Looking at your 2018 and looking ahead in 2019, what do you plan to do on the farm? What do you plan on growing? What do you plan on improving on? Whichever the case, increasing your farm’s income might be one of them.
Today we have lean farmer Ben Hartman on the show to talk about how to do that—increase your net worth with less work, less waste, and less cost. Ben will give us a whole lot of lean principles, tools, and tips to get us started on the road to increasing our farm’s net worth.
Today’s Guest: Ben Hartman
Ben Hartman is the owner of Clay Bottom Farm in Indiana. He authored The Lean Farm and The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables that talks about sustainable farming built from a sustainable system. He also offers several online classes including market growing masterclass on efficient organic urban farming.
In this episode of Farm Small, Farm Smart
- Looking back at the previous year to improve in the following year with a lean perspective (02:45)
- Ease in cutting expenses and The 15% Rule (08:15)
- Deciding which things go and which things that stay from experimentation (11:00)
- Getting rid of things that don’t add value in your day to day life (16:25)
- Pick your educational tool and stick to it rather than a scattered approach (19:30)
- Approaching freed up time and lean perspective (22:15)
- Paying attention not to overburden yourself (26:00)
- Necessary evils: physically and emotionally draining farm tasks (28:50)
- The 10% rule and purchasing equipment (32:10)
- Investments in terms of the size of the farmland (33:45)
- Evaluating upgrading and justifying the investment costs (39:20)
- Pressure to return to the farm despite having free time (42:30)
- Handling overproduction: products you’re not being paid for (45:25)
- Deciding which variants and cultivars to grow the following season (47:35)
- Finding a crop mix that works and then culling some (50:50)
- Allowing some flexibility in planning the following season (52:25)
- Where to start: what worked for you (54:10)
- Not figuring it out is figuring it out (56:00)
- “Farming is hard.” It’s true, and it doesn’t have to be true (58:55)
- The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work by Ben Hartman
- The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables by Ben Hartman
- Ben Hartman’s Lean Market Growing Masterclass
Subscribe to Farm Small Farm Smart in your favorite podcast player:
Diego: [00:00:00] Wouldn't it be amazing if you can increase your net profits with less work, less waste and less cost. Well, you can. So stay tuned to find out how in this episode with Ben Hartman coming up.
Welcome to Farm Small, Farm Smart. I'm your host Diego, DIEGO. Today's episode is brought to you by paper podcast, your source, for all things, farm efficiency from paper, pot, transplanters to Jang seeders. Our goal is to help you do the work on your farm, a little easier and a whole lot faster. So check out some of the time and labor saving tools that we offer at Paperpot.co.
And one little reminder. We're in early December right now. And one thing you should be doing. If you have a business is meeting with your CPA this time of year. You want to know where your business stands in terms of profitability, because you may want to think about doing something that can affect your tax burden.
Diego: [00:01:10] If you want to buy a new piece of equipment, maybe that's a high tunnel. Maybe it's a Caterpillar tunnel. Maybe it's one of the pieces of equipment that we offer at Paper Pot Co. Maybe it's some educational content. Because at the end of the day, it may make more sense to buy that item or that thing in 2018 than it would in 2019, when it comes to how that item goes on your income statement, talk to your CPA, find out where you're at and if a write off would be beneficial for you. Do the smart thing for your business and your situation, and be sure to talk to a CPA so you know what your options are and what effect acting on those options would have.
In today's episode, I'm talking to the lean farmer, Ben Hartman, and today Ben and I are going to be looking back at the year that was 2018 with lean principles as our glasses this year-end review process is something that I think every business should do, and really every person should do in this episode. Ben will give you a whole bunch of lean principles, tools, and tips. To make that analysis easier. So your 2019 can be better than ever.
Let's jump right into it with a lean farmer, Ben Hartman.
For you, you have snow in Indiana. The 2018 season is more or less over one thing. A lot of people are doing at this time of year. As we go into 2019 as review the year that was and plan for the year, that will be. You being an experienced farmer at this point, how do you look at the past year when you look back at 2018, how do you use that and say, was this as a success and what worked and what didn't work?
Ben Hartman: [00:03:09] Sure. one of the magnetic things about farming for a living is that there's always next year. If you screw things up this year, you can always correct him next year.
And next year I say next year, or is the opiate of the farmer, because, it really, motivates farmers to think about their farms in the winter months. And so using lean thinking. However, it's changed how I think about things at the end of the growing season. And it used to, I'll tell you how I used to think about it is I use the thing, where did I leave money on the tip pool, which is not a bad question, but it's an, I was focused on, Hey, how can I produce more seldom what markets did I miss?
How could I grow more for more customers? And using lean, I'm encouraged to say, Hey, I've got X amount of revenue this year and we're not done with her our year. So we're still have some revenue coming in and we'll end out around six, six figures. And so we say, Hey, we've got this amount of revenue we made this past growing season.
And I had part time, year, last year too, because I built my main focus was on building our house. So I farm three days a week and build our house the rest of the time. And I do, we just got our occupancy permit. So we're moved into our new house and then I feel like I can, okay. I've got one job now instead of to farmer instead of farmer and carpenter.
Anyhow. So that's an aside what lean says, Hey, okay. You had X amount of revenue this past growing season, let's say grows 30,000. Or 50,000 doesn't matter, whatever it is, the amount that you grow now, how could you produce that? Same amount was less work and less cost. Okay. And then start from that point of view, how can you increase your net?
They call that lean, they call it the contribution margin, the amount that actually going into your pocket. How can you increase that net? With less work, less waste, less costs. And let's forget about ballooning for now. Okay. So that's where I start. And so the first thing that Rachel and I do at the end of the growing season is we'll print out an expense ledger.
So we do all of our accounting with quick books. And so all of it's not that hard to do you go in and just print a report. And then we asked a simple question. Where's the 5%. And what that means is how could we cut 5% of these calls next growing season, and still produce the same amount because we're not an expansionist mode.
