In my quest to learn all things agribusiness, I have a long list of reading material to go through. One recommendation in particular comes up repeatedly, and for good reason: “The Lean Farm” by Ben Hartman.
In case you are unfamiliar with “The Lean Farm” and its principles, a “lean farm” has reduced waste, both in labor and produce. The producer knows the exact demand for his products and structures his processes for optimum efficiency. Lean requirements work from the start in the form of planning and critiquing, as well as extensive record keeping to continuously analyze areas for improvement. A lean farm prioritizes the values the farmer chooses to pursue, which encourages more meaningful and productive work.
Product safety is not limited to compliance with the product safety rule (PSR). While it is certainly important for covered or potentially covered farms to comply with the rule, some farms may be exempt and therefore compliance is not required by government officials. (Please note that PSR exclusions and exemptions can be messy and complicated, contact your nearest Product Safety Technician to help determine your coverage status.)
It is recommended that farms that are not required to comply with the rule follow the guidelines as far as possible. A person growing tomatoes for their own enjoyment can be as safe as a grower selling at a farmer’s market.
While reading “The Lean Farm”, I found myself examining the overlap between being lean and being product safe. In general, the main principles align perfectly. More work up front can mean less work in the long run. Both concepts emphasize the importance of frequent analysis to find the weak links in each cultivation operation.
For example, convenience is easy. The Lean Farm recommends storing tools in the most convenient location for their use, i.e. storing tools where they are needed most. Knowing that the pruner is hung on a hook in the greenhouse, the winegrower saves time (no need to walk 10 minutes round trip to the other side of the farm), energy (five steps against 50 meters of walking) and mental space (no need to wonder where those damn shears have wandered up to this time).
While product safety also encourages proximity and visibility of tools to incentivize cleaning and maintenance, another example more relevant to product safety is handwashing stations. Locating handwashing stations close to growing areas provides the same benefits as keeping tools close by: it will save the grower time, energy, and mental space. A grower busy thinking about three dozen things at once during peak growing season is more likely to wash his hands if he walks right past a sink to wash his hands, instead of having to walk for five minutes up to the house. Time is money, after all.
Record keeping is another concept that is just as important in The Lean Farm as it is in product safety, although for different reasons. “The Lean Farm” uses recordings to reduce overproduction and underproduction. Producing exactly what is needed is a core value of The Lean Farm principles. Some records may be required or recommended by the Product Safety Rule, so what can we learn from “The Lean Farm” and apply for Product Safety?
First, keep the registration documents close to where they are needed. The spreadsheet for tracking cooler temperatures is much more useful if kept within easy reach of the cooler. Consider the usefulness of digital records, but also be aware that phones and tablets are a point of contact for contamination and therefore hands should be washed before handling products or food contact surfaces. Sanitation logs for surfaces that produce contact may be required or recommended by PSR, especially where there are many employees in the wash/pack. The log should be kept nearby, visible but not likely to contaminate food contact surfaces.
Second, follow only the essentials. Keeping records for the purpose of optimizing your farm can include planting and harvest dates, amounts planted and sold, and sales and profits. Record keeping essential for product safety may vary based on PSR coverage status or third party audits. An example is employee training records. An employee training record only needs the date the training was completed, the topics covered, and the names/signatures of the employees. This can serve a dual purpose as it can also serve as confirmation that the employee understands the safety requirements of their job and that lean farms are all dual purpose activities.
For more information on Lean Farms and how to incorporate the approach into your farm, read “The Lean Farm” by Ben Hartman.
If you grow and sell raw produce, at any scale, you can participate in Michigan’s On-Farm Commodity Safety Program. This is completely free, voluntary and confidential. Visit MIOFPS.org for more information.
Breanna Hannula is a Product Safety Technician who covers Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Antrim counties, as well as neighboring counties upon request. It provides agricultural commodity producers with resources and knowledge to help farmers use the safest growing and handling practices for raw produce. Contact her at [email protected] or 231-941-0960, ext. 31.