February 16, 2017 – CRAFT Farmer Round Table – “Discussion of the Lean Farm & Other Farming Information Resources” – Facilitated by Vanessa Campbell of Full Sun Farm

What is a Farmer Round Table? They are open, farmer to farmer discussions geared toward a specific advanced farming topic, facilitated by one of our own CRAFT members. It’s a place to share ideas and experiences on a deeper level than we can get into at the CRAFT farm tours. 

We asked CRAFT members to bring their thoughts on their favorite sources of farming information, and be able to provide insight on how they put that information to use. Most participants had read The Lean Farm, which was the focal point of the discussion.

Vanessa had suggested this be a ‘farmer book club’, largely centered around the book The Lean Farm. Chelsea Green Publishing summarizes the book as follows:

“… Author Ben Hartman and other young farmers are increasingly finding that incorporating the best new ideas from business into their farming can drastically cut their wastes and increase their profits, making their farms more environmentally and economically sustainable. By explaining the lean system for identifying and eliminating waste and introducing efficiency in every aspect of the farm operation, The Lean Farm makes the case that small-scale farming can be an attractive career option for young people who are interested in growing food for their community. Working smarter, not harder, also prevents the kind of burnout that start-up farmers often encounter in the face of long, hard, backbreaking labor.

Lean principles grew out of the Japanese automotive industry, but they are now being followed on progressive farms around the world. Using examples from his own family’s one-acre community-supported farm in Indiana, Hartman clearly instructs other small farmers in how to incorporate lean practices in each step of their production chain, from starting a farm and harvesting crops to training employees and selling goods. While the intended audience for this book is small-scale farmers who are part of the growing local food movement, Hartman’s prescriptions for high-value, low-cost production apply to farms and businesses of almost any size or scale that hope to harness the power of lean in their production processes.”

Read below to found out how our CRAFT farmers ‘lean’ their farms, and other sources of juicy farming information.

Highlights from the Discussion

The discussion opened with the description of the overview of the book, which describes the systematization and improvement of not only the physical elements of the farm, but the human elements as well. The major topic ended up focusing largely on farm labor, an apparent barrier to farm efficiency due to turn-over and different levels of investments in the farm systems.

Changing the physical elements on the farm:

  • One farm was able to decrease farming acres from 5 acres to 1 acre, just by figuring out or “leaning” crop selection.
    • This included figuring out what they could and couldn’t do well, getting rid of the less profitable and scaling up the more profitable, at the same time as increasing profit.
    • The group suggested the book as a good ‘leaning’ companion to Fortier’s Four Season Market Gardening which encourages super intensive inputs (composts, etc.)
  • ‘Leaning’ can apply to any system despite the size, as it addresses the systems of the farm.
    • The importance of asking the 5 why’s came up; constantly questioning your systems is a good way to spot weak points.
  • Investing in higher-quality or simply more tools may mean standardization and efficiency.
    • Multi-functional weed buckets (hot pink — very identifiable, exactly the same size, and used only for weeds), coronas.
    • For example, one farm had invested in purchasing many duplicates of tools they liked and worked for them.
  • Part of justifying getting new, more standardized tools requires getting rid of the less functional things.
    • The book suggests a “Red Tag Room,” or a place where you keep things that aren’t used very often, to help you mentally identify and eventually get rid of things.
  • The CRAFT farmers encouraged OGS to remind CRAFT members about a ‘Lean Farm Week”, to be held the last week in January. Look for an announcement on our listserv about this!

Changing the human elements on the farm:

This was the bulk of the discussion. It largely centered around ‘leaning’ communication between farmers and their interns.

  • Systematization is key when you’re talking about training new people every year.
    • It was suggested that labeling, maps of storage spaces and walk-ins with pictures and directions (eg; “This is a photo of how this space should look when it’s ‘clean’!) helps limit the repetition of instructions from year-to-year.
    • Even though the farmer’s knowledge base is growing every year, it’s still necessary to keep communication at an entry level due to new employees. “After I give you instruction, I want you to repeat back to me exactly what you heard,” can avert a lot of miscommunication right then and there.
    • One farmer suggested using year apprentices to explain things, because they’re more able to communicate with people at a beginning level.
    • It’s a good practice to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that if someone is doing something wrong, it’s because the bosses failed to communicate the task. Breaking down the task into manageable bits is very important to avoid this.
    • One farmer claimed that the hardest people to get to change behavior is themselves; the trick with new interns is to tell them “This is how X has always been done!” even if it isn’t; this is a good way to introduce your ideal practices into the ‘routine’, as the interns tend to take it more seriously than the farmers do.
    • One farm uses cheap 2-way radios for intern/farmer communication. This allows for more direct communication than cell phone use.
    • Instead of having interns collect harvesting tools, one farmer wrote contents of ‘harvest tub’ on actual tub as ‘inventory’ list. It may be a bit more expensive to have tools dedicated to only being in harvest tubs, but the cost of eliminating the frustration element when someone forgets something in the field seemed worth it.
    • One farmer recently bought her second year intern a gardening belt from Floret, which has helped ensure she has the appropriate tools on her.
  • Communication throughout the season is key, and check-ins are part of that.
    • One farmer hosts a weekly 1 on 1 meeting with one member of their crew, at lunch, for 45 minutes. Another farmer suggested weekly whole-crew check-ins. There may be nothing to talk about for the first few months, but eventually there will be things to talk about it.
    • He started this check-in practice because one year he felt like he didn’t know his crew and was annoyed by them (which he felt was probably mutual) and at the end of the season he was happy to see them go. This practice has increased team morale tremendously.
  • There was a discussion on interns having input into the farm process.
    • Some suggested that you might as well take advantage of the input of different eyes that come through the farm.
    • There is a certain helpfulness to get bottom up information; new eyes might have fresher ideas, but their ideas often need to be balanced with getting things done.
    • One farmer knows when he should ask interns to do a task based on his categorization of farm tasks into ‘routine’ and ‘judgement call’ categories — if it needs a judgement call, he doesn’t assign it to interns, and he works to make tasks ‘routine’ and limit the ‘judgement calls’ that have to be made.
  • Farmers identified a struggle in trying to give enough of an explanation on processes without feeling demeaning
    • An intern that was participating in the discussion said that there is no need to be concerned with over explaining, as fully understanding how to correctly carry out an assigned task is empowering for farm workers, and helps them feel more invested in the farm.
    • Adopting a certain way of way of thinking about the big picture is more important than the precise way of doing things on some farms; other farmers are very specific on how they like things done.
    • One farmer suggested that instead of attacking someone on their method, watch them closely first — you should be able to figure out why someone is doing it the way they are. As long as they’re using their brain actively, then it’s fine — they can’t be constantly micromanaged.

A List of Resources Discussed

This is a list that everyone created at the end of the discussion of further reading/listening/etc. To help improve your farm methods!

For a more extensive list of farming resources, please check out our OGS Farming Resources Page!

Sera Deva

Sera Deva

Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology and Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She was hired at OGS as the Farmer Programs Associate in 2016, and as the Conference Coordinator in 2017. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time working for farmers, homesteading, and river jumping in the South Toe Valley.