Reuben Stahl is owner of Yellowstone Valley Farms, a family-operated hydroponic facility in Laurel, Montana. In this interview, Reuben shares advice from nearly two decades of experience learning to master hydroponic farming.
Hi Reuben, thanks so much for making some time to speak! To start, tell me the story of Yellowstone Valley Farms – How did the farm get started?
To go way back I actually grew up on a farm. My family were all Hutterites, a communal organization, and we lived together on a “colony” as we called it. Farming and ranching was our life. In 2004, my wife and I decided to uproot our family and leave to make our own path. Of course, farming was really all I knew, and I loved it, so I wanted to keep doing that.
I had heard about a greenhouse for sale in this area. I didn’t really know what to think about the technology, but I saw potential. I said, “Let’s do this.”
The greenhouse was set up to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and a little basil; all using perlite bags. You would just stick a water line into the bags and let it run through. It grew alright but there was always just water everywhere, and with the water, bugs. I tried other growing methods, like aluminum pans, but I still couldn’t shake problems from pests, disease, and fungus. I realized the greenhouse was not up to par, so I invested some more into fans and climate control, but I still wasn’t getting the productivity I believed was possible.
I spent years looking into NFT, and I was aware of AmHydro, but I couldn’t quite afford it. Eventually I found some other NFT channels that a guy was selling for pennies on the dollar due to going out of business. I’ve gotten a lot of stuff that way! It really blew me away how much better the technology actually worked.
In the last couple years I finally got my hands on some secondhand AmHydro channels, and I couldn’t deny it really was a superior technology. I started just purchasing more directly from you all, and the whole greenhouse is AmHydro now. It’s been unreal ever since. I’ve got the bug problem under control, I’m mostly focused on basil, selling to six wholesale clients, and I’ve got another greenhouse in the works for next year. I think I finally know what I’m doing.
That’s really impressive that you were able to keep iterating until you found what worked.
Well yeah, you know, there’s so much inherited knowledge when it comes to farming. “We do it this way because it’s worked forever.” And sure, you can see some results, but that doesn’t mean that every approach actually has equal results.
The guy I bought from originally taught me how to grow in perlite! And there’s actually still a ton of people who are doing it that way. But just because you grow up in a certain way, it doesn’t mean you never need to change your thinking. I’ll be honest, when I switched to NFT, I was hopeful, but I still wasn’t convinced that it would be any better than what I knew. Of course, as soon as I got my first harvest, I was more than convinced.
You say you got a lot of your NFT equipment second hand, from people going out of business. If the technology and equipment has been so good for you, why do you think that others couldn’t find success in business with it?
I think there’s a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with the tech. Just because you have good stuff, it doesn’t mean you’re going to run a good business. I bought a ton of AmHydro channels from a guy in New Mexico who just wanted to pursue some other plans instead. Similar story, I got a load of stuff from Gilroy, California. The owner had just lost motivation and had a pile of equipment that he purchased but never set up. The tech works, but farming is still farming. It takes hard work and dedication.
I think one other thing on the business side where people stutter is that you also need to grow a product that someone wants to buy. For me, growing basil in Montana, it’s easy. If I weren’t selling to Sysco here, you know where they’d have to ship it in from? Hawaii, Mexico, maybe California. Mine isn’t even a day old by the time it reaches their dock. They’ll keep buying because they know their customers will love it. There’s demand.
What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome in this journey?
You know, I still don’t have a great dehumidification system. In winter here it gets really cold, and I have to run a natural gas boiler, then vent to control the temp. The resource costs get really high, and it’s still a bit unwieldy. I’m looking into better options, but they cost a lot.
Other than that, thrips were my number one nemesis, but I finally got those under control using my secret sauce; a proprietary pesticide-free formula that I finally got dialed in.
How did you hear about AmHydro or come to start working with them?
I think I was just searching for greenhouse videos on YouTube when I stumbled across AmHydro. I found them very helpful. A few years ago I finally made it down to one of the Seminars, which was great. I’ve been in touch with Rudy and Joe for years now. Rudy is my go-to guy, very helpful with all our orders. I also love following Joe online. He posts some great stuff on LinkedIn.
You mentioned the demand for basil in your area. How did you identify that and start finding customers?
It’s kind of a funny story. When I first bought the greenhouse, the owner handed off a few clients to me, which really helped me get experience with wholesale. I wanted to go bigger – sell to Sysco. My seller told me he was sure they were too big and corporate to be interested. But I just called up Sysco, told them what I had, and sold them on it. They’ve been my biggest customer ever since.
I’m a social animal, and I knew the only way I’d have a chance – or even know for sure – was just to go for it. You’ve got to be able to pursue your goals passionately if you want to make it. You can’t just wait for customers to come find you.
One more thing you might be interested in. I had been wanting to get into clamshells in order to package my produce and get it directly into grocery stores. Turns out, that takes way more work! I didn’t have the capacity with my small team to handle that level of packaging and delivery. Well, another greenhouse opened up down the road from me, focusing on other produce, and with a whole consumer clamshell operation. I partnered with the other business so that they buy basil from me in bulk, then get it into Albertsons and other places themselves.
What’s some advice you would share with new growers – or people who are inspired by your story and interested in starting a farm of their own?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I often sit down to reflect and say to myself, “Man I wish I woulda done it this way…” The biggest thing I wish I had was a good AmHydro growing system right out of the gate. Amhydro is like 30 years ahead of everyone; easier to clean, stronger. I went through two systems that just didn’t work and were outdated but I didn’t know any better. I even tried other cheaper NFTs that paled in comparison. Now I know better, and I’d tell anyone who would listen: Don’t suffer for no reason. If you can afford it, start with something that you know will work.
As far as a market goes: Grow a product and go sell it. Show them your product is better than what’s being shipped in from a thousand miles away. Right now I’m trying to increase sales with a current client. Every week they’re shipping in 130 lbs of basil from California. By the time it gets to the dock here, it’s five days old. They’re always making emergency orders from me because the order is bad by the time they get it. These factors alone don’t mean I can ignore being a salesperson, but it’s easier to be a salesperson when you know you’ve got a great product that people in your area are already demanding.
Thank you, Reuben!
PS – Check out this wonderful seed-to-market video Reuben shared from his farm!