Hans Estrin, Andy Chamberlin and Chris Callahan make up the University of Vermont Extension postharvest team. They work directly with small- and medium-scale fruit and vegetable farms on planning wash and pack sheds and operations. The trio discussed applying lean principles to the packshed in a video series focused on postharvest efficiency, profitability and food safety.

According to the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute, “lean” is a way of thinking about creating needed value with fewer resources and less waste. And lean is a practice consisting of continuous experimentation to achieve perfect value with zero waste.

The lean concept, popularized by Toyota, can be applied to virtually any industry or process. It consists of five tenants: identify value by asking what your customers want, map the value stream by identifying where there is waste and how it can be removed, create flow by having an intentional plan for movement, establish pull by using just-in-time delivery and seek perfection by always looking for opportunities to improve.

This discussion focused on the third step. “What we want to focus on today is creating flow, avoiding interruptions, delays and bottlenecks and how to create an intentional plan for movement. The flow of product in an ideal situation is a smooth single pass. It minimizes wasted energy, and it goes from the direction of the field to the customer,” Chamberlin said.

Figuring out what system works best for your packshed means gathering input from all those who will be a part of it. Photo courtesy of Andrew Chamberlin

Having each process in the packshed in a straight line is called linear flow. The product comes in one door, it gets washed, it gets packed into a cooler and then it leaves the building. One advantage of this system is that produce coming in from the field often contains a lot of soil. The soil level decreases as the people in the packshed move through the steps of the linear system. Estrin said, “This is efficient in and of itself from a cleaning perspective, and it can also minimize waste contamination from the dirty part of the packshed to a clean one.”

Growers can also create flow through a U-shaped process where workers come in and out of the same door. With either system, the goal is to eliminate a crisscrossing, back and forth motion. According to Chamberlin, the idea is to be intentional about movement and not going out of the way to interrupt things as they move from one step to the next.

Callahan understands that the specifics of an individual packshed design are not so simple. Many growers are handling multiple crops, and even different varieties, that have slightly different pathways through the packshed. For growers reengineering an existing facility or building a new one, he encouraged starting with a slab, creating temporary work stations and putting everything on wheels until the flow of those multiple pathways become clear.

“It’s more like a forked system, but again, you can have intentional linear flow in multiple pathways,” Callahan said. “But being able to mess around with different options and figure that out before you make it permanent is helpful.”

Even if the flow of the packshed is well-designed, disorganization can impact its performance. “If you use the same space for a lot of different functions, it tends to accumulate clutter,” Estrin said. Growers need to think about having dedicated space for non-packshed-related work. For example, field tools should not be stored where greens get washed. Boots dirtied from egg-collecting chores should not be placed near clean produce.

It’s not only physical objects such as tools and produce that need good flow; it’s also the people who move within the systems. There are myriad questions to consider when thinking about the interaction of people and their physical environment: Where are workers entering and exiting the buildings? Where are special tasks happening? Where does rain gear get hung? Where is the bathroom and the handwashing station?

The answers to these questions impact the morale of employees. “A person and a crate of produce are not the same,” Estrin said. “They are both physical things that have to move, but when planning for the flow of people it is essential to factor in the complicated nature of people. They need to feel alright, they need to be well fed, they need not to freeze their hands off and in short they need to not have psychological barriers to do good, efficient work.”

Specialization is a tool that may aid with the flow of employees within the packshed. It makes sense for the employee who most enjoys a task to dedicate their energy toward it. Then, said Estrin, that employee can help take charge of creating flow within that system.

Image courtesy of Chris Callahan

The flow of water, through hoses, sinks and drains, is as important as the flow of product and people in the packshed. Chamberlin recommended installing multiple hose drops around the perimeter of the washing area. Having hoses on reels rather than dragging them across the floor is also helpful. He also said that trench drains, where a grate can be removed, allow for easy cleaning, and they can be dried out.

No matter where a grower is in the process of designing a packshed, Estrin said it’s as simple as having an open space that can be cleaned, dried, lit and the right temperature. “This can be done at any scale,” he said. “It can be done without any money if you’re a grower getting into this. You don’t really have to have a facility. That shouldn’t stop you from creating good flow and cleanable surfaces. You don’t need to have tens of thousands of dollars to come up with an efficient and food-safe production line.”

And if a grower is beyond the startup phase and looking to expand or build a packshed, the presenters had a few tips. First, Microsoft PowerPoint and Google SketchUp are great digital tools to help begin the design process. Second, consider creating or adding a concrete apron to the outside of the packshed that is covered with a roof. Callahan said, “A covered concrete apron area is really helpful in promoting the flow of product. The packshed may be occupied with other produce, but there’s a resting spot where it can land and wait until there’s space for it to be moved through the wash room.” Growers tell Callahan that this simple feature is one of the most important components of their packshed.

The trio also advised that bringing workers into the thought process – no matter what stage the business is in – is an important part of creating and maintaining flow in the packshed. It can lead to some unexpected good ideas that may have been overlooked.

Finally, Callahan said that no article on lean farming is complete without acknowledgement of Ben Hartman’s book, “The Lean Farm.” According to Callahan, Hartman has helped to translate lean principles from the manufacturing world for the agricultural world and has popularized the approach in small- and medium-sized farms. Callahan said, “Anyone who likes to think about continuous improvement should have a copy and check in with it routinely.”

For further information on postharvest efficiency, profitability and food safety from this postharvest team, visit go.uvm.edu/phplanning.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin