Continuous Improvement – Lessons Learned on Farm and on Other Farms with Brian Bates of Bear Creek Organics (FSFS116)

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When you look at the world of farming in general, the people I talk to on this show are small in the grand scheme of things when it comes to production numbers and land being farmed.

Even a 2.5 acre farm is really just the parking lot for a huge mega farm pumping out hundreds of thousands of pounds of greens per week.

A lot of times out first instinct is to dismiss what the big farms are doing – they are too big, they’re a mono-culture, they’re a corporation – they’re not us.

But there is a lot we can learn from them.  As my guest today farmer Brian Bates would say…  say what you will they produce a lot of product and it looks great.

Of all people, Brian would know, because he has a unique perspective on the subject having spent a week last winter literally in the fields on one of those farms to see what it was like.

It was an experience which you’ll hear all about in this episode.

Connect with Brian:

Bear Creek on Instagram

Brian’s Website

Notes from the conversation:

  • By seeing the largest and smallest that keeps my own perspective, but the main thought driving around is we are not different. We plant the same varieties of plant. The thing that I was stuck on the most was I knew at the end of the day, I wasn’t doing that again tomorrow, the next four days, for 6 days in a week and for the entire season.
  • The most important thing is I get the pleasure of looking at my customers in the eye and dropping off of the back door of the grocery store. I get to sow the seed, plant the plant, harvest the plant, package it, deliver it, eat it, and enjoy it with my customer. I get to complete that full cycle and that was the most significant cycle.
  • At our farm in peak we are harvesting about 100-120lbs of Spring mix a twice a week.   We usually do a bed or two bed of head lettuce a week, about 500 heads.   Maybe on busiest week we are doing 250lbs of spring mix and 500lbs of lettuce.  And on that day in Yuma, 12 pallets per trailer, 36 cartons per pallet, and we did about 5 trailers worth.  I think it was about 60,000 heads of lettuce.
  • I don’t know if there is soul in the system of industrial food. I think there is drive to feed nutritious food on the top of the spectrum. There is a drive to feed one family at the end of the day on the bottom of the spectrum. I think those are two more utilitarian pursuits. I think there is lot of value in not hiding some of these elements but sharing it. This is huge the risk for a big company to do but it runs the risk of token to employee. In telling a story takes a two part, one telling it compellingly but two is having an audience who even wants to listen.
  • I think I have more than a good life, I felt lucky in most of my life and that I been exceptionally fortunate. But in terms of feeling lucky to have my farm the way it is versus those farms. I felt like there is something really revealing or exposing the idea of working my manufacturing analogy that all these factory workers are on display for anybody who’s drives by. I always have this element like; I feel some degree of guilt when I see some crew and people doing really challenging.
  • I feel like we are doing our best that we can to make their day good. I consider our employees are friends of ours and we together after work. It’s a more close relationship. I always been driven to work hard and I’ve never tried the way from physical labor but I think that’s the nature of work. I scored a lot of point with the picking crew. I felt like there are three major takeaway, one is this some incredible farming going down there, when you on farming standpoint bringing vegetable on the earth. I challenge any small farmers to show me a farm that’s growing things as nice, as healthy, as big and as consistence. That part, we can’t take it for granted. They are going to distribute in any part of the world their product because there is no other than that quality of vegetable in other country. I think these growers as so dialed in, we can’t take it for granted on an effort proportion. The other part that we need to keep in mind is that, those crops and those fields are good. I think the quality that small farmers might be very much included is that fact that those products are ship in different part of the country, to every corner of this nation.
  • I think the one that doesn’t apply is to choose put your hands in their hands. It’s the same variety; it’s the same crops just in the different place showing million times more than I do. I’m of the persuasion that I have to apply even if that application, the decision doesn’t even grow it. But here’s I think does to apply, we are big fan of lean manufacturing in generally. Some of the ways that doesn’t applies; the emphasis on food safety was parliament. I think small farmers notoriously even sometimes deliberately come up short. That food safety element just really stuck with me. There is this presentation, that big corporation forcing these food safety regulations down the small farmers because they are really doing it. That may or may not be true but from the sense I got, they are spending an incredible amount of money to abide by this regulation. The other thing on the labor, these machines that they harvest on to them are not doing a lot of work for you.
  • They have got large enough scales of things where they can hire a person for the job to manage the best of it. On my farm, I’m the owner/operator, the fastest harvester, the irrigation manager, the marketing supervisor and the head delivery man. That is the one thing blew me away is how segmented the production system is, of these crops. The closest comparison would have to be corn, there is not super uncommon at a significant scale. Had somebody different feed the corn, then who harvest the corn and contract out in spraying of the corn, selling of the corn and even to source out of the corn. There is whole industry around that, custom harvesters and custom operators. There are lot of people working to make sure that they do it and I think it really improves the quality.  The other thing that I shared to other growers, I think that small farmers have a real tendency to view organic fertilizers as expensive. They tend to undermanned the soil especially like nitrogen. The difference is really significant.
  • I wasn’t applying fertilizer before. On bad days, we would do a soil test and send it for a composting, they put a blend then I put it in the farm and then plant. I had not purchase poultry mineral rather than put nitrogen fixing cover crop and rotate my crop and do these custom plant. I think by stepping it up this year and shifting how I view it. I give different crops, different treatments and I’m thinking about the timing of the crop and how quickly or slowly I want the nutrients to release from a given amendment so I’m asking different question of my amendment supplier. Starting the crops receiving different of treatments has really improved our fertility regime. That is the big thing; we change the fertility entirely on a bed by bed basis. Then other thing I saw is this lettuce growing in Yuma, it’s not getting watered every day, it’s not getting water any other day. This plant needs a lot of water to keep it from getting better and in most in the irrigation there for raw crops or for bed crops was flood based irrigation. If you see a field being flooded and the heads look really nice that means they will be harvesting that field in the next couple of days. That was the last push of water that hydrates before they are harvested. It is the interesting concept that I haven’t done before and we are implementing this twice a week in our farm.