We've been farming for 15 years. we've got established accounts. We just want to do a cleaner and make more money. I was last work and cost. And so unless yeah, less of our own capital investment. And so we'll say where's the 5% and if you can cut 5% every year for 10 years, then you grow your business by that's a 50% rate of growth in your business over 10 years.
That's a very respectable rate of growth. Nothing to be ashamed of with that. Okay. A lot of is, would love to grow 50% every 10 years. And however, it's very simple. The only thing you're doing is cutting 5% who couldn't cut 5% every year. So we actually have done this for seven years. We're not at 10 but seven years of redoing this lean process.
And so I'll tell you what I'm thinking for this past growing season is it was our first growing season at this new property. And so I had quite a bit of cost fertility. I bought quite a bit of a blood meal, feather. I bought pellets chicken manure. That was be hydrated in the pellets as a fertilizer.
And there's nothing wrong with these sorts of input referrals, but I think there's a cheaper, there's probably a lower cost method. And so what. First thing I did was I got ahold of our local street department here. And I said, what would it take for you guys to deliver a kind of leaves onto my property?
And I'm talking to semi-load Mo. And so I worked on a range with them and actually it didn't cost anything. They were actually looking for a place in North Goshen, the town I live in Indiana. to don't much at least. And so I've got a couple semi-loads of leaves sitting out here that are just hot as heck in the middle.
They're just composting. The idea is I'm taking this free resource and I'm going to cut 5% of the cost to replace the, the feather goals and some of the other fertility inputs with free local compost.
Diego: [00:08:02] When you are in business this long, do you find that cutting these expenses gets harder over time because maybe at the beginning you're buying stuff and you're trying to arrive at a solution that's going to be the best fit longer term. You're adding infrastructure there where you're, even though this did move your farm and you're building a new site, you're in stable mode for the most part, at least that's my thought, right?
Ben Hartman: [00:08:29] Yeah. And you've been out, you've seen our operation. We, I grow things. I'm a conservative person when it comes to experimentation, because all experimentation is, the term in Japanese for, because anytime you can spare minor crap, you open yourself up to all kinds of problems like defect, voice of defect, failure, obsolesce.
It's just expensive to experiment, and so I'm happy to, universities, let other growers, be at the cutting edge and then I'm going to lay low a little bit and use more tried and true trusted techniques. So one rule that I have is, what do we call it? 15% rule. And that's that. 85%. What we do in the next growing season should be tried and true.
Techniques and markets. So 85%. And for example, the seed varieties I'm going to purchase are ones that worked for me in a previous growing season. In that I know I had customers who paid me for those products. So I'm not going to tinker with what's working too much and yeah, 15% should be new. I want to push myself just a little.
I want to keep the business interesting. And I want to offer some new approximate customer and stay a bit on the cutting edge. And so that gives me a bit of a budget to try out new seed varieties. The same goes with tools and other aspects of the business. I try to push myself a little, but not nearly as much as most farmers.
and even when you go to farm conferences, you're encouraged. You want to try out new tools, techniques. That's nothing wrong with all this. It's just that if you let that part piece of the business take over, move its way to the center, then you'll be out of business in no time. Okay. It's much better to simplify every year.
Complexity is the enemy of logging and every year your business should get simpler and simpler to do your processes. Should simplify farmers, fewer tools, fewer things and make it more, make your systems more intuitive for your new workers.
Diego: [00:10:28] And playing off of that idea of experimentation. Is there something that you tried in 2018, that was part of your 15% and now you have to decide it stays or it goes?
Ben Hartman: [00:10:39] the two bad cats. Flextime weaker is one that was my 15% last year I bought the 30 inch. and it fits, it works nicely with our system in a lot of flex time weeders design to perform Caldwell after your crop has been planted or transplanted.
And it's just going to just go rough ride right over your crop. It'll leave it intact. Cause your root systems are established now, but it's going to pull up those. we use the white threads, a turtle disrupt reason, having a germinated. And it's a wonderful tool when it works. And there are there times and places where it would just, it was the bees knees and the early greenhouse.
For instance, I could seat up all my crops and, let them get to two or three inches in height. And then I would use that flex tine weeder took me 20 minutes at most to do the whole greenhouses run up and down. The greenhouse and prevented weeds from ever coming up. I had a, for a first time for first year or farm had very few weeds in that greenhouse.
We pressured because I would just kept knocking them, knock them. Now this year I've flushed so many weeds out. I don't, I know that I don't have near as high weed pressure. So the tool is gonna be probably less relevant. So I'm going to be skeptical about keeping it. For the long haul, but I'm going to go through, I'm going to keep it this year.
It goes through it and see if it's a tool. So I said, there's four lean principles that I use at dinner. Every growing season, it's this kind of sights way. The second, which is I do a five S sword every year. S is the lean organization process. We could spend a whole session on it are the first step in lean organizing, keeping her farm organized.
And what that means is you ask of every item on the farm. Did you add value for my customers in the previous growing season? And there should be a very quick instinctual gut feed, gut level answer. And if there isn't, then it's time to get rid of the tool. Okay. And so what I do is I literally walk around the farm and sometimes I'll have a farmhand come around with me and we'll say, Hey, this tool really helped.
And if we're excited and it's a quick answer, we'll keep it. And if we have any sort of discussion like, Whoa, it was really helpful here, but it wasn't so helpful to hear. then we're probably gonna put it in a red tag holding it so that the tine weeder might get moved to the red tag, whole holding area and a red tag holding area means it's a core, it's a room in the barn where I keep stuff that I'm still thinking or not sure.
And it's out of my immediate production area. So Lisa says the only tools in your productions should be ones you're using on a daily basis or weekly, very frequent basis. They add value. And so I'll do that five as sort in the greenhouse with tools and the greenhouse up in the processing area, the bags and packaging we're using.
