Optimizing the flow of value through your farm business

There are very few actions on the farm that actually generate value.

What are people actually paying you to do?

How is value created on your farm? 

How does value flow through your farm business?

Given the nearly infinite number of farm tasks you could be working on, it is essential that you prioritize your time and energy so that you maximize value creation and flow through the farm business system. 

There are 2 frameworks I would like to draw upon today to examine this question: LEAN manufacturing (the Toyota Production System), and Holistic Management.

According to the LEAN approach, value is purely defined as what the client is willing to pay for. Through this lens, we see that there are certain critical moments when value is created in the farm system. If we take a seed and grow it into a carrot, we have added value. Someone would theoretically be willing to come and harvest the carrot and pay you more than you would get if you just sold the seed. If you actually harvest and wash that carrot, you once again add value. You can sell a harvested and washed carrot for more than you can sell a u-pick carrot in the field. Finally, if you actually go to market with that carrot, you will once again be able to charge more, which is the indicator that value has been added. 

Anything other than planting, harvesting, and marketing is waste. Some of this waste is a necessary waste (which we seek to minimize) and some of this waste is pure waste (which we seek to eliminate). But either way, it remains waste (Muda in Japanese). For example, while irrigation is essential to growing a successful crop, no one is actually paying you to irrigate. Irrigation is a form of waste… necessary waste, but waste never the less. 

This concept maps on well to the 3-link Value Chain from Holistic Management. In this framework the 3 links are:

  1. The conversion of CO2 into plant matter via photosynthesis;
  2. The conversion of plant matter into a marketable product via harvest, washing, etc;
  3. The conversion of the marketable product into money via sale.

At any given point in time, there is a single one of these links that is the weak link. Are you able to sell everything you currently produce via your marketing outlets… or could you sell more if you had more? If you increased production by 50%, what would be the limiting factor: harvest or marketing?

Of course, all these elements are interlinked, but it is important to make sure you are aware of and addressing the weak link in your system, your efforts on other elements are not as effective!

Which link is currently the weak link on your farm?

What actions are necessary to remove that bottleneck?

Once that is addressed, what weak link do you see coming down the pipe?

2 + 2 = 10: Building a farm culture for synergy and employee retention

What is it that distinguishes good teams from GREAT teams? Why is it that sometimes 2 plus 2 is 3 while other times 2 plus 2 equals 10? What are the key elements that bring out the best in us and allow us to synergize towards a common goal?

How do you go about creating a farm culture where employees thrive and flourish; a farm culture that attracts and retains awesome employees? 

In today’s blog, I’d like to present 3 key pillars of high-performance team cultures as defined by Daniel Coyle in “The Culture Code”

Coyle spent 4 years studying high-performance teams from a wide array of contexts: Pixar, SEAL team 6, a ring of thieves, an inner-city school, an improv comedy troupe to name a few. The three 3 key steps that all these teams use to build a high-capacity team environment are:

  1. Build Safety and Belonging
  2. Share Vulnerability
  3. Establish Purpose

One last thing before we get into these three points: what is team culture and why should we care about it? 

The Oxford dictionary defines culture as “the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.” Coyle offers us this notion: “Culture is a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”

Cultivating a powerful farm team culture is actually one of the most powerful tools for small scale farms to attract and retain high-quality staff…. Let’s face it, people aren’t coming to your farm for the great pay or the stable, year-round employment… they’re coming because there’s something deeper that is motivating them… a desire for their lives to be a contribution to a higher purpose, a desire to escape from the rat race, and a desire to do good honest work in a fun environment. 

Safety and belonging

Above all, your employees are humans. What is it that humans need more than anything (assuming the basic physiological needs of food, water, shelter, and homeostasis are    Maybe leave out homeostasis? met)? Safety and Belonging!  This need stems from the very foundation of human evolution. At a very deep level, our primal brain needs to know that we are safe and that our tribe isn’t going to kick us out of the cave to be eaten by the saber tooth tigers! Interestingly enough, this finding is absolutely in line with Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

To create a strong team culture on your farm, your people need to know they are safe, that they aren’t going to be fired, yelled at, humiliated. They need to know that they are part of a team, a crew, a tribe of people who stick together through the epic journey of a farming season. Here are a couple of actionable suggestions both from the book and from my farm experience: 

  • Take the time to nurture personal relationships, both between you and your staff and amongst the staff.
    • Take the extra minute to build relationship one-on-one with each team member through regular, little interactions, and 1-on-1 meetings
    • Remember that connection is nurtured by in-person interactions. As humans, we respond to physical touch. A handshake, a hug, a high five, a touch of the elbow. Or course, remember to be respectful of each person’s comfort level; when in doubt, just ask. 
    • Create opportunities for interactions: working as a group, eating lunch together, having a beer together at the end of the week.
  • Pay attention to Threshold Moments.
    • Threshold moments are times of transition when people are most tenter what does tenter mean ? for belonging. 
    • This is when they are first joining your team. 
    • I know that this can be a challenge in the spring when there’s so much to be done that it’s tempting to blow off the onboarding and training process… but the investment of time and energy with pay off 100 times over! 
  • Never shame, blame, humiliate, or dismiss feedback.

The bottom line is that as members of a team, our number one job here is to take care of each other. 

Share vulnerability

Every individual has a gift to contribute to the team. The full synergy of the team can never be unleashed until an environment of trusting cooperation has been created. This is where pillar 2 comes in: Share vulnerability with your team. 

Trust is not a precondition to vulnerability… the act of being vulnerable actually creates the bond of trust amongst those who share the moment together. 

  • “Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often”
    • This doesn’t mean to be self-deprecating and doubtful. This means that when you screw up, you admit it freely and without shame. When you don’t know the answer, you say so. By doing so, you set the standard that this is something we do at this farm…. People like us, do things like this… the creation of a sub-culture specific to your farm. 
  • Create time and space for candid communication and feedback. 
    • There’s a difference between being candid and being brutally honest. 
    • Welcome feedback and avoid the reflex to immediately respond, provide a solution, or justify. 
    • Have weekly team meetings. Instead of focusing on just what there is to do this week, take this time to reflect of your performance and dynamic as a team, using questions such as:
      • What were the intended results?
      • What were our actual results?
      • What caused our results?
      • What will we do the same next week?
      • What will we do differently?

Establish Purpose

Establishing purpose and vision is not an annual exercise for just the owners. It’s a critical element that must be part of the daily and weekly vocabulary of the farm team. Where are we at? Where are we going? Who are we?

  1. Create priorities:
    1. Be specific and precise
    2. Where are we at? Where are we going? Who are we?
  2. Name keystone behaviors that align with these priorities.
  3. Flood the environment with heuristics that link the two. Heuristics are short (often cheesy) phrases that are intended to embed the farm’s core values into the collective vocabulary.

Here’s a little brainstorm of to possible heuristics:

Elite farmers take care of their teammates

Good enough is perfect. 

We aren’t cavemen, we use wheals.

Work smarter, not harder.

Never go anywhere empty-handed.

Optimize every motion.

Never harvest slower than 150$/hrs gross sales.

We don’t have time NOT to communicate.

Quality, consistency, and cleanliness.

Clean, cold, and clearly labeled

A spot for every tool, and every tool in its spot.

The job’s not done ‘till everything is cleaned up and recorded. 

We’re data farmers.

People, planet, and profits.

Your turn!

What are you taking away from this blog post?

What are 1 or 2 actions that could contribute to building a synergistic business culture on your farm? 

How do these principles apply to creating a nurturing and loving culture in your family and home life?