded when necessary work is called wasteful. I don’t think this classification is helpful, especially as it includes a lot of managerial tasks like planning. I do understand that the value of the final product is not directly related to the time spent planning, and that it’s good to keep a check on overhead hours and not let them expand beyond usefulness. Is reading this book type 1 waste? But the author says eliminating the type 2 pure waste is not enough.

Type 1 is more pernicious. It’s only the last turn of the nut on a bolt that tightens it – the other turns are “just movement”. Only planting the seeds, harvesting the crop, washing, packaging and display add value. Thinning, weeding and bed prep do not. “Tending the plants might be the fun part of farming but it does not create value.” Hmmm. I don’t find this bit helpful. I disagree with this outlook. I get it that it’s best to farm so that tasks such as soil preparation, plant support, pruning, weed management are minimized. Hand weeding, especially, is a sign of earlier failures, a task to strive to not need to do. But if it’s needed, it must be done! The truth I can see in this approach is that planting and harvesting are the top priority tasks. We’ve long used the mantra “Prioritize planting in the planting season” and here most of the year is the planting season for something. I still don’t like calling weed management wasted time! It’s less wasteful than not dealing with the weeds.

This is a very thought-provoking book. I took a lot of notes (most of which are not in this review). I found I was constantly assessing our farm as I read this book: “ah, we already do that (well)” “oh we really need to do that” “ooo I’m not happy with that idea”

Ben Hartman is prepared to be heretical. They piled 10” compost on their beds to improve the soil and make it easy to work (against the advice of people who say compost should only be used in small quantities. They do not plan a rotation! They simply replant as beds become available, using whatever is the highest value crop that needs planting next. No cover crops either! Clearly it works for them. Their success is due to low defect rates, efficient processes, minimal overproduction, low inventory-carrying costs, high use of their fixed assets, even year-round production and sales, and commitment to change what could be better.

The Limits of Lean Agriculture. I was happy to see this chapter. Let’s not be too ruthless in efforts to cut costs. The moral element of agriculture must not be forgotten. Sustainability is vital. Lean farming is not just about profit. Holistic causes such as nurturing land and people, working well, eliminating food waste, strengthening local foodsheds, providing good food to those who can’t afford it, reducing farm waste, creating inviting farms and fostering an appreciation of farming – all are very valuable and Lean principles can be used to better achieve these goals too.

A really useful book for any farmer wanting to enjoy work more and not get trapped chasing impossible goals and unwittingly causing problems in untended areas. A holiday gift to bring hope, ideas, mental relief and inspiration. Thanks Ben!