Whether you have a small space that you want to make more productive or you have a sprawling garden that you struggle to maintain, you’ll want to hear what this week’s guest has to say. Ben Hartman is a farmer and author who applies the super-efficient “lean” system to gardening and micro farming and teaches others how they can do the same.
Ben and his wife, Rachel Hershberger, own and operate Clay Bottom Farm, a small urban farm in Goshen, Indiana, where they grow specialty crops that are exclusively sold locally. They make their living farming just a third of an acre by finding efficiencies to make every square foot as productive as possible while hyper-focusing on just a handful of loyal clients. The farm has twice won Edible Michiana’s Reader’s Choice award, and “The Lean Farm,” Ben’s first book, won the Shingo Institute’s Publication Award. His latest book is “The Lean Micro Farm: How to Get Small, Embrace Local, Live Better, and Work Less.”
In his latest book, Ben shares how he and Rachel downsized to a third of an acre without taking a pay cut, and the book also offers a step-by-step guide for setting up a lean micro farm.
“We need farms of all sizes to feed the population,” Ben says. “However, there’s just something special and unique about setting some boundaries, living within the boundaries that you set and being present with your work in a way that’s really only possible if you choose a small lifestyle.”
The Origin of Clay Bottom Farm
Ben grew up on a giant-scale commodity crop farm in northern Indiana that grew corn and soybeans.
“I have always loved farming and knew that I wanted to farm in some fashion.” he says. “The reality is, it’s just economically tough to get into commodity crop agriculture. And even the farm that I grew up on is considered a small farm now, even though it had several hundred acres. You really need to be at thousands, if not tens of thousands of acres, with that type of agriculture.”
He knew that if he wanted to grow food for a living, he’d have to do it in a different fashion. Following college, where he earned degrees in English and philosophy, Ben and his wife, Rachel, began farming in their backyard where there had been a clay-bottom tennis court. They filled in the tennis court and began growing vegetables there, giving their farm its name.
“That first couple seasons, we farmed that tennis court and we rented some plots from neighbors. And we really were having a lot of fun,” Ben recalls.
They sold food at a local farmer’s market and were also schoolteachers.
One day Rachel woke up and said that if they’re going to farm, they probably need to have a farm. The way a doctor has a doctor’s office or a dentist has a dentist’s office, a farmer should have a farm, they agreed.
They purchased a 5-acre Amish dairy farm 10 miles out of town and spent nine seasons on that farm.
“We were making it, but it was hard work,” Ben says. “I’ll be honest with you — we were barely making it, working 60-plus-hour weeks. We felt like we had to just keep expanding every season, build more greenhouses, bigger tractor. Till up more land. It was just a bit of a wheel we felt we had to keep pushing around.”
Eventually, the chaos caught up with them. One afternoon, a 40-mile-per-hour gale force wind picked up one of their greenhouses that they had just spent all summer building and put it up on their barn roof. Their Amish neighbors were there within 10 minutes with utility knives in hand to help them cut the plastic from the greenhouse and get it off the roof of the barn by that evening.
“The community really has rallied around us, and it’s the reason we’re able to do what we love to do for a living,” Ben says.
Within a week, an anonymous customer sent them a check to replace the greenhouse. One of their customers who was a chef offered to help them assemble the new greenhouse. “Where else am I going to get fresh tomatoes like you produce?” the chef said.
“Even as we were questioning whether to continue farming, our community was pushing us to keep going, and so we did,” Ben said. “But we said, it’s going to be different this time. If we’re going to rebuild, we’re going to take a smaller is better mindset, a less is better approach.”
They adopted a Japanese lean production system, which is designed to maximize efficiency. The system was conceived to benefit manufacturing companies, but Ben saw its potential for farming. “Because at the heart of it is rooting out waste to grow your business,” he says. “It’s about doing better, not more.”
It doesn’t matter the product, the principles of lean production are the same.
“We have one term for waste in English, but the Japanese have seven different waste concepts,” Ben points out. Ben and Rachel printed out the list of those seven types of waste and it opened their eyes to how they were overproducing.
Ben and Rachel, having also had two kids along the way, decided to move to a city farm again. They relocated to Goshen, Indiana, a small city of about 40,000 people.
“We moved back into town and started farming our yard again, but this time bigger,” Ben says. Now they farm one-third of an acre, on a property that is seven acres total. (They are rewilding the remainder of the property.) They live in what they call a “barn house.” Part of the house is their living space and the rest is for storage and propagation. It’s modeled after Eto period Japanese farmhouses and the houses that his German ancestors would have lived in. They also set up a single greenhouse.
