The Lean Farm
by Ben Hartman
Chelsea Green Publishing
The standard American paradigm for success is to keep getting bigger. That’s the theory. In practice what seems to happen most of the time if not always, is a company or organization keeps getting bigger until it is too big and stupid to live. Then they get bailed out by a government which is also too big and stupid to do anything right.
Ben Hartman has another idea which has worked well for him and the government hasn’t had to bail him out yet. He is a small farmer in Indiana who has no desire to get bigger and goes to some effort to avoid it. Instead he looks for ways to do things smarter and more efficiently. He elaborates on a process for doing this that makes a lot of sense.
One of the first steps is to get rid of stuff. Even things that seem like they might be useful someday. Specialized tools are an example. You think you might need it someday. Well, have you needed it for the last three years? No? Get rid of it. Multi-use tools that will do the job adequately are all you need. A huge clutter of tools just makes it harder to keep track of everything and easier to lose anything. Then put those tools in a good place near where they will be used, not all in one central location where they will never be used.
Hartman is fairly ruthless about tossing extra stuff. It takes up space better used for other things. It takes time and energy just to store it and remember where it is. In general if it doesn’t add value your customers want, it is just dragging you down. Some people think that having the latest and greatest technology is the key to success. It isn’t. Hi-tech items are high maintenance and break. Some basic things are good, like an appropriately-sized tractor or motorized cart. Getting every whiz-bang new gadget just adds unnecessary expense, maintenance and clutter.
Overproduction is another form of waste. You are not being more efficient when you produce something your customer doesn’t want. It is easy to slip into the mindset of producing what you want or think your customers should want instead of what they really want. If you have a lot of extra, you are not giving them what they want. One of Toyota’s leading efficiency experts made an interesting, counterintuitive observation. In his experience, mass production is not cheaper or more efficient than small-scale production.
Another very key point for the lean farm is labor. The goal is not to go as cheap as you can on labor. With labor especially, you get what you pay for. Good labor doesn’t have to put up with cheap, and they won’t. High employee turnover is very expensive and very inefficient. Low-quality labor breaks things. Low-quality labor does it wrong the first time and has to do it again. . . and again. That’s not cheap.
On a related note near the end Hartman includes one of many gems of wisdom from Wendell Berry: “We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from …”
Do we not need a sense of purpose? Where do we derive that sense of purpose if not from meaningful work? I like to kick up my heels on the beach from time to time as much as anybody but to do that exclusively for the rest of my life would be boring and pointless. This Thumbs Up book is loaded with practical advice and gives the reader much to think about.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2016