Effectiveness: A new paradigm to farm efficiency.

These days there seems to be nothing sexier in the local farm movement than efficiency (except maybe JM Fortier… he’s pretty dreamy) 😋

No, but seriously, efficiency is definitely a hot buzz word in the small farming community these days; with good reason too. Given the abundance of work to be done on a small scale organic farm it is obviously important to bring our attention to the best way of going about getting everything done in a timely manner. On top of this, labor is the greatest production cost in organic vegetable farming, accounting for anywhere from 25 to 40% of gross income (whether this is hired farm labor, or whether you are acting as your own source of labor, it’s still important to account for the work that goes into growing these delicious veggies!). Which means that producing more vegetables with the same or less labor is a great way to increase your profit margins and while money isn’t everything, it sure is a useful tool to use in accomplishing our goals and making a contribution in this world of ours!

What I want to bring to the conversation is that while efficiency is without a doubt important, what we’re really after is effectiveness. It’s important to understand this nuance.

Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you’re doing anything.

Just because you’re moving fast doesn’t mean you’re getting anywhere meaningful.

Effectiveness: Moving beyond the paradigm of farm efficiency

To effectively explain this nuance, I would like to draw on the teachings of the late Stephen Covey, one of the greatest thought leaders of our times in this matter (check out his book; 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)

Covey teaches that in order to be effective, we have to act in a manner that nurtures both production (P) and production capacity (PC). To illustrate this idea, Covey evokes the story of the golden goose.

A farmer wakes up one morning to find that their goose has laid a golden egg. Elated, they rush off to sell the egg. The next morning, and every morning thereafter, another golden egg is laid. The farmer is rich beyond their wildest dreams! One day, the farmer gets greedy and decides to slaughter the goose and get all the golden eggs at once rather than wait. The their dismay, there are no golden eggs within and all they have done is destroy the source of their abundance.

The golden eggs represent production. The goose represents production capacity. Focus too much on production and the capacity to produce will decrease. Focus too much on nurturing production capacity and nothing gets done. It’s like using a tractor to prep your fields but never doing maintenance. Soon enough the tractor will be scrap. Conversely, if you spend all your time maintaining the tractor, nothing is ever going to get planted.

The key to effectiveness is to think in terms of P/PC balance. The most efficient method (the quickest) isn’t always the most effective. What we really want is to be effective as we move towards our goals one step at a time.

5 Principles of Farm Effectiveness

Alright folks… I’m not here to tell you what to do. Anyways, each farm and each farmer is so unique that it would be futile to try and do so!

Instead, I want to plant some seeds for thought. Let these ideas sprout and grow! I look forward to seeing how you implement this on your farm! Here are 5 principles of farm effectiveness that a client and I distilled during one of our coaching sessions.

Beautiful, Tidy, and Organized

This is the principle of total completion. A task isn’t done till everything is put away, cleaned up, the row cover is on and the irrigation is ready to go. The day’s not over till all the doors are shut, everything is back in it’s spot, the records are filled in, and the next day is planned. This applies equally to the end of the day as it does to lunch time. It’s not lunch time until the tools are back in their spot.. even if we think we’ll be using them again this afternoon.

What would it be like to start each day and each task with a clean slate?

Enjoyment, Joy, Comfort, and Play

This is the principle of ‘girls just wanna have fun!’ Just kidding… sort of. What’s the point of all this if we aren’t enjoying it? Beyond that, being happy, engaged, and joyous unleashes the full power of human creativity and motivation in both ourselves and our staff. It is critical to build in time for rest and relaxation into the work day… otherwise we (and our staff) just find ways of resting anyways (think mind-numbing Facebook binge, basically unnecessary back and forth to the patchshed in the pick-up truck to ‘get something’). Also important to consider here is the importance of working in an ergonomic manner.

What would it be like to unleash the energy of enjoyment on your farm?

Optimized travel

This is the principle of ‘never go anywhere with your hands empty’. Every trip on the farm should be done with the smallest (most appropriate) sized vehicle filled to capacity and preceded by foresightfull thought (where am I going, what tools, materials, and information do I need to bring with me). This applies to manual movements too. When harvesting beans, my hands never move to the bucket unless they are 100% full, when harvesting tomatoes my hands never move to the crate with less than 2-3 tomatoes. Don’t be fooled by short distances (for all you bio-intensive market gardeners) and motorized travel (for all you pick-up truck and gator junkies)…. idle travel is waste no matter what way you cut it!

What would it be like for each movement to be fully optimized?

Speed/Efficiency (Rapid Action/movement)

This is the principle of ‘it’s time to boogie!’ Faster movements = get there sooner. This applies to everything from the speed of hands during harvest to how we walk… and everything in between. How long is this task taking? How many kg per hour am I currently harvesting? How many $ per hour am I currently harvesting? How many beds per hour am I weeding? On my farm, everyone wears a wrist watch. Not a cellphone in the bottom of the pocket…. a really honest to goodness wrist-watch! Time awareness is a skill to be cultivated.

What would it be like to work with full mindfulness of your speed?