The move placed them closer to their customers. They are now living within a mile and a half of everyone they sell their food to.
They went from working 60 hours a week to 35, and they went from using dozens and dozens of tools to using seven field tools to farm with. They call this their “Great Downsizing.”
They knew that to continue to make a living they would need to be highly productive per square foot. They applied the Pareto Principle, named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, or the 80-20 principle, which states there is a roughly 80-20 distribution between rewards and efforts.
“So 20% of what we did on the farm last season probably contributed 80% of our income,” Ben says. “Same with customers — probably just 20% of our customers contributed 80% of our revenues.”
For a diversified business, reviewing your business on an annual basis with the Pareto Principle can be a powerful thing to do, according to Ben. Ask where the cream of the crop is in terms of products and customers.
Clay Bottom Farm has gone from growing 60 types of crops to four focus crops. Rather than selling to dozens of accounts — restaurants, institutions, CSAs and farmers’ markets — to now have just four accounts that they focus on. And they learned to increase yield per square foot.
They pulled off the shelf one of Ben’s favorite books from high school, “Small Is Beautiful” by economist E.F. Schumacher. In a chapter called “Buddhist Economics,” Schumacher writes about a concept he called “right livelihood.”
“How we make a living has a spiritual impact on us, and how we make a living should have minimal harmful effects for the environment and should be ultimately positive for the community,” Ben says. “But for right livelihood to really be possible within a capitalist economy, the owner of a business really needs to set firm boundaries for the business. And that was our first step, was to sit down, and draw some boundaries for our new farm so that the farm would work for us and not the other way around.”
Ben writes in his book about how they adopted this practice. He calls it “leverage constraint,” and encourages readers to name and embrace their boundaries.
Rachel taped a large sheet of paper to the wall where they drew circles, each representing a core piece of their lives and business, such as selling to farmers’ markets, selling to restaurants and greenhouse production, and then asking a simple question: How much is enough?
“And that’s rarely asked,” Ben says. “It’s always assumed that enough is more, but we actually put some dollar figures down, said this is enough income. And how much time is enough time to devote to the task?”
They agreed that 35 hours a week was their cap. “We wanted to have time to be with our kids,” Ben says.
The second goal was to limit themselves to one-third of an acre, and the third was to sell exclusively in Goshen.
By limiting how much they must grow to support the business and taking long-distance travel out of the equation, they no longer had to pay for operating a walk-in cooler.
“We came up with this system where we’d start our harvest at 8 in the morning, and we deliver the food usually by noon,” he says. “And so we have about a four-hour turnaround time from the time an order comes in to the time the customer receives it.”
This is an example of how they leveraged a constraint. They eliminated the two biggest costs that small farms have: refrigeration and transportation. “We have happier customers. We have much lower costs,” he says.
This concept brings to mind a book I read every year on my month-long sabbatical, “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” The same book taught Ben the phrase “less but better.”
“When you look at other countries and traditional societies, buildings tended to be more modest and compressed,” Ben points out.
Minimalism was not just a necessity historically but an effective tactic to earn more while working less.
“The farm that we moved from, there were 11 buildings or 11 roofs that we had to manage and weed eat around, walls to paint and that sort of thing. At our new farm, we said, well, let’s do better than that. Let’s have two, just our barn house and our greenhouse.”
The Principle of Just Enough
Ben also writes about the principle of just enough — not too much, not too little, just the right amount. Think of it as the Goldilocks approach.
In another of Ben’s favorite books, “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau writes “keep your accounts on a thumbnail” and “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” Thoreau spent two years in a cottage he built working as a market gardener, and he realized he was better off growing just a few crops and selling to a few customers rather than trying to be everything to everyone.
We live in a society where we think more is better, generally speaking. Schumacher calls this the “idolatry of gigantism.” To consciously dial it back to just enough is admirable. By design, Ben and Rachel have a very good life.
Farmers have thousands of seed varieties and tools to choose from in seed catalogs every year, Ben points out. But they sought to pare farming down to its bare essentials.
“For thousands of years, humans have been growing food with just a few tools and a very simple process,” he says. “We’re talking about a grubbing hoe, maybe, to work the ground, and perhaps a knife to harvest. And really, that’s it. And it’s only been in the past 100 years or so that we’ve added so much complexity unnecessarily, in many cases, to the work of growing food.”
