I first stumbled across The Lean Farm while washing produce and listening to the popular farming podcast Farmer to Farmer, in which Chris Blanchard interviews Ben Hartman from Clay Bottom Farm and writer of The Lean Farm. Hartman spoke eloquently on his desire to maximize efficiency on his farm in order to achieve more time for family, a better return per acre, and a higher rate of dollars per hour without compromising the values of a small-scale grower. While books like Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower or Jean-Martin Fortier’s The Market Gardener offer a compendium of information about growing, The Lean Farm looks more at systems of production efficiencies and would be a great addition to anyone’s farm library.
The Lean Farm introduces the small-scale farmer to the production philosophy first popularized by Toyota Car manufacturing plants in the 1950s. While the similarities between vehicle production and farming may not be immediately obvious, Lean manufacturing principles are founded on ideas of efficiency, value, and waste, ideas that every farmer can understand. The first section of the book explores the basics of Lean by introducing the reader to the founding concepts, such as the idea of waste or muda. As part of his evaluation process, Hartman categorizes each of the steps within a production system either value adding, necessary waste, or pure waste. The goal is to reduce necessary waste and eliminate pure waste and thus reducing time and effort exerted.
In the second part of the book, Hartman shows how Lean can be successfully implemented within an agricultural context, while simultaneously understanding the nuance and complex challenges found with the variability of farming. Farming is a labour intensive career with long hours, repetitive physical tasks, and requires specific tools. Hartman lays out many specific examples from his own farming experience as well as examples from other farms and industries.
As someone who is completely new to Lean, this book was a revelation. Even after the first chapter, I could see how Lean could make my farm systems more efficient and I was eager to begin adopting certain techniques and re-evaluating my farm systems. Although “leaning up” the farm focuses heavily on reducing unnecessary tools and tasks, there are examples of standardization that actually invite purchasing more equipment to have then in the places where the tool is needed. This summer more hours than I would like to count were spent looking for tools. This coming season we plan on buying a number of new knives, hoes, and shears and place them around the farm where they are needed. This would mean having the right knife at the wash station, in the hoop house, at our garden stations, and at the packing shed, all within easy access when I need it.
The concepts discussed in the book are relatively simple, but part of the Lean philosophy is to constantly adapt, refine, and improve; the process does not stop after implementation. The book is primarily aimed at established growers who wish to re-evaluate their farm systems, but there is a section for starting up a farm using Lean principles. Adopt all or none of the guiding principles of Lean but it certainly feels like a fresh perspective on an often ignored and less-written about subject within agricultural circles. On our farm, I’m looking forward to adopting some of the principles on a few of our workspaces to see how it all works out. I will be buying a copy of this book to have it as a reference book going forward.