Learning to Lean


January is typically a month of new beginnings.  We plan to eat healthier foods, lose the inches we gained over the holidays, and resolve to do a list of things we promised ourselves we’d do last year!  One of the things often chosen is the cleaning out and organizing of all the stuff we’ve accumulated over the years.  That’s exactly what we’re doing at Trevecca Urban Farm and it’s even being applied at my homestead. 

It all started with a book called The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman.  Ben has taken the concepts which originated in Japan’s industrial world and applied them to the farm.  It’s all about eliminating waste – not just waste of resources but waste of time, physical energy, space, and anything else that doesn’t add value. 

So here’s how it works…First one must Sort.  At this writing, both the farm and the homestead are in the throes of this phase.  Three piles emerge from the sorting task – throwaway/recycle, give away, and keep.  How my grandfather could have used this on his farm!  Having lived through the great depression, items were rarely thrown away, not because he was a hoarder but because most things became useful through the transformation afforded out of necessity and ingenuity.  My grandmother was equally adept at this skill.  Feed sacks became garments or quilts, the fat of butchered hogs became soap, and the Sears & Roebuck catalogs served as toilet paper in the outhouse!  However, the keeping of things can get out of hand even for the right reasons.  Needless to say, far more often our reasons for collecting and clinging to stuff serves the demands of a consumer mentality more than a survival technique. 

The master bedroom was one of the first places I sorted.  I took out all the clothes and shoes (drawers, closet, and boxes under the bed) I hadn't worn in a year or more which resulted in four huge bags of clothing items to give away.  I only kept what I really liked and what I would actually wear.  As you can see, I still have more than enough!


The second step is to Set in Order.  Everything in its place with “place” being where it’s most often used.  This saves wasted steps to retrieve what’s needed and reduces the time spent looking for it.  I’m still trying to figure this one out since my supplies for making products live upstairs on shelves while the actual making of these products happens in the downstairs kitchen.  That’s a lot of wasted steps and energy so it looks like I need to clear more kitchen cabinets to make room for these supplies. As much work as this entails, I love this step!  There’s something aesthetically pleasing about an orderly kitchen or workshop or garage!

Here's a snapshot of the bathroom closet which used to be crammed with very old towels, bed sheets that had holes, and medications dated as far back as 2009!  Now we can get to what we need and use without digging through clutter.


As the third step, Shine is defined as the care and cleaning of each tool as part of the task to be completed.  I’m guilty of breaking this rule evidenced by dried soil attached to the shovel from its last use of planting muscadine vines.  Scott Nearing writes about this in The Good Life.  He shared that every tool had its place and was cleaned, oiled or sharpened after each job and returned to its place.  He stated that “clean tools do more work with less labor.”  This also reduces the cost of replacing a tool due to loss or lack of care.

The fourth step, Standardize, is being implemented at the farm in the form of written Standard Operating Procedures placed in each job area.  With new students coming to work on the farm on a regular basis, written, detailed instructions cut down on the time it takes for our farmers to explain how a job should be done and if said farmers are not available, students can simply read the instructions and follow the procedures.  While I‘m seldom away from my homestead for extended periods of time, I always write out detailed instructions for the person I’ve left in charge.  This gives me greater peace of mind when I’m away from all the living things I take care of on a daily basis.

The last step is Sustain.  This is my goal!  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve cleaned and straightened up the same area!  I always ask myself how it got that way – AGAIN!  When my boys were preschoolers I came across a book called Side-tracked Home Executives written by sisters Pam Young and Peggy Jones.  Originally published in 1979, they have rescued (in a hilarious way) many a person drowning in clutter and the never ending to-do list.  Their system is based on a card file of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly tasks.  Using a small box, you simply create 3x5 task cards and place them behind the tab on the day you plan to complete them.  It worked beautifully for me and works well if you work it consistently.  While the book was originally written by two homemakers, the concepts they share can work for any person regardless of gender or place of work.

As you can see in the picture below, baskets are a great way to get organized.  I use one basket for all my cleaning supplies which can be picked up and moved to any area I'm cleaning.  This saves lots of steps!  One basket holds all my laundry products and the small one holds cleaning rags, washed and ready to use.

Basket organizers.JPG

We often think of farming or homesteading as the simple life.  Well, if you’ve ever lived or worked on either, you know there’s nothing simple about it!  So instead of the simple life, I’m thinking simplified, as in the paring down of unnecessary stuff, the efficiency of organized areas of work, and the simple pleasures of living in an uncluttered state of mind and place.  That’s lean.

Below are links to the farm and books you might be interested in buying.  Happy leaning!






Karen ShawComment