Bennett Cawthon, president at Streamline Farms in Bozeman, Mont., started his company by identifying a local necessity. He would go to local grocery stores during the long, cold winters and couldn’t find a reliable source of fresh herbs.
“I started Streamline Farms a month after I graduated with a finance degree from Montana State University,” Cawthon said. “The company began operating in 2018 as a result of what I determined was an unfilled need for fresh produce and herbs during the winter. I wanted to make a curry and needed Thai basil or really any type of basil, and I couldn’t find what I needed. I went to five grocery stores and was unable to find any fresh basil.”
Cawthon started his company with a 3,000-square-foot Nexus greenhouse equipped with a nutrient film technique hydroponic system producing lettuce and herbs. He quickly added hydroponic beefsteak tomatoes and microgreens after acquiring an existing 8,600-square-foot greenhouse. Streamline Farms was servicing 26 restaurants and seven grocery stores within a 70-mile radius twice a week.
With the start of the COVID pandemic in early 2020, local food production systems began to gain increased interest.
“Quite a few vertical and large-scale hydroponic farms came to fruition in 2020-2021,” Cawthon said. “Trying to meet market demand, this is when I expanded with the additional greenhouse to produce tomatoes. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that the Ukraine war would drive natural gas and fertilizer prices up so much. My fertilizer costs went up nearly 500 percent in six to eight months.”
Another issue that Cawthon faced during the pandemic was supply availability and delivery.
Cawthon said Montana officials handled COVID a lot differently than other states, which shut down some businesses completely.
“Businesses in Montana were shuttered for only a matter of weeks,” he said. “By June 2020, everything was back open. Unfortunately, because everything was open, people from other states flew here and brought COVID with them. Businesses would close for three weeks, and the number of cases would decline. Businesses were allowed to reopen, and then more out-of-state visitors would descend on the state, and the number of positive cases would go up again.
“Montana went through these waves of cases and closures. That was the hardest part of the pandemic. I shifted 60 percent of my sales to restaurants, and then it would drop to zero sales for two to three weeks. Then business would come back, and restaurants accounted for 80 percent of my sales. The turbulence made it very difficult to manage customer relationships and keep everyone happy.”
When Montana legalized recreational cannabis in 2022, Cawthon took a long, hard look at whether he should continue producing food crops.
“When I was growing tomatoes, I figured I was going to take a $30,000 loss given my fertilizer and labor costs, which are $22 an hour,” he said. “In 2021, I partnered with a large cannabis dispensary operation and obtained a license to grow cannabis. I stopped growing vegetables in the fall of 2021 and brought the operation back online with cannabis in the spring of 2022. My company is now producing only cannabis.
“With cannabis, we only handle the production. Once the crop is dried and cured, our client picks up the biomass and then uses it for whatever it is making.”
“I watched videos on YouTube of growers who participated in the Hort Americas short courses. In addition to its great support videos, the company has provided us with technical support to resolve any problem we have encountered. They helped us determine the best way to use our Current LED grow lights, providing recommendations on use along with floor plans for installation,” said Bennett Cawthon, President of Streamline Farms.
When Cawthon made the switch to cannabis, he couldn’t afford to install a blackout curtain system to grow traditional photoperiodic cannabis. He is producing only autoflower (day-neutral) strains.
“We are a unique company in that there aren’t a lot of growers who are producing autoflower cannabis strains in the type of facility we are operating,” he said. “Autoflower strains are more of a buffer crop that most cannabis growers produce outdoors during the summer.
“Because of our unique growing situation, there was a lot of conflicting data as to how to grow the crop. We had to try it ourselves to determine what did and didn’t work. We had the grow divided into 10 subsections and were harvesting and replanting every week. We are technically on our 26th crop turn. We will be producing five full crops this year. We are happy with the autoflower strains we are growing. We have been able to achieve a great margin and low cost of production.”
While Cawthon took some horticulture classes in high school and environmental science classes in college, he didn’t have any real-world experience growing food crops commercially.
“I watched videos on YouTube of growers who participated in the Hort Americas short courses,” he said. “In addition to its great support videos, the company has provided us with technical support to resolve any problem we have encountered. They helped us determine the best way to use our Current LED grow lights, providing recommendations on use along with floor plans for installation.
“We are using two sets of lights in the facility. We have installed Current Arize Element L1000 LED grow lights that use 40 percent less power than our 1,000-watt high-pressure sodium lamps. The LEDs, which provide some blue light and a lot of red light, are used from week 2 to week 5 to optimize plant growth and photosynthesis. Then, we switched to full spectrum and turned on the HPS lamps. Lighting really matters this far north; the outside daily light integral (DLI) in December is around 8, whereas, in June, the outside DLI is around 50-52.”
Another way that Cawthon has been able to reduce his company’s costs is by replacing the sterile coir substrate he was previously using for vegetables with living soil for the cannabis crops.
“The living soil technique is very similar to the way that farming used to be done,” Cawthon said. “The soil is an ecosystem that contains a lot of microbes that have a symbiotic relationship with each other and the plants. The living soil method rebuilds the building blocks in the soil by using active biologicals, earthworms, and compost.”
For the cannabis crops, Cawthon installed 12 raised beds that measure 4 feet wide by 92 feet long and are framed with PVC pipe.
“We brought the soil in from a manufacturer which matched the soil blend we specifically wanted for the cannabis strains we are growing,” he said. “Once the crop is harvested, we remove the plants from the beds and leave a lot of the fine roots behind. There are about 50,000 earthworms in each bed that compost the plant debris.
“We then conduct a compositional analysis of the soil to determine what needs to be added prior to planting the next crop. Based on the soil test, we put a blend of inert organic material, such as bone meal, fish meal, etc., that we put into a concrete mixer. This mixture is then scratched into the surface of the soil, and the beds are replanted. Because the autoflower strains we are growing finish flowering by day 70, we sow the seed directly into the soil. We had low germination rates in the beginning, but now, with some tweaking, we normally have germination rates of 99 percent.”
Cawthon said growing in living soil is an advantage over growing hydroponically because he doesn’t have to constantly calibrate sensors to take pH and electrical conductivity readings. Living soil also offers a much better buffer than other substrates.
“Switching to a living soil and not having to use a conventional hydroponic substrate also allowed us to go from 12 employees to three employees and still be able to produce the crops,” he said. “It took our substrate production costs down from $400,000 per year to $20,000. We went from growing hydroponically in bags of coir to having to move the substrate in and out of the greenhouse every week. With living soil, we have taken a hands-off approach. We are definitely working on our most successful crop yet.”