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Dining A La King: Clay Bottom Farm in Goshen writing the book on lean farming

Ben Hartman is a happy farmer.

He isn’t working as hard, is growing fewer crops on less land and is making more money.

His family has gone on five camping trips this summer, yet they’re supplying restaurants and customers at the Goshen Farmers Market and in their Community Supported Agriculture program with big, vibrant vegetables.

Hartman, who owns Clay Bottom Farm east of Goshen with his wife, Rachel Hershberger, is one of the local masters of putting seed in the soil and producing something delicious. 

He’s a humble, introverted guy, but these days if you get him talking about lean farming, he’ll burble happily and passionately for a while, as he should. He’s literally written a book about their processes called, “The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Maximize Efficiency, and Maximize Profits with Less Work.” It’s just out from Chelsea Green Publishing.

About five years ago, customer Steve Brenneman urged Hartman and Hershberger to look at lean manufacturing for lessons on how to improve the farm. They visited his Aluminum Trailer Co. in Nappanee and did research on what lean manufacturing did for Toyota and others.

“No one’s really done it in an agricultural context,” Hartman said.

Hartman is one of the tiny percentage of people left who grow food that can go from field to table with almost no processing. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t waste — the enemy of profit and efficiency and part of the reason it’s so hard to make a living doing what they do.

“We should be worried about this,” he said of the way farming has become the work of corporations and large, wealthy farmers growing mass amounts of crops.

Salespeople pitch ways for him to add value to his fruits and vegetables. Rather than invest in those, he’s gotten rid of waste to increase capacity.

Hartman, an English major in college, has systematically worked at reducing overproduction, overprocessing and transportation.

Instead of growing more than 60 different varieties of food, they grow less than 30, but ones customers want.

With several interns or part-time employees, they use a magnetic board to track sales, harvest and delivery.

“It treats their work almost like a board game,” he said, adding that it’s a visual system that helps them communicate so well, they can almost avoid talking.

They got rid of a tool shed and spread tools throughout the farm near where they’re needed. The land being farmed shrank from three acres producing a mix of items customers wanted and some they didn’t to one acre that includes several greenhouses and spots in the soil are rarely bare before being replanted.

“We’re always planting something,” he said. 

They have about 100 beds in the outside and inside spaces. Those each need to produce about $1,000 a year to make the farm viable, he said. He listens to customers to be a better businessman. As an eater, he’s missed the small, yellow watermelons they used to grow and might plant them for personal consumption next year.

“There’s something to be said for lean as a system,” he said as he speaks about it almost like a teacher would. “You systematically root out the waste. You’re not going to leave one (area) behind.”

Finding waste and potential inefficiency comes from a variety of directions. A chef suggested changing the table to make it easier to fill CSA boxes delivered to central drop-off points for subscribers to retrieve. Japanese principles that are part of lean manufacturing encourage asking five times why a seed didn’t grow in order to find a solution.

This isn’t about being faster or working harder, he said. “It’s about making work smoother and easier to do,” he said. “Over time, a bunch of little changes add up.”

As a customer and friend, I’ve had the pleasure of eating what they produce. As the president of the Goshen Farmers Market, I’ve had a chance to see how good they are what they do. Other farmers praise their work and seek them out for advice. The book isn’t one on how to grow vegetables, but how they’ve made their farm lean and it’ll be a guide for more than just farmers.

The way they grow vegetables and fruit, including figs, is remarkable. They’re good growers, as well as good people and people who live intentionally and thoughtfully.

If there’s another book, crafted like this one from sticky notes collected in envelopes and crafted into words during the winter lull, it could be on the lean life. Or lean parenting.

They have a 15-month-old son, Arlo, and another son due in February. “Parenting is full of waste and we love it,” Hartman said. “We’re using our freed-up time to be a family.”

Marshall V. King is food columnist for Flavor 574 and community editor for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805,, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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