Ruthless cutting of waste in all its forms has long allowed farmers — from 1600s Japan to reconstruction-era Alabama — to make a living on tiny plots of land.
It’s how today’s small-scale farmers can do the same, says farmer and author Ben Hartman.
“Turning waste into useful channels should be the slogan of every farmer,” said Hartman, quoting George Washington Carver.
Using the principles of ‘Lean’ — a management model Toyota created — Hartman and his wife, Rachel Hershberger, gross a six-figure income off a little more than half an acre near Goshen, Indiana.
Hartman is author of The Lean Farm, and The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables. He spoke during the online Direct Farm Marketing Conference, held February 20 to 27.
In 1600s Japan, the isolationist Edo period, the country had to sustain itself agriculturally, said Hartman.
In that period, the population saw a large increase while the number of oxen available for agriculture dropped to almost none. Japanese farmers had to find ways to do more with less, said Hartman. They did this by getting together and reducing waste.
Transplanting rice is precise work done in a small time window. By forming collectives, they could plant each field in time.
They refashioned tools, previously animal powered, to be human powered. They engineered precise hand tools.
Today, some of the best small-farm hand tools still come from Japan, Hartman added.
After the Second World War, a bombed and gutted Japan would need the mentality of its efficient rice farmers. The Toyota car company was struggling to find parts to build, and buyers for its cars — at one point, it made three cars a week.
Embracing a precise, low-waste mindset, made Toyota a world leader (it led the world in sales in 2020, according to a January 28 report from Bloomberg).
As Hartman describes it, ‘lean’ recognizes two types of activity: work that contributes value and waste.
“There’s no three sides to the coin,” he said.
Waste includes transportation time, overstock of supplies, defective crops, motion or steps to a task, waiting and overproduction, said Hartman.
He identified four tools of ‘lean’: organizing, precise identification of value, cutting waste and practising continuous improvement.
A Mennonite, Hartman said he struggled to throw anything out, so his farm got cluttered.
Under ‘lean,’ a tool must either be in its place or in the worker’s hand, said Hartman. He suggested sorting tools — if they weren’t used last season, they probably wouldn’t be used this year. Pare tools down to the ones that get used.
Organize what’s left near where they’ll be used. The same goes for supplies.
Order must then be sustained. Hartman said on their farm, they post pictures of what each area looks like when clean. They and their employees can refer to these to know where everything goes.
The second tool of lean is precise identification of value. This is largely determined by “close personal observation to thoroughly understand a situation,” said Hartman.
For him, this means speaking to chefs, produce managers and customers he supplies. He asks what and how much they want, when they want it, and settles on an agreeable price. He lets customers take the lead, he said.
The third tool is cutting waste — identifying what adds value, and what is waste.
To cut down storage costs, Hartman said they aim to harvest and then deliver as soon as possible. As an urban farm, they can deliver within hours of harvest.
The farm began with a system of growing a cover crop, plowing this under as a ‘green manure’ and then planting. To reduce work significantly, they moved to a ‘mulch in place’ system.
They mow crops down, leaving the roots and residues in place. They may then tarp this to speed up breakdown of residue. They may add compost on the surface. They then plant directly without tillage.
Compost — produced using leaves from the nearby city — and crop residues are their only fertilizers and it works, said Hartman.
Hartman noted there is one other type of waste to be mindful of — overburdening. Every year they ask themselves where the burden of work was heaviest. Where did they hurt?
For instance, they realized they were wearing themselves out harvesting lettuce by hand so they got a tool to do that. Then they realized they were hurting their backs bending to use the tool. They added long handles.
The fourth tool is “Kaizen” or the practice of continuous improvement. This involves developing a routine or a mindset that promotes improvement. Every season the farm should have less waste, Hartman said.
Practise eliminating waste until it becomes a reflex, said Hartman.
Let your workers point out waste, he said. “They’re as close to the work and the waste as us,” said Hartman. “It makes sense that they’re going to have the best ideas.”