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!!

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