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

review by Andy Fellenz

Ben Hartman grew up on a 400 acre farm in Indiana. Together with his wife, one part-time employee and several seasonal interns he operates a profitable 5 acre market farm growing crops on less than 1 acre, including 9,000 sq ft of greenhouse space, in Goshen, Indiana.  In Lean Farming he introduces farmers to the concept of Lean.  Unlike most books with farming in the title, Lean Farming doesn’t suggest the best way to plant something, what crops to grow or how to manage for insects or disease. Instead, it discusses the concept of Lean Management and how it can be used to improve farm profitability.

Just like Richard Wiswall did several years ago with The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook where he provided market farmers with accounting tools and methods and showed how better accounting and more disciplined management would improve their farming business, Ben Hartman does the same with Lean Management Principles.  He takes a set of practices developed in Japan, most famously by Toyota with the Toyota Production System to improve manufacturing practices, and shows how these same principles and tools can be used to improve your farm.

Lean was introduced to the US and was the subject of numerous popular business books in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. Adapting a system developed to improve automobile manufacturing to farming seems like a stretch, but Ben does a great job showing how the system can work within the context of farming and provides many concrete examples from his farm showing what continuous improvement using Lean Tools looks like and how it will deliver dollars to the bottom line and improve quality of life for the farmer and workers on the farm.

In Part 1 of the book Ben Hartman offers up a set of tools with examples from his farm and other farms that if applied by the reader could radically change their farm’s growing methods, harvest methods, pack shed procedures, greenhouse procedures – truly any aspect of a farm’s operation – and transform it into a much more efficient and profitable enterprise.

Part 2 seems almost like an afterthought with short chapters on a Lean Farm Start-Up, The Limits of Lean in Agriculture, and Lean for More than Profit – Social Justice and lifestyle considerations within the envelope of Lean thinking.

Part 1 of Lean Farming opens with an excellent description of the classic 5S program for cleaning up, decluttering, simplifying a work area and standardizing work methods coupled with many examples of the changes that resulted on his farm when first 5S evaluations were done.  He follows the 5S discussion with good discussions of how to determine what it is that you do that your customers value, mapping your process to determine which actions add value and which don’t.  Next is a discussion of the dimensions of waste, with a good explanation of necessary waste, which is the set of activities which are required but don’t directly add value vs. pure waste – activities which aren’t necessary. This is followed by a chapter on how to identify and eliminate farm waste, which in turn is followed by a chapter on rooting out management waste.  Once the on farm items are completed Ben moves to the sales arena with a short discussion of pull vs push sales before finishing up with continuous improvement and intelligent use of the people working on the farm. Part I wraps up with 10 specific examples of how Lean has been applied on his farm.

Before starting my farm 15 years ago, I worked as an Industrial Engineer and often used Lean principles in initiatives to improve factory operations across the US. I saw the positive impact they can have when used intelligently. I enthusiastically endorse Ben Hartman’s effort.  Lean provides an excellent set of tools that can be helpful on any farm.  His book Lean Farming is a welcome addition to any farmer’s bookshelf, especially if they would like to reduce waste and improve profitability on their farm.