He adds that he is not opposed to a good tool. Clay Bottom is a solar-powered farm and uses rechargeable lithium ion-powered tools. “We want to stay on the cutting edge — not the bleeding edge — the cutting edge of technology,” he says.
They sent wagonloads of tools off to auction and retained just the seven tools they know they will touch the most. They built a simple tool rack right in the middle of the garden to store them.
Make a Spaghetti Diagram
Ben encourages anyone planning a micro farm to create a spaghetti diagram. It is a process used in lean manufacturing.
“The way it’s used in lean factories is someone stands in a corner with a clipboard and just traces motion,” he explains. “So what you do is you draw a line on a piece of paper whenever someone moves, or whenever a product moves. And after about 45 minutes, you’ll have what looks like a plate of spaghetti noodles. And then what you do is you ask three questions: How could we shorten the noodles? How could we straighten some noodles? Or, the best, is how could we eliminate some noodles?”
Ben and Rachel pretended they were growing 100 heads of lettuce, from seed to harvest, and walked the whole process. They determined how many steps it would take if the propagation houses were in one location versus another, and the same with the greenhouse and germination area. They moved the pieces around and found how they could arrange things so a delivery vehicle could pull onto the farm and the harvest could go directly from the ground to the back of the vehicle within a few minutes.
“Compressing buildings is a great way to eliminate your noodles,” Ben says.
Keeping It Local and Organic
When Ben was 16 years old, he started his first CSA, which stands for community-supported agriculture. “I just grew an extra row of peas or potatoes or whatever in the family home garden,” he says. He had 10 subscription customers for his organic produce, and that helped him pay his way through college.
“I never had an interest in growing food with chemicals, especially vegetables,” he says.
Ben and Rachel have farmed organically for each of their 16 growing seasons. However, they had been bringing in kelp from the Atlantic coast, gypsum from Canada and minerals from all over.
Ben says they considered that if it’s important to them that their food stays as close to home as possible, the same should be true of how far the inputs travel to get onto the farm. They replaced their inputs for fertility with leaves collected within the City of Goshen.
Over time, they give the leaves three turns to help them break down, then apply the semi-composted leaves to their soil. They also receive spent grains from a brewing company and add that to the compost, helping to add porosity to the soil. That’s all the fertility they add to their soil, and it comes at no cost.
They leave the organic matter on the surface of the soil and work the soil as gently as they can.
Small Farms Feed the World
Ben writes that small farms can feed the world. He points out that 70% of the food consumed daily, globally, comes from a farm that is 10 acres or less. However, he also notes that it is projected that by the end of this century there will be half as many farms in existence, according to a University of Colorado study. The farms that remain will be twice as large as they are now, due to small farms being gobbled up.
“That trend, of course, has been going on in the U.S. for a long time,” Ben notes. “In 1960, more than half of the U.S. population was engaged in agriculture for a living. That’s not that long ago, and now we’re down to less than 1% farming for a living.”
Rural places are seeing a rapid consolidation within agriculture, he says. In fact, that farm he grew up on is now leased out to a large corporate farm. “By some measures, we’re losing more than a thousand farms a month in the U.S. right now,” he adds.
Micro Farming Amid a Pandemic
“There are so many benefits to communities, to the environment and to our food security when we have more farmers,” Ben says.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, it exposed how fragile the food system is. Ben was transplanting tomatoes on a warm March day when Rachel came outside and told him to stop what he was doing because the governor of Indiana had just announced that restaurants would be shut down for two weeks. Restaurants made up 50% of their customer base. They had to decide what to do with thousands of tomato plants. Fortunately, they were able to pivot in the moment. They called their neighbors, who were happy to buy their produce.
Farm Like a Tree
As Ben and Rachel rewild their property, they are planting chestnut and northern hearty pecan trees.
“It’s incredible how productive a single tree can be, and a tree doesn’t even move,” Ben says. “And here I feel like I’m moving around all day long wearing myself out, and I’m barely productive sometimes.”
Ben considered how a tree does this. What are the principles a tree is using? “We tried to nail down a few of those and apply them to our farm,” he says.
First of all, trees work years ahead. A northern hardy pecan, for instance, spends 10 to 15 years on its roots before it becomes productive. “The tree recognized that it needs that time to build a root system that can pull minerals from the soil that can support the productivity,” he says.
But, he says, farmers often don’t think about fertility until the day the seed goes in the ground.