And I will just get rid of anything that's not absolutely needed going into the next growing season. And my goal is every year, like I said, to simplify our systems. So every year. Have less packaging. I have fewer packaging options for workers. In fact, I just, this morning put a U line order in for the clear plastic bags and containers we use and asking myself, Hey, we had a 10 by 14 plastic and a nine by 12 that we were using last spring soon.
And could we just go with one or the other? How could we simplify the system? So these are concrete examples of. Of leaning up using better process to increase your profit margin?
Diego: [00:14:18] I think the tine weeder example is a really interesting one because I think a lot of people buy a tool thinking, Hey, I'm going to buy this tool and buy it to use forever.
And in some cases that makes sense. If that's the paper pot transplanter, or a BCS, it works. But some of these other tools, they may have a limited use in terms of why you need the and it sounds like that's what you have on your farm with this tine weeder, you solve the weed problem. So now instead of just routinely using it and blindly using it all the time to prevent weeds that may no longer even be there.
You sit back and say, I can get rid of this. And the savings I see here is you're just now removing this step from your seed out process or from your cultivation practices for you and all the workers on your farm, which translates into labor savings for you and money savings for not having to pay them to do something that you don't need.
Ben Hartman: [00:15:15] The question you should ask with any piece of technology, whether it's an iPhone app. Or a hoe is not what can this tool do? Cause there's a lot of sexy iPhone apps, a lot of really cool tools that people are putting out. If I do a lot of cool things, but you don't want to ask, what can this tool do?
You should ask, what can this tool do for me? Okay. Be self-centered about it. And, with my iPhone, as I brought that up, I have a very small number of apps on there. And there are apps that serve me. On a very regular basis on my QuickBooks app. For instance, I do all my invoices and online. They serve me, they do things for me and the others that are just cool, that do things, but that I'm not actually using a, I get rid of it.
And the same goes for my tools and stuff we bring in the house, the books we bring in the house that, we just moved the kitchen into the house. So we went over the spatula place. did we actually use the spatula? Are we excited about saying, Hey, this adds, this is valuable to them or is it a cool looking spatula that we're not using?
Same with our books. Am I referring to this ref this book? Am I actually picking up? Is it being useful to me? If I waiver on that, then it's time to get ready. So it's easier to acquire things and it just get rid of them. That's a truism and it's no more true than on a phone.
Diego: [00:16:47] I think the getting rid of part is hard initially. And then it becomes very easy. I just got a brand-new phone when I switched from an Android phone to an iPhone. And I was really worried about a lot of the apps not transferring over because some are Android specific or they function very differently in an iPhone environment.
So I started with the iPhone basically pretty clean, I'm just going to add stuff as I've needed it. And I've added a few fraction of what I thought I would need based on that same principle of if I'm not using it day to day, like it's wasting time. And I think one area where people can save a ton of time is getting stuff off their phones that don't directly add value to their business or their life, because there's probably a lot of mood on your phone that we overlook. And while we try and think about, Oh, what's going on in the tunnel, it's how much time are you spending on Instagram or Facebook or in your email?
Ben Hartman: [00:17:45] Yeah, sure. And, what we spend on four or five hours on a daily basis looking at her or phones or something.
And how much of that is actually. Actually voluble to view. I think it's a question we're going to have to keep asking ourselves culturally, because we have we're in a culture of abundance overabundance. And so our task is to perform constant entity. You need to constantly add it to things that come into our lives.
And so we do that at the end of every growing season. we perform that kind of rigorous editing. And now do we simplify our farm and with our educational resources to I, I like to learn more, however, I don't want to get stuck in analysis process. I know because I've been to a lot of farmers there are those who go to, eight, 10, 12 farm conferences every year.
And I would maybe encourage you to choose one or two, same with books and such, I'll find one. One book or one teacher that seems to really, offer what you need. and don't get stuck in analysis paralysis.
Diego: [00:18:45] Yeah. And about a year ago, you were at the small farm summit in Selmer, Tennessee. I was there. And after you left, I gave a talk and I gave one on time management and talked a lot about your system. And I told people, if you like what you heard Ben talk about in his two days here, consider your plate full for 2018. This was in 2017 for what you can implement in the next year. And I have a lot of different people on the podcast who talk about a lot of different things and that no doubt spurs a lot of ideas, but at some point, just like you said, you have to pick your educational tool and commit to it.
So if somebody wants to go to the lean farm school, learn your system. I would do that versus trying to do also what Curtis does or JM does, because trying to implement it all is going to be hard to measure the results. And it's also going to be, you're just not gonna have the time and bandwidth. And I think that's an important point of not just absorbing and reading every book you can over the winter where selecting it and saying, Hey, is this a fit for me? If so, I'm going to go all in on this versus trying to have a scattered approach.
Ben Hartman: [00:19:58] And that's true. And I work, I interact a lot with new farmers or people exploring it as a career and private best piece of advice I can give them is as you're educating yourself, you want to carefully choose models that are as close to your vision of what you want for your farm as possible.
I'm a small scale producer, less than an acre and walk in. working less than 40 hours a week with just a couple of part time workers. Yeah. It's fun. Especially crops, local markets. If that's close to what your vision is, I'm probably going to have something to say offered to you. If your vision is to run a 500-acre cattle farm.
I'm not going to offer have as much to offer. I want to use them more hands on permaculture-based approach. I'm relatively high-tech in terms of, I try to use cutting edge tools and, to alleviate a lot of, no, a lot of effort that goes into farming. What if you're into like, more. Lasagna gardening or permaculture-based hands on.
Yeah, that's fine. Not opposed to any of that or to not using compact tractors. That's fine. There's lots of farmers. I was out there. It's just like you say, don't overload your plate with. beef and fish and vegetables and Chinese food and Mexican food and Korean food. It will just be mish-mash.
