An example of Lean Application to Agriculture
Every now and again you come across something that makes you smile it just so damn clever, and for me this week it was about tomatoes. Now, you might wonder where this is going, but honestly, it’s a really nice example of Systems Thinking.
Systems Thinking is a Lean concept that focuses on understanding how things influence one another within an environment rather than looking at specific components. Its key difference is in looking at cyclical relationships, rather than the linear cause and effect we often get drawn into when we think about a process and its outcomes.
So, back to the tomatoes. Industrial growers are facing a number of challenges at the moment. Their margins are under pressure as supermarkets hold their prices constant, whilst fuel prices and general inflation push up their costs. Separately, environmentalists are asking about the sustainability of their operations focusing on their use of water and synthetic fertilizers. Growers have started to think about how the ecosystem can help them maintain profitability and improve sustainability in a demanding marketplace. Let’s take a look at 3 things farmers are doing to improve production:
Water is sourced from wastewater which is treated at a reverse osmosis plant sending 85 per cent quality water to the crop and 15 per cent wastewater to an evaporative pond. The remaining water demand is met by the rainwater collected from the roof of the glasshouse.
To further reduce water usage, rather than proactively watering plants, the greenhouse uses irrigation canals that enable the plants to draw only the water they need. This avoids overwatering, and is in itself is a great example of how the ‘pull’ principle helps reduce waste.
Heating & Light
When tomatoes are harvested, there is a significant volume of waste foliage left over. This waste is processed in an anaerobic digester where naturally occurring micro-organisms digest it, releasing methane that is used to provide clean renewable energy. This also helps reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.
The anaerobic digester can be so effective on some farms that excess energy is sold back to the grid creating a new revenue stream for the farmers.
The leftover indigestible material from the anaerobic digester contains valuable plant nutrients like nitrogen and potassium and is used as a fertiliser and soil conditioner. Not only is this fertilizer free, but it’s also a natural organic product.
Farmers’ understanding of the ‘Systems’ that impact their crops has helped them come up with responses that capitalise on them to enormous effect.
This approach has resulted in a leap forward in how some tomato growers deliver value to their customers, minimise environmental waste and innovate to improve the way they do things.