Lean Farming Method: Prepare Produce for Market

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The goals of lean are to cut out waste and to find and deliver value.
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“The Lean Farm” by Ben Hartman, is helpful for anyone trying to grow vegetables and be more efficient.

The Lean Farm(Chelsea Green, 2015) by Ben Hartman, is helpful for any gardener looking to be more efficient. Find new ways to cut down on time and waste.Follow Hartman’s guide to spend less time working and more time enjoying what you have grown. Follow the lean farming method to reduce waste and increase productivity and get your produce market-ready or for direct sales by handling the produce less. Eliminate the unnecessary steps. 

A Basic Definition of Lean

In its simplest form, Taiichi Ohno, the founder of the Toyota production system, described Toyota’s lean method as “looking at the time line from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing that time line by removing the non-value-added wastes.”

Another way to view lean is by analyzing capacity, the amount of product that can be produced in a given span of time. To Ohno, the capacity equation is simple:

“Present capacity = work + waste.”

The lean way to increase the capacity is to eliminate the waste. “Work” is anything that adds value for the customer; “waste” is anything that doesn’t. The eventual goal is zero waste and 100 percent work.

This “absolute elimination of waste” became the backbone of the Toyota production system, and it catapulted the company in the latter part of the 20th century past its rivals to become the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. It was also the most profitable: by the early 2000s Toyota’s net profit margin was 8.3 times higher than the industry average. The very simple formula was to find waste, root it out, and turn it into capacity to produce more.

In their book Lean Thinking, James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones define the lean approach as a set of steps, arguing that lean boils down to five principles:

1. Precisely specify what customers value.
2. Identify the value stream for each product.
3. Make value flow without interruptions.
4. Let the customer pull value from the producer.
5. Pursue perfection.

Harvest as Market-Ready as Possible (Use Single-Piece Flow)

Single-piece flow means adding as much value as possible to the item in your hand before setting it down. It is an excellent way to minimize moves. It’s a simple concept but not always one’s first instinct.

Womack and Jones use an illustration from the world of office management. Imagine you have 100 letters, 100 envelopes, 100 seals, and 100 stamps. Is it faster to fold, stuff, seal, and stamp them all in separate steps, in large batches, or to complete the entire process for one letter at a time? As it turns out, the latter approach — single-piece flow — is in fact much faster than the former method — batch and queue — because you are saving moves. You avoid picking up and putting down each letter four times.

I remember working for a few months at a rural agriculture development center in Guatemala with a staff of around forty to fifty people. The routine was for all staff to eat lunch together, usually rice and beans. We ate on benches or sitting on the ground under the canopy of trees. When lunch was finished, people washed their own plates and silverware out of a large circular tank in the middle of the property and set their cleaned dishes on a rack. Since the tank was large enough to accommodate several washers at a time, there was no waiting for the person in front of you. Back home, dishes from large meals were usually gathered into large piles and then one person picked up each dish again to wash — batch-and-queue style. The single- piece-flow Guatemalan system saved several hours each week for a cash-strapped organization because it eliminated hundreds of tiny moves.

Our minds are instinctually drawn to batch-and-queue thinking. Factories, organizations, and offices are often separated into departments that perform tasks in large batches. Managers think they are saving time, but often they are only adding moves. Batch-and-queue thinking also dominates many farms. At harvest time workers think their task is to harvest the largest batch of carrots or potatoes or apples possible, then pass the pile along to the sorters. The sorters pick out seconds and set the batch in a queue for cleaners. The cleaners assume their task is to wash and turn the batch over to the packers. Once packers have put the food into bags or boxes, they hand the pile over to the labelers.

The motion waste with this approach is enormous, given that a single item might be picked, handled, and set down four or five or more times. Batch-and-queue systems always add waiting waste, since food sits and waits for the next operation. Even farmers harvesting on their own use batch-and-queue thinking by harvesting piles, then moving the piles over and over again through sorting, washing, and packing procedures. While many harvest tasks need to be completed in batches because of equipment (field corn and soybeans, for example), many times this method can be avoided.

As Womack and Jones explain, “We all need to fight departmentalized, batch thinking because tasks can almost always be accomplished more efficiently and accurately when the product is worked on continuously from raw material to finished good.” The challenge is to see your work from the point of view of the object you are producing rather than from the perspective of your equipment, buildings, workers, organization, or anything else. What does the object need to move forward in a continuous, smooth manner? Surprisingly often, large batches and queues add bumps and interruptions, while single-piece flow keeps work moving ahead efficiently.

Once we’d wrapped our minds around this principle, we found dozens of ways we could use it on our farm. Most significant, we started instructing workers to harvest as market-ready as possible. In the beginning, our practice for all of our crops was to harvest, bring everything up to the processing area, and sort out the dirty mess later. Now we do as much processing in the field as we can, while the item we picked is in our hand. This means bringing containers or bags, rubber bands, twist ties, and washing supplies — everything we need to get the crop from soil to delivery box or bag — right into the field.

For example, just yesterday I received an order from a wholesale customer for twenty heads of lettuce. So I took with me to the field the customer’s waxed produce box and individual lettuce bags. One by one I picked the heads, dunked them in a bucket of clean water, shook them off, placed individual bags around them (at the customer’s request), and put them straight into their final box. I never set a single head down until it was customer-ready. We do the same with kale and other bunched items. We pick, sort, band, and box, all in one move. With herb packs for our CSA boxes, where we don’t need an exact weight, we take small bags or clamshell packages into the field and pick directly into them.

We can’t use seamless single-piece flow in every situation. For instance, when it’s hot, head lettuces need to get into a cool room as soon as possible. There is no time to process them in the field. Other items, like baby greens and microgreens, which require special rinsing and handling equipment, need to be washed in a climate-controlled processing area.

Every year we search for ways to improve single-piece flow. I am currently working on a design for a small, portable roots washer and packing station that workers can take with them directly into a bed of carrots or beets or potatoes so that small batches can be picked, sorted, washed, packed, and labeled from anywhere near a hose. To take the idea a step further, we’ve considered an enclosed refrigerated wagon or compact vehicle with separate compartments for our different value streams (wholesale, farmers’ market, CSA), so that after they pick and pack items, workers can simply turn around and place them in the cooler wagon. We are also working on a redesign in our salad greens washing area that will allow individual workers to bag, weigh, seal, and tote all in one sequence, without setting down a bag. For years, we completed each of these steps in separate batches in assembly-line fashion with two, three, or four workers. The challenge with each of these workflow redesigns is to put ourselves into the shoes of our products, so to speak, in order to discover the smoothest way forward from field to customer.

Ben Hartman grew up on a corn and soybean farm in Indiana and graduated college with degrees in English and philosophy. Ben and his wife, Rachel Hershberger, own and operate Clay Bottom Farm in Goshen, Indiana, where they make their living growing and selling specialty crops on less than one acre. Their food is sold locally to restaurants and cafeterias, at a farmers market, and through a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) program. The farm has twice won Edible Michiana’s Reader’s Choice award. The Lean Farm, Ben’s first book, won the Shingo Institute’s prestigious Research and Professional Publication Award. In 2017, Ben was named one of fifty emerging green leaders in the United States by Grist, and published a companion guide to The Lean Farm titled The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables. 

The following excerpt is adapted from Ben Hartman’s book The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work (Chelsea Green, 2015) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.