Diego: [00:21:25] When I think about you, you're a good example of maybe where a lot of people might find themselves in 2019. You are a home builder and farmer. Now home builders gone like the home's done so you can just become farmer. And I think one of the dangers that people can have is this vacuum of now freed up time. You are farming three days a week before it was working for you guys. You guys are getting back. How do you look at the time that's now been freed up from not building a home?
One thing that a lot of people might fall prey to is I just fill that time with that activity because I think I have to, or I should, but you might not have to.
Ben Hartman: [00:22:08] Yeah. that's a great question. that's what I'm wrestling this right now, to be honest, because I've worked with a lot of Amish contractors year and I was the general manager for a product, but I would, I'd go out and pick up some Amish workers and they would work with me.
and so the question they were kept asking is what are you going to do when you're done with your house guess? Of course, I'm probably have too much ambition. I've got all kinds of. Products and crops I'd like to experiment with zero. I could easily find ways to fill up two days a week doing that.
But, and for me, it's a family question. So Rachel and I are gonna have to talk it over how we're going to schedule wise going forward here. And we have two kids, they just two years old and four, and I do want to spend time with them. And so we've got some vacations in mind and I want to grow figs too.
I'd like to expand our fig production in the greenhouse and. I'd like to build a shade, a house it's like you said, I'm done with construction, but a farm there's always construction projects. So my greenhouse is my quote unquote hot house. Provide a warmer environment and the natural environment offers.
And then I need to provide a cooler environment too. Then the summers offer here, we were experiencing more and more days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. And that's really hard on someone across we specialize in or lettuces and that sort of thing. yeah. And so this actually is a good segue into the third.
I said there's four lean principles I use to analyze my season. The third of the four is to rate my muri. And, and muri is a term Japanese that roughly translates to overburden. So I basically, as, when was I overburdened in the past growing season and I include emotional too, when were they stressed out the most?
and so as physical, when did I hurt the most. through my process because I had a poorly designed process and what was I emotionally stressed out? And so the first part, when did I hurt the most, I put tons of effort into shade cloth and keeping our summer crafts cool this year. And it was a hot year, but we're getting more, whether that is going to be hotter and crazier and so going.
And so this past growing season, My memory was the highest. My overburden was the highest moving around those shade tunnels. And we had just simple I'd use EMT or electrical conduit or wire wickets had smaller, a smaller what's a shade. And what I'd like to look into. Is billing something the size of a greenhouse, but with the shade cloth instead of plastic.
And so it's a shade house. something like you would see in Hawaii. And it's on the tropical places where there were growing vegetables and almost nothing we produce in the summer months would not benefit from having a bit of shade on it, to cool it. And this will eliminate, all that motion, getting off the wickets.
Putting in the wickets, removing the logins, and S and setting up those shake. Awesome. turn them on all the time.
Diego: [00:25:15] When you think about the three that you've mentioned so far, is there one of the three that you put priority on? So I'm thinking, okay. Cutting costs is nice, removing some waste is nice, but the overburdening, like that's physically and, or mentally taxing. Does that get priority?
Ben Hartman: [00:25:37] Absolutely. And for me the stress piece, isn't the number one. and I talked about near being both physical and emotional. So the stress piece, the emotional piece that has to be number one, I think you have to be honest with yourself. Hey, when was I close to burnout this past spring season, or maybe you are close to burnout.
I've met at the end of the growing season. You have to really wrestle with that and be honest with yourself about that because it'll creep up and it was so often the case that. It was around July 15th or so you get a week or two after the fourth and even working hard all April, may, June. And all of a sudden you got ton of crops coming in and got to just physically worn out.
And that's the place I was. And we realized we just had to redesign our work load. So that we could get through that month. and so what we did is we told her CSA customers, we're not going to deliver for two weeks in the middle of the growing season. We just simply took, took off her CSA that two weeks, we shut down our booth at the farmer's market.
And we went on, for the past several years, we've gone on, we love it coast to Michigan, the West coast of Michigan. And we'll go on these can't move, go on camping trips and. Trips along the coast in the middle of her growing season, which is crazy. we do have two part time workers who will have come and they'll do a minimum amount of harvest to keep some of her restaurant cover, especially with our tomato harvest.
Otherwise the farmers on shutdown all weeks, and that makes our whole year even we feel it even in, this time of year, the fact that we're able to. To take care of that stress point. It just makes a huge difference. And then year in and year out, we have more energy growing in the next spring. So I think an ideal would be that you're more relaxed and more.
more eager to enter into the next growing season, every season. And, it's something I still struggle with. my mom constantly overworked and doing too much. however, we are getting better. I think at being honest with ourselves and saying, Hey, we need to cut out this or that. And to make our lives a little easier.
Diego: [00:27:48] When you look at putting the shade cloth over crops and building this superstructure to eliminate that. Are there any other processes on the farm that you still have at this point that are really physically and or emotionally taxing that are just necessary evils? Like you, you couldn't get rid of them either easily, or�?
Ben Hartman: [00:28:10] the one that kind of still claws at me is using the Walker behind trap because it is a burden to use and is not nearly as a compact tractor. And now, especially with all these beautiful implements for designed for compact tractors coming over here from other parts of the world, often that can do just what walk behind trackers can do, but just way more efficiently with way less effort. And Oh, I'm thinking of things like tilt.
We had used the Johnny's has a tilt or. Tool that just fluffs the top half to one inch or two inches. And it creates a nice smooth seat, but it's wonderful way to incorporate fertilizers, that sort of thing. And I just found, it just took forever to use that tiller. And we had some rocks that would come up and go into up and sticks.
And so I started using the BCS and now you can get a roller made for behind the tiller of the DCS. That lets you do a more precise stuff adjustment and gives you a little press. It presses the soil behind your BCS tiller. That creates a very nice seed bed, much more efficient method than using a tiller.
