7 Cleanup Tips for Your Cluttered Barn

Barns and other outbuildings have a way of becoming messy. Follow these tips for order, safety and the ability to find tools when you need them.

by Lisa Kivirist
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Where is “organize the barn” on your farm project list? If you’re like most small-scale farmers, that to-do item is perpetually on the backburner. Daily chores coupled with unexpected farm emergencies always seem to consume our waking hours, and as a result, our outbuildings can often be found in disarray, which makes subsequent chores inefficient and poses potential health hazards. You can close those barn doors and ignore the chaos until you desperately need that hand trowel, but you’ll spend way too much time searching for it amid drip irrigation hoses and unfinished lawn-furniture projects.

There are two things you should think about when organizing your barn and outbuildings. First, dedicate some time to thinking about your work flow. Knowing how you use your barn space will help you use your body more effectively to reach that needed tool or material, as well as save both time and stress by allowing you to find everything more quickly. Second, organizing your barn doesn’t need to be a complicated, drawn-out process requiring heaps of time. As you’ll see below, small changes can make a huge difference in farm workflow.

1. Customize for You
“I’m only 5 feet, 4 inches, so I do everything from building shelves to hanging hooks based on my height,” says Kathy Zeman, who runs Simple Harvest Farm Organics in Nerstrand, Minn. Customization can come in many forms: Think about your personal needs and how your outbuildings can best serve them. For example, if you need to be mindful of back issues, hang more shelving and pack things in smaller, lighter boxes so you’re not putting undue strain on your back.

2. Hang It Up
Getting things off the floor creates multiple benefits, from preventing tripping hazards to keeping materials cleaner and intact. If you’re short on wall space, take advantage of your barn ceiling: Hang bundles of hoses or drip tape with rope from the rafters for winter storage.

When hanging things in hard-to-reach places, make sure you have a ladder of suitable height handy.

“I have several ladders that I keep in different places so I’ll have one where I need it and don’t need to lug it around,” Zeman says. “I always hang my ladders and never keep them on the floor. This makes it easier to keep the area underneath clean and also serves as a safety technique so kids don’t feel the urge to climb.”

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3. Group Like Materials Together
A simple organizing technique is to arrange tools or materials with others of a similar use. “We have one shelf with everything for the farmers’ market, another with our beekeeping supplies, another with all things soap making, et cetera,” says Yvonne Brunot, who runs Right Mind Farm, a diversified farm operation, with her husband, Ed Safford, in Walingford, Vt. “Sometimes there may be some overlap, but this way we can easily and quickly put our hands on what we need at that moment.”

4. Identify and Consolidate Tools
“I host a lot of work parties on my farm and appreciate all the extra helping hands, but folks typically don’t know where all the tools are, so I try to make it easy by consolidating everything in one place,” says Clare Hintz, who runs Elsewhere Farm in Herbster, Wis. Placing one hook per tool—and perhaps labeling or color-coding the tool—clearly communicates to helpers how many of each tool you have so things can be accurately and quickly returned at the end of the day.

Color-coding with bright paint also helps with field cleanup at the end of the day.”I paint the handles of my tools bright fluorescent colors, which is an easy reminder when you leave something out in the field or are looking for that shovel at the end of the day,” Zeman says.

5. Think Multiple Purpose
Creatively arranging outbuilding space for multiple purposes allows you to get more accomplished in your limited space. “My outbuilding serves a variety of functions throughout the year, from drying garlic to packing produce to a classroom for interns and other workshops,” Hintz says. She built large, sturdy tables that can be quickly cleared off for her upcoming projects.

6. Recycle Creatively
Castoff tools can take on a second, functional life in your outbuildings. Kim Marsin and Rachel Reklau, of Sweet Home Organics, a garden seedling business based in St. Charles, Ill., don’t have a permanent barn or outbuilding on the property, so they’ve learned to be creative in utilizing and stretching the space in their hoop greenhouses. “We repurpose pallets as table tops and hardening off spaces for our seedlings,” Marsin explains. “We just finished building raised beds to go underneath our seeding tables to maximize the space.”

7. Purge Regularly
When you have decent-sized outbuilding space, it’s all too easy to accumulate stuff, especially others’ castoffs that you “might use someday.” Over the years, this adds up to clutter, which negatively impacts how efficiently you can use your outbuilding space. “I find the more extra stuff I have around, the harder it is to keep things organized and clean, so I operate under my ‘five-year rule.’” Zeman says. “If I haven’t used it in five years, I gift it to someone else, ideally a new farmer starting out who could really benefit from it. I’ve rarely actually needed any of it once I got rid of it, and the positive impact of the extra space is well worth it.”

An extra bonus to all this outbuilding efficiency: You’ll save money! By knowing where things are and having easy access to them, you’ll avoid those extra trips to the local hardware or farm-supply store because something you need is “lost somewhere in the barn.”

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