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Lean in for sustainable farming

apples and pears big

Ideas used by the worlds of management and manufacturing could be the magic formula to planet-friendly global world food production, shows fresh research into fruit farming.

To keep up with soaring food demand from the exploding population, experts straddling several fields widely agree that the global food system must become more sustainable.

‘Lean thinking’, originally Toyota’s recipe to cut waste in car manufacturing, has been thought a potential formula for sustainable global food supply chains for about 10 years. 

But this is the first time researchers factor in the larger landscape, looking from field level up at forward integrated supply chains for fruit, rather than much-studied red meat.

“One key finding is that growers need to talk to their stakeholders more,” said Dr Manoj Dora at Brunel University London. “In the past, these farmers just kept producing endlessly, which caused a lot of waste and led to considerable losses of money. But now, incorporating lean management methods into their day-to-day operations, suppliers are starting to respond to demand.”

Lean thinking can help farmers simplify the farming process, eliminate waste and improve productivity. The added benefit of that is that it can also be green. “When you use fewer resources,” said Dora, “you use less energy, less water – those are the extra advantages of applying lean.”

The international research team tracked four large South African apple and pear growers trading as two separate co-ops in the Western Cape’s Ceres and Elgin districts. Researchers wanted to see how growers modify practices to bolster productivity and sustainability as international and local fresh fruit suppliers. The two co-ops run forward integrated supply chains spanning cold storage, packing packaging, transport, marketing and sales. This means they prioritise customer needs when they control and talk to the supply chain.

All four growers aimed to bring in new practices and technologies to maximise yield, reduce food waste and use resources more efficiently. Tending to be risk averse, they introduced innovations on an informal ‘try it first, see if it works’ basis. This created in a system highly integrated with traditional farming and neat at reducing waste.

“Only six or seven years ago we were exporting to sixty-four countries,” said one of the growers. “Now we export to more than one hundred countries. Yes, this can be complex, but it is also beneficial. Some clients might order less than planned for, whilst others may order more, the diversity of the portfolio helps to balance things out in the end.”

Marrying up production with consumer demand – or using pull, rather than push production – was a key challenge. Growers tackled this with a forward contracting process with buyers putting in initial orders a year ahead, then cementing the final figures a few weeks before the delivery date. Adjusting the shape, height and widths of rows of trees is another innovation that cut waste and tractor use and made picking more productive.

“The study highlights how we adjust lean to the particular agricultural sector,” Dora adds, “where we see variations in seasonality, weather conditions, soil, moisture – how do we adjust for all those contingency factors.

“If a car company can use it, then why can’t it help farmers become more efficient too?”

However, this is about “growing apples, not cars”. Applying lean to agriculture, he warns, is not straightforward, and needs continuous adjustment and improvement.

'Determining factors driving sustainable performance through the application of lean management practices in horticultural primary production', by Darian Pearce, Manoj Dora, Joshua Wesana and Xavier Gellynck, is now published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268176