Okay. And then, renaly came out with a, implement, the beautiful power hair. They are two power hero, which is a much lighter weight, power Harold in previous roles. And they now have this tractor modern version. So you don't have to use a walk behind a tractor with it, so that, so we're looking at getting a, I think your work with our three inch beds is 36 inch bed system.
I think it's 35 inches that would essentially do if we wanted it to, it could do what a tilter was doing previously. And yeah, I could do it from the comfortable seat of a tractor, which would give me options such as we could do a route for carrots. We could do bed preparation, a month or so I had, and then as weeds come up, we'll just till.
essentially with, the power hero and the seat of a tractor. Okay. So we'll just do a pass every week or every other week, flush out the weeds and then, grow our carrots in those spaces. And that's a technique we have been using, for some of our growing seasons, our not from the comfortable seat of a tractor.
We had to, to get off the BCS and wrangle the DCS, which most of us on the farm can use. Our smaller workers would have a hard time with it, especially the larger VC, larger models of BCS of walked behind track. Yeah.
Diego: [00:30:48] Who's listening to this and on their farm over the past year or past few years, they've spent a lot of time behind a BCS and they're thinking, is there a better way. How would you guide somebody on deciding or thinking about is a compact tractor for them?
Ben Hartman: [00:31:07] Yeah, with any large equipment purchase, I would recommend the 10%. And I'm not the only farmer that uses is selling Impala. Chuck and I just had a conversation on this and they had used it on her Virginia farm. She just wrote a beautiful book called start your farm. I believe. anyhow, they've used this rule in her Virginia farm for a number of growing seasons too, but essentially when you have.
So 10% of what you gross is a good amount and no more to devote towards longer term fixed cost investments on an annual basis. And so we waited our tracker. We waited to, our tractor costs me $240 a month for five years. Okay. So that was the financing plan package that was available. And so we waited, we actually rented out trackers and hired him tracker service for a couple of growing seasons until we reached the point where we're consistently making $2,400 a month on average throughout the course of the year.
And then we thought okay, we have that 10% cushion we can afford to put into. We can make these $240 a month payments. And these payments aren't going to go a lot more than 10% of our gross. So that has that worked for me. It's worked for other farms, but I wouldn't necessarily say it's a universal, but I wouldn't go much beyond that 10%. I don't think I recommend that.
Diego: [00:32:33] If a farm's at that point where they could justify that expenditure, how do you then look at the size and scale of your farm to say, does it make sense? You have a relatively small amount of land in production and you're using a compact tractor and I think.
When people would look at the size of your farm and say you have a tractor really for that amount of land. Can you talk about the process of where the idea behind size of farm and making that investment?
Ben Hartman: [00:33:00] Just to talk specifically, a lot of compact tractor. I think in my shirt, if you're adding more than a fourth of minute, it makes sense to have a compact tractor at this point in time, because they're a bit like iPhone.
They're a bit like other kinds of technology. They get cheaper and cheaper. Every year and the performance continues to improve every year. And so at this point, chess, compact tractors have become quite a fork and they do more to they're more powerful and smaller size too. They get more compact every year.
Yeah. They're just more options available too. So sense for most small farmers and a lot of people longer than maybe they should have, yeah. Can attract your service. However you can rent tractors from just one, any rental center. And a lot of these implements, so I'm not sure the power heroin, actually our local rental center, you can rent power arrows.
So you could certainly rent, attractor power arrow set up and try it and see how Howard those who have. Made that switch. There's almost no turning back. It's just so much, you get so much more accomplished. It's so much less work, that, there's no going back once you, once you make that, which,
Diego: [00:34:12] And I guess part of thinking about what can I afford goes back to your first point of the express finance cutting. When you cut 5%, maybe some of that money can be recycled back into the farm in the form of a long-term piece of infrastructure, a tunnel, a tractor or something other than that to improve performance.
Ben Hartman: [00:34:32] Oh, absolutely. you want to keep your variable costs as low as you can. So a variable cost as it is a cost gets higher or lower depending on your rate of production.
Okay. So your cost of seeds, if you grow 500 tomato seeds, you pay 500, you grow 2000 paper, 2000. So that costs. No, you don't have very much control on it over it. And it goes up and down all the time, but you want to keep that as low as you can. And then I'm much more excited about longterm infrastructure costs.
Okay. And so let's talk about oops. Okay. And protect your culture because there are so many options out there now. So it starts with the wire wicket. Yeah. They just put floating row cover on it, or sheet of plastic for a tiny greenhouse. You got to ventilate the spies or get plaque that has holes in it.
So that's the simplest form of a quote greener. And then you go up to using. 10 foot lengths of EMT or electrical conduit and Elliot Coleman design, these beautiful quick hoops. He called them. They're essentially little greenhouses that you construct and deconstruct every growing season. And then you work your way up to you.
Caterpillar tunnels, that, permanent sprint offers a beautiful affordable category tunnel. Now that is very similar to the quick hoops to step it's a bit more permanent. Okay. My people would replace the plastic every year on those. They're not plastic, isn't attached to a fixed, especially on the ends and in the way they more permanent greenhouses.
Then you have a hoop house, which is a more of a permanent, more permanent structure. You're not going to replace the plastic on a hoop house and they're bigger. So you can get more, and then all the way up to a greenhouse, which someone say a. Hoop house with a heater becomes a greenhouse. How are you wanting to find that?
However, so the point is start with wire with it's all the way up through the house. You got lots of options now along that chain. And the reality is the lower you are on that chain, the more mood and the more effort, the more work. And so I know because we did a lot of years with wire wigs and hoops conduit hoops, and with Caterpillar tunnels.
Those are all good options. I'm not saying you shouldn't look away from those as a beginning farmer, but you should look beyond them as quickly as you can, because there's lots and lots of maintenance involved. Okay. We spend hours weeks even setting up and tearing down these protected culture structures.