  • Generally speaking our soil tests are being balanced with minerals and most of the nutrients except on short on nitrogen. Using lots of compost, you start to get a little higher on fat for it, you start to see other things building up and then nitrogen is really keeping up and I’m far from the soil tester expert. On the test when it comes back to us, most things would be way to low, to adequate or too much. We tended to be just below adequate on most things, we are high on phosphorous and then available nitrogen would be very low. It is tricky for me think about because other things may are not available for the plant that we wanted. This is the reason I emphasize a couple of key for nutrients right before plants get planted, to make sure that those nutrients need is ready for that crop. We are not necessarily pushing the whole soil test. We are just under tapping the potential of what’s available; we are seeing that increase and we are gradually getting new organic matter. We are just investing in our crops, I thought previously that those expenses would be minimized and now I see it can goes a lot and a really long way to improve the yield.
  • Maybe one of the biggest sets we’ve done is not on post harvest, but right in the moment of harvest. We spend a lot of time washing our green. Anytime there is rain event that flashes a lot of sand onto the underside of the leaves. That was frustrating; we have a lot of investment in washing because we took a lot of effort in washing. Inevitably, leaves that were close to the ground will get yellow or brown. One of the ways to improve the efficiency is grow the stem a lot bigger and leave a lot more behind, it may sound wasteful but it is not. They were even harvesting the bottom of the plant. They were only cut on the top off and they will get more than enough way. Then our speed of harvest had clean up our washing. That is during harvest element that dramatically improves our post harvest process.
  • I’ve never in the way of accepting good enough, but it never been my driving motivation. To phrase it differently, I’m in the camp of trying to know what needs to happen. Like what were the priorities are? I been trying to have what I been in this threshold, we cannot never do it perfect but if I can have threshold I can make that attainable. But if you have threshold that inform you what is priority, with sound over for instance. We tried a lot of things to make our field weeds free. When we got weeds and it is still small, we’re going to cultivate. What I never spend time doing is hand weeding an entire field or bed. That seems a reminder that you should have done better early. I don’t accept a hand weeding that must occur, I accepted it that sometimes we must do. But I don’t accept it that has to something happened in order to be a successful grower. In setting them a picture weeded field, one thing of a threshold for if we know we’re going to harvest a crop in the next seven days then we will try a priority that we see a couple of weeds above the nice line where we’re cutting. Crabgrass is annoying but its low growing when it’s small. It does not necessarily to make it look photo perfect but we have a threshold on this, the weed is growing low, small and below the nice cut. Then we don’t need to worry about that, we are going to worry on the taller grass that might interfere about our harvesting. That way, we can do the minimum amount of weeding to ensure the maximum amount of washing and benefit the packing.
  • I’m learning to communicate my people. We got a real range now, somebody who have their first job ever and somebody working on another farm that operated differently. This helps me to communicate differently on my people. The best method is to work alongside on somebody, to work with them, to show them how you want to do it and to watch them does it, to offer some little critics and show them pointers and tips overtime. We have a computer in the wash pack that has to do list, people timesheet, pick list and harvest log. I have four categories in doing this; one category has each person made and write what I’d like to them to start the day doing, the separate category is the things that I just need to remember for myself. That would be sheet that’s giving update on a daily basis. Then the other thing on a daily we do is we invested in walky talky and that’s game changer, if they have a question they don’t have to walk across the farm and find me. We really emphasize over communicating.
  • I’m a big believer that we run the farm, when I feel at step point is coming on someway and I feel is the farm running us, that is the time we need to figure out. We are not working on hallow weeks and massive to do list because we don’t wanted to be us. We are trying to focus on what to makes us money, what our customers want and what are the things we cannot afford to have.
  • I don’t know of any task of the farm except for a handful. But I don’t think any task of the farm where I’m the best at it. I know everything that needs to happen. I have two thing in mind; 1. what are the people enjoy, 2. where are task were if I am not doing it. We value drop and the efficiency drop.
  • I do a lot of the tractor work. You can screw really fast on a tractor and I would like to ensure that I am the one who does it. I’m always involved in doing the turnover of the beds but I try to batch all the beds. I try to make sure that one up to ten beds is on similar cycle. We do it on batch basis and we plan it every two weeks. We are using the farm truck and the tractor, these tool provide us a middle ground where anything doesn’t need to have a PTO. One thing, harvesting is great. The other thing is we shape the bed with the bed shaper of the tractor. The other big shift is this year we shift all the water wheel transplanting to paper pots transplanting. By going paper pots were then 3 person job and now one person job.
  • We disc twice, one is to incorporate the bed and one is to shaping the bed, maybe two weeks apart. Before shaping it, I disc it once more and final pass. Once the bed shape, we put the amendment on top of the bed usually that was compost and palletize manures. One thing I like in paper pot is they create that furrow.
  • One thing, some of the wide eyed-pushy tailed novelty has worn it off and I don’t necessarily mean that as a negative. I understand what our business identity is a lot better than now when it were in the beginning. With the much clearer idea of what we are about, it’s a lot focus on getting better at things we do and we don’t do anything not even close. It’s always been 12 miles from the market but we have dialed thing in and focus on working and trying to improve that. I think because of focusing, we get a lot better on what we do. We are just taking so much joy on a job well done instead of dreaming what’s going to happen in the future.
  • I want people to be happy. I really want people to come to work every day. I want them to not stress unto a lot of thing, we probably pay more than we need to.

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