Clear and fluid information

This is the principle of having the right information at the right time. This also means that the information is not just in your brain and that your employees have all the necessary information available for them to do a great job! This means production plans, seeding schedules, field maps, harvest sheet… but also Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and checklists! This information needs to be readily available…not somewhere in a dusty binder. Do you and your staff know what the top priorities for the day are and that employees know what jobs they’ll be working on and in what order?  BEWARE of walkie-talkies. While the are soooo useful, they can lead to complacency in terms of both communicating all the important info and in terms of thinking of all the necessary tools and material before going somewhere (oh… I’ll just call on the walkie talkie if I need something). Check out this other blog post of mine for more discussion of information flow. Also, taking the time to slow down and fully plan and communicate may seem like less efficient, but these simple actions pay tremendous dividends in terms of working effectively as a team and having fun doing so!

What would it be like to create a little certainty on your farm?


What’s next? What do you see in this for yourself?

One thing that has been useful to some of the farmers I coach, is to print out these principles and post them at key locations around the farm (wash station, seedling greenhouse, next to the planning whiteboard).

I’ve prepared some bonus material for this blog post. Here’s a link to join the inner circle and get access to a printable ‘Effectiveness Cheatsheet’ I put together for you as well as a chart of typical harvest speeds that I thought might interest you.

Thanks for being here!

If you enjoyed this blog post, please share it with your friends and colleagues via email and social media.

Go forth and kick some ass!!

Cultivating a healthy relationship while farming with your spouse.

Farming with your partner or spouse can be such a rich and meaningfully experience. But it certainly comes with it’s a load of challenges as anyone who farms with their spouse knows.

Here are a couple of principles and tricks that I have observed to be useful both in my personal experience and from what I observe with my clients.

Have clearly delineated domains of responsibility

When I look at successful older farm couples, this is one thing that is pretty universal. Having clearly defined responsibilities means that each person has one area of the farm where they are the ‘boss’. This doesn’t mean that our partner doesn’t consult us when making major decisions, but it does mean that in daily operations we agree to let go and let them have their way in this area of the farm.

In fact, clearly delineated responsibilities is a good practice on any farm regardless of if we’re farming with our spouse. Let’s face it, there are simply too many elements for one person to juggle all by themselves effectively. Having clear areas of responsibility ensures that things don’t fall between the cracks.

When deciding on the distinct areas of responsibility, it is important to distribute the  different types of tasks intentionally between the partners to ensure that each person can have their share of fulfilling and interesting activity. In this way both the ‘fun’ and ‘tedious’ tasks are shared between partners. I encourage you to have an open and frank discussion about each of your interests, strengths, and learning edges rather than simply taking on traditional gender roles (that can be very detrimental to the long-term development and well-being of the partner who takes on the often more isolating, sometimes menial and difficult “family” or ‘office’ tasks.) A well-balanced partnership on the farm is a strength, so be open to creating the space for each partner to take on responsibilities that nourish and fulfill them, even if this means thinking outside the box or needing to learn a new skill set.

Structured times to discuss the farm business

It’s amazing how simple yet powerful weekly big-picture meetings and daily check in’s can be. This creates clear and specific times to discuss the business and opens up the possibility of having times that are not business related (ie. avoiding the classic ‘talking about the farm in bed as we fall asleep’).

While on the topic of communication, I want to highlight the importance of cultivating discernment regarding ‘Is this actually a business conversation or an emotional request or need?’

There are certain topics which at first glance may appear to be about the farm, when in fact they are are a request for some emotional need.

Take for example one of my clients. Her farm has been experiencing some rapid and highly successful growth over the last 2-3 years. Every now and then her husband will say ‘Geez, I wish it was just the two of us and that we didn’t have these damn employees to manage!’

Up until now she has been getting very annoyed with these comments because she was seeing them as a business conversation and going straight to solution finding mode and feeling resentful because they had worked so hard to build a viable business model and anyways, farming ‘just the 2 of them’ is not and never was a sustainable model. The breakthrough occurred when she shifted from seeing them as a business conversation and started seeing these comments and an expression of an emotional need. Her husband was not saying ‘I want to talk about downsizing our business’. Rather, he was expressing nostalgia and a need for connection and quality time together. When she was able to discern this, she was able to shift and engage in the conversation rather than just shutting him down for even bringing up such a topic of conversation (again).

The point is, don’t take things at face value. Make it a habit to ask yourself ‘Is this truly a business conversation, or is there an emotional need seeking to be expressed?’

Take time to nurture the relationship!

This is true of any relationship but is extra critical for people farming with their husband, wife, or partner. This includes regular time off to do an activity other than farming… and it doesn’t matter if this just means an hour walking in the woods or half an hour to go get ice cream. The important part is to demonstrate to ourselves and our partner that our relationship is important to us and that we are willing to dedicate some time just to nurture it. And don’t forget to have fun!!! Both while working and on your dates!

Your turn!!

  • What do you appreciate most about your spouse? What’s their superpower?
  • What time of the week would be best for your weekly business meeting? Post a paper in a visible location where discussion topics can be gathered during the week. Check out this post for more on effective meetings.
  • What are you willing to do this week to nurture your relationship?

PS: If any of you are hurting out there right now… I feel your pain. I know how hard it can be when there is strife in a farming relationship. You’re not alone! There is help out there. I strongly encourage you to reach out and get the support you need to take your relationship to the next level!! Send me an email and it would be my pleasure to support you to see what kind of support would be useful for you. (Most likely not coaching, probably something more like couples therapy.) There are many helpful resources and methods out there that I may be able to guide you towards.