We did have the money for, a higher cost structure. However, as soon as we did have the money we invested in it and sent those hooves off the farm and we don't not use Caterpillar tunnels. We do not use a wire. We're going to set a little bit in greenhouse on occasion, and we had to bring them out again for the shade clot.
All right. but the point is at work your way towards more permanents and away from impermanence and away from having to build and deconstruct and rebuild your infrastructure. Very speeds. And so the same goes with, with, tractors and implements and that sort of thing to purchase good implements that are going to perform a lot of work with less effort.
Diego: [00:37:38] When you look at structures or equipment that are more permanent. My tractor, a coop house, like a real or a really nice greenhouse. How do you look at and evaluate, upgrading those where eventually new technology comes along, you need a better tractor, or you could justify a better tractor or greenhouse on your farm, it's brand new.
At some point, are you thinking, Hey, I'm gonna upgrade this because I want to add these features and it would be justified because dot, or do you look at it? what I have is good enough and the marginal gain I'm going to get from spending a large amount of money, just isn't going to justify?
Ben Hartman: [00:38:22] Yeah, sure. So you think of a farm, like a Never Sink, New York. They have lots of workers on their farm. Okay. I, and there's nothing wrong with having a lot of workers. We have two part time workers. We're smaller scale operation. Okay. And so the types of decision he's gonna make, it's gonna workers have to be high cost.
And so he's going to be thinking about that in his. decision-making and I'm a very different type of context. So my point is that every farm is, has a unique set of context on the farm and off the farm of customers. It's a very, every farm is unique ecosystem and there is no one perfect way to farm.
Okay. There's no pinnacle farm. There's no one perfect farm, no one perfect per production method. And I would argue from a lean point of view that most. The closest we get to perfection are those that create an environment of high efficiency within the context that they're in. Okay. So for me, that's going to be different than somewhere else.
And so what I do is I go through this four step process and that conclusions that I come to out of that process, the one that has four steps, meaning the year end season review. And I'm going to look at, when did I hurt the most, which tools are adding value, which are, where I can cut 5%. And so using my own internal processes the best way to figure out whether it's time to upgrade making improvement, and that sort of thing.
Now, in my case, I'm the field manager I'm doing most of the steel prep, this seating. A workout here and in season management. And then the part time workers I have are mostly in the wash station and are doing harvesting and packing and delivering. Okay. Because those are jobs that just, I can easily train just about anyone to do on our farm, but it's harder for me to train, these more complex field management tasks.
And so I can actually have a small farm and use fairly sophisticated equipment. On the farm because I'm the one doing it. Now, if I were to have, if I were to be relying on workers on higher end staff to do the seeding portions and to do more of the fuel prep portions, then I could get away with less complexity because you have to, the more workers you have, the more you need to keep some in your systems, make it easier for them.
Diego: [00:40:50] if you look back at the season that was having the two part time workers. Having yourself split between the farm and building the house. Do you feel like you who needed to be on the farm more when you couldn't or do you feel like the farm did okay. It's again, going back to that idea of now you have this free time, do you feel like part of that free time has to go back to the farm because there was areas that you saw struggle given that you weren't there enough.
Ben Hartman: [00:41:20] Sure. Yeah, that's a good question. The pressure for me is that I wanted to be back on the farm. I enjoy construction. I enjoyed building, we did a rough June timber staircase. I enjoy that. but I liked and the pressure that for me was personally, how can I. Finished my drywall muddy and then get back to growing something because that's what I enjoy doing.
And so I think it be a fairly easy for me to find ways to fill those extra two days a week and to get back into farming. and
it's a whole nother subject matter, but the permaculture talks about this owns. and you'd have zone energy. Oh, that's closest to your house and you want to be growing in that. And so on. Crops that you're eating on a regular daily basis that are easy to get to and attend going all the way out to the fifth zone might be a zone that's all wooded and a forest is that humans aren't allowed to make any disruption in that ecosystem.
And then you have everything in between. And so zone one, I think you can also talk about stress zones too. Zone one should be a zero stress zone in what you're doing exactly what you love to do. Okay. And you want to move as many of your activities close to these inner zones as possible. So it might be like playing guitar, going hiking.
for me, it's, working in a winter greenhouse. I actually love the sun coming out on a February morning. It's nice and toasty, warm in there. I'm just totally my illness. And then zone two might be stuff that a little more zoned to, and you might be set the more you have to, you still enjoy the sort of stuff that you have to do until you get out to the fifth five might be taken out the trash.
changing the oil on the tractor. For me, I'm not a big fan of engines maintenance, anyhow. So the point is, how do I know where to place my time and my energy? I do a little bit of zone analysis and say, Hey, how can I move more of my activities in his own wanting to. And, how can I stay out of fourth and fifth stones and hire out that worker or cut that out on a farm.
Diego: [00:43:41] And when you think about where we've come from so far, we have the three steps. What's the fourth process that you've run through on the farm.
Ben Hartman: [00:43:50] Okay. So the fourth would be, when was there overproduction. Okay. And it's not a question that we typically ask of ourselves, teach Yano who helped design and implement the lean system at Toyota used to say that humans have this problem.
And that we've mostly came from our agrarian communities in which rewarded for overproduction. You wanted to produce a lot of grains and food because you have this winter looming and you want to store things up for winter. And so we still have this tendency within us to overproduce and store things up in the hoard things, whether it's tools or food.
And so it's easy to plant too much because we think, Oh, we're going to plant an extra 20% just so that we have it in case an order comes in. And the rate reality is that extra a hundred tomatoes or whatever that amounts to is worth it. You're not getting paid for. Okay. That's cost. You're not recouping.
