Q&A with Ben Hartman, author of The Lean Farm Guide To Growing Vegetables

By Shelley Pierce | June 3, 2018
by Shelley Pierce
June 3, 2018

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.  In The Learn Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, market vegetable growers (and home gardeners!) are shown how to reduce waste and increase efficiency.  Read on to learn more and enter to win a copy below from Chelsea Green Publishing.

1. It is interesting to note that the lean system you employ is based on principles derived from the Japanese auto industry. Given that there are many different ways to grow food successfully, did it take a lot of convincing to be coaxed into applying these principles from the Japanese auto industry to a farm operation?

It didn’t take a lot of coaxing. Lean is really about finding waste and rooting it out so you focus your activities on adding value for the customer. The reality is, we had a lot of waste on our farm, and we knew it. I had this sense that if we could improve our process, there was real money to be made. Lean gave us a system with which to organize our efforts.

2. Was the transition to the lean method difficult for you at the outset and why?

Lean has this organization method called 5S. Essentially, you keep in your workspace only those items that add value to your product. Everything else goes out the door. We had filled our barns with hoes, shovels, greenhouse parts, and spare implements. Really all that extra stuff was bogging us down, costing us in the form of wasted effort every time we needed to find the right tool. We eventually pared our farm down to just a handful of awesome tools that get a lot of work accomplished. The rest we sent off to an auction. But it really was gut-wrenching to get rid of it all. That was the hardest part.

3. What is the lean method in a nutshell and how does your book help us to become more lean in our gardening methods?

Lean is like a coin with two sides. On the one side is value””you want to precisely identify what your customers want, when they want it, and in what amount. The more precise you are, the more profitable you will be because your products will have more value built into them.

On the other side of the coin is muda, or waste: basically, any activity that doesn’t directly contribute to value. Toyota managers identified seven specific types, including overproduction, wasted motion, and so on. My book shows how we rooted out the seven mudas from our gardening, so we now produce very efficiently. I explain in detail the tools and methods we use after many years of leaning up.

4. How has the Lean method of farming impacted you and your business?

First and foremost, we now earn a comfortable living on our farm, selling six figures on about ½ acre of land. We can do that because we are focused on value-adding activities””everything we do counts. Every seed (or almost every seed) turns into cash, because we have no tolerance for waste.

5. What is it about the Lean method farming that personally excites you?

I’m excited about the potential for other farms. There are incredible opportunities out there””real money to be made””for small-scale farmers who can focus their work. Restaurants are booming, and restaurant eaters are clamoring for local food. Hospitals, schools, and other institutions want relationships with local farmers. Farmers who can make these connections, and who can precisely identify and deliver on value, can earn a comfortable living from their farms, and they don’t have to farm on a gigantic scale.

Also, suffice it to say, we have in the U.S. an incredibly wasteful food system. 40-50% of food in this country goes uneaten, and agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gases and other environmental problems. Lean offers a lot of tools to cut down on this waste and pollution.

6. While your book is focused more towards market vegetable growers, would it be safe to say that home hobbyist vegetable growers could also benefit from the knowledge contained within?

Absolutely, I wrote the book with the serious home gardener in mind. Like I said, we only farm on ½ acre. None of the tools or techniques we use are out of reach for the home gardener.

Win a copy of “The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables“!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, June 10, 2018 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

Is there room for improvement in your garden with regards to time, labor, space or money?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

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