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Hartman Applies Lean Philosophy to Veggie Farm

by Caitlin Yoder

Published: Friday, June 7, 2019

While most farms are feeling pressure to expand to earn profits, one Goshen farmer is taking a different approach. Ben Hartman's produce farm has decreased in size since its inception while actually increasing in profitability.

Clay Bottom Farm resides on only a half-acre of land. Vegetables produced at the farm are purchased by area restaurants and sold at farmers markets. The farm offers a wide variety of vegetables despite the small space. Spinach, arugula, baby kale and other greens are some of their best sellers. Tomatoes are another favorite. Other vegetables include an assortment of root crops, eggplant, ginger, squash and more. Hartman said the customers determine what they will grow.

Hartman and his wife, Rachel Hershberger, adopted the lean philosophy and applied it to their farm. The greenhouse and vegetable plot are nestled in the city limits of Goshen, but the trees surrounding the property block out the town life. The hidden oasis makes the family feel like they live in the country with the added convenience of being close to certain amenities country life often lacks. Their children were the main reason they decided to move closer to town. However, the location brings other benefits as well.

"In a lot of ways, it feels like I work for the chef in the back of the restaurant," he said.

Eighty percent of produce grown on the farm is already spoken for by local restaurants and businesses. This helps reduce the chance of overproducing and creating waste of both food and inputs. Hartman said they work backwards to find their customers. First, he determines the specific needs and then he purchases and plants the product.

Being so close to downtown Goshen decreases time spent on the road transporting the produce to clients. It also gives Hartman an advantage to be able to get food to the consumer more quickly. The average turn around time is about four hours from the time the order is placed to when it reaches the restaurant. The local produce also lasts longer than food that is shipped from other states.

The main goal in lean farming is to reduce waste as a way to increase profits with less work. There are seven types of waste, but the biggest contributor on most farms is over-production.

"We went through each of the seven types and tried to root them out of our farm," Hartman said.

Before embarking on the lean journey, Hartman was skeptical. There are so many factors out of a farmer's control, so he wasn't sure if it would work. The first thing he did was get rid of over half of the farm's tools.

"Lean would ask you to put a set of eyeglasses on and recognize, 'When am I adding value to my product?'" Hartman said.

When carrots are harvested, the value triples. When the carrots are washed the value doubles. Those are value adding actions on a farm. That's where lean farmers want to focus their energy. Everything else is a form of muda; the Japanese word for waste. Overproduction, motion and inventory are examples of types of waste. Hartman said as the day goes by, he asks himself whether he is contributing to muda or value. Gradually, the farmer chisels the waste out of his operation.

Hartman grew up on a corn and soybean farm in Howe, where he still helps out from time to time. His true passion has always been tending to the garden. He saw an opportunity in the growing popularity of locally grown, farm fresh food.

"I think we need farms of all sizes," he said. "However, I think its tough to be a commodity crop farmer right now. There's a lot of price pressure and dwindling markets."

He said the advantage of micro farms is the ability to more easily tailor the product to the customer. Hartman added that he believes it's time for farmers to think about diversifying. Clay Bottom Farm is partnering with Purdue University Extension on a hemp research project. Hartman will be one of the few growing CBD hemp for research purposes in Indiana.

In addition to growing vegetables, Hartman is also involved in education. He provides programs for other farmers to learn about lean agriculture. He has also written two books about the lean farm. One book focuses on techniques for those transitioning to lean farming. It describes how producers can minimize waste and increase efficiency while maximizing value and profits with less labor. The second book takes a deeper look at lean techniques for organic vegetable production.

"In the U.S., we have gotten historically stuck in this idea that you have to constantly be expanding as a farmer in order to make a living at it," Hartman said. "In part, there is historical reasoning behind that, and that might have been true at one point. But in today's economy, it's about being able to quickly change what you do as a business. And it's about having great communication with your customers. Those are more important than just getting bigger all the time."

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