You're paying for this seed. You're paying for the fertilizer. You're paying for the trellising. you're paying workers maybe to harvest. You've got to get re you got to get your investment out of that. And so I, what we, what I do is I ask myself throughout the growing and I, this is a process really it's best done throughout the growing season, but to ask, Hey, one last year, and this previous year, did we till something in.
And let's make darn sure we don't do that again. Of course, there's an inverse of that question, which is when can we leave money on the table? I think it's important to ask that question too. when could, could I have grown more tomatoes? Did I sell out at the time market consistently uptake or carrots or whatever, and to make sure you fill those niches, but equally important is when did you overproduce.
Diego: [00:45:44] And when you think about your crop mix going beyond the overproduction, or this is what customers buy, how do you start to evaluate, do I buy the same thing variety next year, the same cultivar our next year? Or do I want to try something different? And I think would be a better fit for the weather. the customer would like it more.
Cause I think that's one thing a lot of people struggle with is, I grew up. ABC called LaVar of tomato this year. It was good. Should I try something next year or keep it the same?
Ben Hartman: [00:46:18] Sure. lean says you start with a customer and you work backwards from the customer. So taking the example of the tomato and a couple of weeks, I'm gonna spend an afternoon goal around how I choose my chefs, drink a beer with them.
I'll be good and drunk by the end of the afternoon. And, but we're going to, I'm going to ask him three questions. what do you, when you want it, how much I'll take some seed catalogs in and let them choose the tomato varieties. And we'll talk over what we gave him the previous season, too. And say, Hey, was, did you get enough yellow tomatoes in the mix?
You want more red tomatoes or green zebra types, that sort of thing. And each customer gets a specific mix, and that's why we've been able to hold onto a tomato. So when it comes to tomato varieties, our variety selection is your best way to combat disease, because there are so many more new, robust tomato varieties out there now, and that's even more.
Of a powerful strategy then grafting tomatoes, which can be a good practice. If you have a specific disease that, we're African, can help you with our, in many cases, just changing up your tomato variety, like a leaf mold. For instance, a lot of growers were around here. We're using the mountain fresh variety, mom's spring and mountain fresh tomatoes.
and Billy's mold came in five years or so ago here. And really just destroy though, that type of tomato now. So you can try and graft or try and figure out some way to control leaf mold and keep growing that. Or you can just choose another tomato variety. So now people like red dues, a lot of Amish and Mennonites and larger hoophouse producers reduces a very highly productive, determined tomato that is much lower susceptibility to leaf mold.
Okay. And so that's an example. You want to know what disease you had and then read the fine print. It's totally worth the read, the fine print on tomatoes. the resistance to disease and to choose carefully based on your own context. It's another way where each arm is its own ecosystem. So that bye girl for me might not work for you.
however, that's a very low cost. With, getting rid of some, tomato for almost now in general. However, I'm, like I said, I'm going to serve it. I'm going to grow the same varieties year in and year out, the ones that are tried and true and yeah, give myself a budget of 50% budget to try out new things.
Diego: [00:48:36] And do you find that this point in your career, like the crop mix that you have just works, like you don't have to worry about culling a crop because there's just not demand for it. Or do you find that you are, or, we grew basil last year. Sure. But I didn't sell as much as I wanted to so I'm not going to grow basil this year.
Ben Hartman: [00:48:56] So I guess we had produced between 16 and 80 different types of crops, very diverse, and those ones, maybe 15 or more accounts. So a lot of crops and a lot of different types of customers, different places and all over. And the general thrust of our farm. Has been to focus. And so we have five what I call focus crops.
These are crops that I want to not run out of one, our priests, as much as I can, because we have a low cost of production on them. And, we can sell them for a relatively high price point. So really try to hit those focus crops, hard reason for a long growing season, get them out. There are many councils we can, and then once accounts, we went over them and we actually have said, Oh, you learned to say no to some accounts that weren't paying us.
on a consistent basis or that may put in smaller offers and we just stick with four or five accounts. And really just, just to, accounts, wholesale accounts. And most of our sales now are our goals are wholesale. We don't do a lot through the farmer's market or through our CSA program. So most 80% of our sales are now going to two wholesale towns that, purchase our five focus crops.
And so this greatly simplifies our business. And when you have a focus on a small number of crops, you can every season get more efficient on those crops. It's easier to simplify production on a smaller number of crops than it is in a larger number.
Diego: [00:50:23] Yeah. And thinking of all of this, really you're planning ahead for 2019 is dictated by your reflection on 2018.
Ben Hartman: [00:50:32] Absolutely the language they would use in liens, you want tight alignment with demand. Tight production alignment with demand. And so we're constantly making little shifts. And one bit of advice, I would have people in the we're doing winter planning for the next spring season is actually not to do too much.
And I don't plan ahead more than three or four months. And, and part of the reason why tomatoes to be an exception, there are longer the longest season properly produce here. how I don't like to do a lot of long range planning, not even one year long planning, because I want title alignment with the marketplace.
Most of our crops are quick turnaround crops and those five focus crops for the most part quick turnaround crops. carrots, I don't real long season care as a few short character in our top. but I've got two short season carrots that we can get in and out. and 60 days or less, and a solid mix of rubella that the tea group beans usually quick turnaround crops.
And there's no reason for me to be planning when I'm at this point planning when I'm going to seed up and. September next year, I'll do this process again in August and then figure out, all my fall planting is gonna look like. And part of that is because restaurants are we're in the wholesale business.
At this point, restaurants is very volatile chefs are constantly putting new things on the menu, taking things off the menu and I don't want to get stuck growing 500 fennel plants just to have fennel taken off.
Diego: [00:52:03] And for somebody who's, let's say early in their farming career, or they just had a tough season, they felt totally overwhelmed. How do you take these principles and give them a starting point? It can be�I imagine if you feel like I worked a ton, I worked too much. There's waste of the farm. I don't even know where to start to troubleshoot this and root this out. How would you advise them?