To model Clay Bottom Farm after how trees work, Ben is now working three years ahead on composting. Leaves brought on the farm in 2023 will be used as compost in 2027.
“The pile is about 9 feet in width, 6 feet in height, and 50 feet in length, and that’s the right size for a third-acre farm, and it will shrink, of course, from that,” Ben says.
They use a low-input composting method.
“Essentially, it relies on a minimum number of well-timed turns instead of shredding the leaves and pulverizing the leaves and turning them dozens of times and trying to get a hot compost pile. So this is cold compost.”
Ben’s never measured a temperature warmer than 150° in the pile. It’s usually 120° to 130° at the core, where the microbes are doing most of their work.
“You do need to turn it a few times so that the leaves on the outer edge of the pile make their way into the middle at some point, but we don’t need to be overworking ourselves and overpulverizing those leaves.”
The leaves naturally shred down into a cake-like consistency after a few seasons where nature does the work, he says.
Trees are said to be dormant in winter, but Ben says the trees are actually expanding their root systems in search of water and nutrients in anticipation of spring bud break. Clay Bottom Farm takes a cue from this idea as well, preparing for summer during this period of quiescence.
Ben and Rachel have found that the winter is a great time to lay down compost because when the ground is frozen there is no risk of compressing the ground. It’s also a great time to sharpen tools.
Five S’s for Small Spaces
The Japanese lean production system has an organization method called 5S. The S’s are seiri (sort), seiton (set in order), seisō (shine), seiketsu (standardize), and shitsuke (sustain).
“Each of the S’s corresponds to a step in the organizing process,” Ben explains.
On Claybottom Farm, 5S was put into practice by first sorting their tools into the essentials and then making every tool visible by storing them on a central outdoor rack — as close as possible to their place of use.
Ben translates “shine” as “no dirty corners.” “Make sure you know what ‘zero’ is on your farm or garden space,” he says. “And what zero means is that your potting bench is cleaned, your tools are clean and sharp, and there’s a baseline to get back to. And also make sure your workspaces are well lit if you have an inside processing room. Hang really bright lights and make sure you can see your work.”
According to lean principles, cleaning should be done on a short, high-frequency basis rather than a long, low-frequency basis.
“Long, low-frequency is how we used to do it, which is to say we’d junk up the property all season then think we’d have time and energy to clean up over the winter. And of course, we never did. We just started the next season more cluttered,” Ben says.
Two to three times a day on a harvest day, they try to bring things back to zero. By 4 p.m., their workspaces are as clean and uncluttered as they were at 8 a.m. It also helps that the tools and supplies they are to clean are also kept in easy-to-reach locations.
Schumacher’s greatest inspiration was Mahatma Gandhi, Ben says. Gandhi coined the term swadeshi, a combination of two Sanskrit words that mean self and country.
“For Gandhi, it stood for all things made in India, by and for Indians,” Ben says, explaining this was more than a political movement but a spiritual discipline. “He defined it as restricting yourself to the use and service of what is around you to the exclusion of the more remote.”
Gandhi had a minimalist lifestyle but was also entrepreneurial and an inventor. He advocated for doing things more efficiently at a local level. “It’s a way of, again, leveraging the constraint to restrict yourself to the use and service of what’s local, what’s immediate,” Ben says.
Put the Customer at the Center
Clay Bottom Farm uses value sheets to decenter the farm and its interests and put the customer at the center of the farm.
“What do they want us to be doing?” Ben asks. “What do they want us to be growing? And let’s start with a customer and work backwards from there.”
Once a year, Ben meets with the chefs they sell to and asks them three simple questions: What do you want, when do you want it, and how much?
“I’ll take seed catalogs in, and that chef will help me to essentially design the farm for the year,” he says.
This deepens relationships with customers and delivers core value to clients, Ben says, calling it key to making their business work.
For a serious gardener who wants to sell extra produce, in the back of Ben’s book is a plan for selling $20,000 worth of produce using only 5,000 square feet of garden space. “But the first step in that is to listen to your community, print out a couple of value sheets, have a couple conversations, and let your community — to use lean language — pull your product from the farm, to really weave your farm into the community,” Ben says.
If you haven’t listened to my conversation with Ben Hartman on lean micro farming, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Have you applied lean micro farming principles to your garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
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“Small Is Beautiful” by E. F. Schumacher
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown
“Walden” by Henry David Thoreau
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast was based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.