GA 069 | Lean Farming with Thomas Riner

By Jessica Bush Updated on July 30th, 2021

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Today’s guest is Thomas Riner. Thomas (who has a traditional continuous improvement background) and his wife run a farm and use lean thinking to reduce waste and improve the treatment of their animals. This episode is a great reminder of how versatile lean really is.

An MP3 version of this episode is available for download here.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Thomas’s background and how he first learned about continuous improvement (3:05)
  • The quote that inspires Thomas (4:42)
  • How Thomas got into farming (5:35)
  • What problem Thomas was trying to solve when he implemented lean (7:21)
  • How lean has improved Thomas’s farm (10:40)
  • All about Thomas’s lean chicken tractor (12:45)
  • One of Thomas’s lean farming failures (16:07)
  • Why even large scale farmers can benefit from lean thinking (19:18)
  • What’s next for Thomas and his wife (21:09)
  • What “Respect for People” (or in this case, animals) means to Thomas (22:26)
  • The best advice Thomas has ever received (24:44)
  • Thomas’s personal productivity habit (25:17)
  • What has surprised Thomas in his last year of practicing lean (7:21)
  • The skill Thomas feels he needs to improve (26:57)
  • Thomas’s final words of wisdom (31:17)

Podcast Resources

What Do You Think?

Have you heard of lean farming prior to this episode? If not, what is your first impression of it? What other non-traditional applications of lean can you come up with?

  1. Dan Nikkel

    August 10, 2015 - 1:56 pm

    Interesting perspective. What you describe as farming is what is more often referred to as “Hobby Farming”. I grew up on a farming operation here in Iowa and have watched it develop into a highly technical industry. I also worked for years at a local manufacturer who began Lean practices back in the 1990’s (I now work in Lean Healthcare). I’ve watched agri-business developments with great interest and considered many of their practices to contain Lean thinking. The one thing agri-business people understand is flow. Even though planting and harvesting are dictated heavily by weather patterns, they’ve learned to develop marketing strategies to create revenue flow even though processes like harvesting must be done in batch. I’ve also observed changes in grain handling techniques reduce travel and trips to get grain to processing facilities. Just a couple examples that Lean practices exist.

    Another consideration is always quality, especially when raising forage crops like hay. You have to harvest crops when they at peak or you lose yield and nutrients. When not done properly it can cause digestion problems for your animals. What may be interpreted as batching is necessary to produce maximum yields. If you have too much, you sell to your neighbors and increase cash. Only cutting and feeding when needed would be suboptimal on numerous fronts.

    Bottom line is, don’t stop looking for ways to apply Lean to what you are doing. I would encourage you do some research to see what you can learn from more seasoned “farmers”. Especially those in similar operations to your own. They do what they do quite often for good reasons. You can save yourself a lot of heartache.

    • Thomas Riner

      August 10, 2015 - 8:29 pm

      Thanks for listening to the Lean Farming podcast and for leaving a comment. Let me be the first to say that I am new to farming. I will also be the first to say that I have a lot to learn about farming. As I stated I do not have all the answers. I also agree with you about consulting with more experienced farmers. We have a neighbor that has been farming for almost sixty years and we frequently get his opinion on issues.
      I think it’s important to remember that not all farms are the size of the farms out west. A hobby farm is typically a smaller size farm where the farmer is farming for fun and not for money. I can assure you that on Fancy Hill Farm we have fun but we are a business. There are numerous farms on the east coast that are under 100 acres that farm full time for a living. It’s important not to view this subject through only one lens.
      While I’m new to farming I have been in manufacturing for the last twenty years. I have been working in process improvement for the last ten years and enjoy it. One aspect that I have become very passionate about is seeing waste. Whether there is another alternative or not batches are waste. Most farmers don’t think this way and if you asked them they would probably look at you with a funny look. Many of the arguments you propose in relation to Lean Farming are the same ones that manufacturers proposes before they fully understood the power of Lean. Many manufacturers will argue that batch sizes are required. They will also make the argument that Lean will hurt the quality of their products. Both of which are not true.
      I have noticed that many folks use the seasons as reasons why Lean will not work with farming. However there are many other businesses that are seasonal that have implemented Lean with great success. For example framing a house in Buffalo in January is not going to happen. However, Lean has been implanted in construction with great success.
      Many times companies will point to automation or the newest machine that they just purchased as being Lean. However, these are furthest from being Lean. Automation, new machines, trucks hauling grain, are all waste.
      Until we begin to call it what it is and begin to look for ways to eliminate it we will never reach our full potential. At one time no one would have thought it possible to produce the quantity of cars with the high quality they have but Lean thinking unlocked unmeasurable potential.
      Lean is new to farming and I expect to experience many of the same arguments that manufacturing experienced before it recognized the power of Lean.
      Thanks for your comments.
      Thomas Riner
      Lean Farmer

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