Ben Hartman: [00:52:31] I would start by asking one simple question, which is what worked. Okay. Surely you had one crop, one technique that work and, definitely do that and scale that up. And hopefully you had two or three things that worked, and I then asked at the end versus what was a total flop. And if something was a total flop, then eliminate it. Don't try to improve it. there's enough to do in the first couple of years of their farm.
You want to stick with what's working. And really hone in on that. Okay. Is simplicity on the other side of complexity is what you're aiming for here. And so I would say don't lose heart. Don't give up, find out what works and find a farmer who's doing what you envisioned doing from them in, from that model.
If you want to have a big farm with a lot of workers, there are courses and there are models out there. if you want micro farms even smaller than ours, are there models available? We're in a wonderful area of easy access to ed farm education. So have at it.
Diego: [00:53:42] I love the idea of just eliminating what didn't work, because I think maybe human behavior, or maybe this is a male thing, is I want to figure this out. I want to solve it. I want to conquer it and get it defined and make success out of it where sometimes success on something you can't figure out. It can take a long time and what's the emotional cost. What's the financial cost. And what's the opportunity costs of trying to solve that thing.
Or your approach is go with what works if it doesn't get right of it. And then it's out of sight out of mind and you can focus on making what's positive better instead of just. Trying to do something that you might figure out, but you might not. And then I'm thinking all, if you figure it out, what's the upside to figuring it out.
Ben Hartman: [00:54:35] It's a lot harder to grow vegetables and people think, and success is more like threading a needle, in this business, than it is just scattering seeds, Willy nilly. And so five crops is actually, and I've been farming for 15 years. Five perhaps is plenty. To focus on there's a lot thing that can go wrong with it with five, perhaps.
And so if you're a first time farmer, I suggest if you're in the market growing to grow a red steak tomato, she's a BHN 589. it's a very heavy producing, great tasting tomato or the red deuce that is mentioning earlier growing easy to grow, tried and true, red steak, tomato variety, by all means plastic put plastic mulch around it and drip tape under it.
so you're not continuing with the weeds and, we'll find some market and you'll find markets, everyone. There's a market everywhere. The U S for fresh tomatoes and then a solid Mexican probably be number two. You'll find a market anywhere in the U S for a good solid mix. And this is easy crop to produce.
use a yang, buy a yang, Cedar, get it seated. choose the right spacing setting on it. FJ 24 is the roller I use with that 11 and a 10, and the Sprockets are 11 in the front and 10 in the root beer. So you gotta be precise on that. However, solid mix at that spacing, sells and grows easily, and it's easy to produce with very low cost production.
we'll have seven rows in a 30 inch bed system or eight or nine Rosa, 36 inch beds. So let's stick with those two and focus on those two. that's why, most of the growers that I know of, or, at the heart of every growing system is efficient production. And those two. Let's see vegetables, and then you can branch it, branch out from there, but there's nothing to be ashamed of with growing, 10 or fewer vegetables. You don't have to be a hero farmer and grow, 80 or a hundred types of vegetables.
Diego: [00:56:29] The quote farming is hard. What's your response to that at this point in your career?
Ben Hartman: [00:56:34] I think it's true and it doesn't have to be true. A farming is also a lot of fun and it can give you more. energy more every growing season.
If you're, if you pay attention to what aspects of farming are hard and work at, eliminating them pay attention to the aspects that are giving you joy and bloom. Those do more of those every season. And it's a beautiful career. I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. And I. Hope that lots and lots of other young people get into this profession.
It is a very fun, very rewarding profession.
Diego: [00:57:11] If somebody�s listened to this and they've enjoyed, or they see some benefit in your approach to simplifying a farm rooting out waste. Are there any particular modules within your course? That really makes sense if they want to put their education time towards you this winter?
Ben Hartman: [00:57:33] With my course, I divided it by 12 different mini courses so that people don't have to spend the, their whole winter going through the whole course. However, you can. Alright. So the first course is a foundational course where I talk about lean concepts, lean principles, and that would be one I'd recommend.
And then from the others choose worthy, you need to grow the most. And there are two courses or three courses that are crop specific. So I might, recommend those three courses above others if you need advice on crop specific growing techniques. So I have a tomato masterclass course that explains how we grow our indeterminates and determinates tomatoes and, very specific advice on, and that's our highest profit margin problem.
Like I said, there's demand all over the U S and then I have another one called are our top five crops beyond the tomatoes, the top five crops that we're producing. And then I have, of course, on other high profit crops, which are other crops that are part of our system that for the set of customers, we have aren't in the top five, but they certainly might be in your plate context. And so I list those crops, that description.
And so I'd say choose a course that, with a, a crop that you need some help with, you feel like you can see some improvement on, and I guarantee you there'll be advice in there that you can gain something from. You can take 25% off. I'll give this offers to you, listeners to this podcast, 20% off. If you type in chipmunk special chipmunk special, that�s two words when you check it out.
Diego: [00:59:10] So use that email@example.com. Get 25% off.
Ben Hartman: [00:59:15] Yeah, I'll be good through Christmas.
Diego: [00:59:20] There you have it. Increasing net with less work waste in cost with Ben Hartman.
If you want to learn more about everything that Ben talks about, be sure to check out his book, the lean farm, or check out some of his online firstname.lastname@example.org, whether you want his full package of all of his courses, or you want to find a course, that's right for you based on something that you need to improve on your farm.
Ben's got a lot to offer. Check those options email@example.com. And as I said at the beginning of the show, be sure to meet with your CPA. your tax position, maybe you can take one of those courses or all of the firstname.lastname@example.org, write them off and that'll help you.
Tax-wise you won't know until you meet with that CPA. So talk to him. That's all for this one. Thanks for listening. Next week, I'll be back with another episode of farm, small farm smart until then be nice. Be thankful and do the work.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.