We were able to bring Bobby Devine from Spark1 in Montana for an awesome discussion going over how he got his start in the industry, how he manages to keep his crops humming for all seasons in an unforgiving climate, a unique take on the recent wave of industry acquisitions, and advice he has for new growers.
This is a man who really eats, sleeps and drinks this stuff with nearly 30 years under his belt … and his team knows their crops inside and out. We cannot thank him enough for taking the time to geek out on growing with us. This interview was lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Go follow Spark1 Montana on Instagram right here.
AROYA: Hello! Welcome to another live sesh. Thanks for joining. Today, we're going to be having an interview with Bobby Devine from Spark1 in Montana.
Bobby Devine, Spark1: So all right. I'm Bobby Devine. I own Spark1 here in Montana. Our cultivation is in Bozeman and we've got four stores around the state soon to be a few more. I'm really the kind of person who wants our foundation good until we keep building it up.
I love Montana ... love the industry here. It's a funny little niche market and I'll take it--no offense to all you Cali guys. I don't want to fight it out with you guys.
AROYA: Did you grow up in Montana? Is that where you're originally from?
Devine: No, no. I'm from the East Coast. I grew up in Connecticut and I was in Colorado for about three years and I've been in Bozeman for 29 years.
AROYA: I didn't know you grew up in Connecticut. I grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut myself, I lived there for quite some time.
Devine: Ah, I'm a Greenwich kid. Not far away.
AROYA: Not far at all. A stone's throw. Why don't you tell us a little bit about what got you into the cannabis industry? What is your main attraction to it? Was it the pure just cultivation aspects of it? Or was it you just enjoyed smoking? What really drew you into becoming the grower that you are now?
Devine: I had a love for the plant for a long time. I mean I grew my first cannabis plants when I was 22, that's almost 30 years ago. Just tinkered and tinkered and as medical came into play and whatnot, it was just a no-brainer for me. Here's a chance to finally live and do something that really engages me and whatnot.
It's been a dream come true. Never perfect. Ever. Rarely is life that way. It's a lot better than it was 30 years ago. I'll tell you that much.
AROYA: I can only imagine. I know how it was only 19 years ago and this is a world of difference. I used to tell people, I think probably it sounds like you had the same vision, that this is going to be legal one day so it was the drive to push for it.
Devine: Right. Why not ride that train so to speak? Why let others get into something that we've created? Granted, it's not a perfect world, I know that. I know there's a lot of resentment out there, the way the industry's moving and whatnot, but what's my choice? Embrace it or move on. And I'll embrace it and I just want a field to play on. I love the game.
AROYA: Tell everybody what kind of setup you have working your way. How did you get into growing with a greenhouse? What were the things that you went through when... now, correct me if I'm wrong, I believe you have an indoor and a greenhouse, yes? Or just greenhouse?
Devine: Yeah. We've got one indoor facility right now. I've had two in the past and we've scaled it down to one that I own and built and got to do what I want in there. I've got one greenhouse that I've had for four years, we just built two more, so three bays. And then we've got another one, a project starting this spring. Bigger greenhouse and then depending on our crazy legislature up here, seeing how rec rolls out. We've got a pretty amazing project in the works.
AROYA: I must say I'm in awe of what you just recently built. It looks amazing.
Devine: It's Bowes [lights]. It's funny because I've heard people call them facates and this and that. They're insane.
We’re working out the bugs in that greenhouse right now, getting everything online, and it’s definitely taking a lot longer. The biggest hurdle was just getting a power upgrade. It took me seven months to finally get that hooked up. Now that we've got power, we're just dialing everything out. Next week we'll have plants in there and start rocking that out.
“Aroya is a great way to be able to see firsthand, wow, we defoliated this room, our plants aren't drinking as much so on, so forth.”
I love the differences in environment. I spend most of my time back in this greenhouse. Every day is different out here. I mean I'll just open the door and show you what it's like in Montana today. It's straight up snow. I mean it was 10 below zero a few days ago here. It's an ever changing gig.
AROYA: What kind of heaters are you using in your facility?
Devine: So we've got natural gas heaters, forced air. It rocks. It was 15 below zero with 35 mph winds on Saturday night and my tents did not drop below 72 degrees in this thing.
Devine: Here's our heater back here. It's a beast. It's 500,000 BTU and we just run it like your normal eight stack. It's pretty simple ... I like simple.
AROYA: Hey, the Kiss method is key to life, right? Keep it simple, stupid.
Devine: Oh my God. I am so susceptible to FOMO. Anybody who knows me will tell you that. I have to keep myself out of there because we have really simple things that work great. Pretty soon, I'm like, "Oh, dude, look at that new thing that's so and so's got going." Everybody's a hero on Instagram. You don't see the trials and tribulations.
AROYA: You don't see the mistakes, you only see the success.
Devine: Right. And I get it. But it's funny, I like seeing all those mistakes. That's what makes us. You don't see what goes on here on the daily. It's easy to look at Spark's page and be like, "Oh my God, those guys just show up to work and their plants just throw down” and that is far from reality. It's always something. I mean I just found that in general, in life, problems are always coming. It's how we deal with them that defines us.
Aroya is a great way to be able to see firsthand, wow, we defoliated this room, our plants aren't drinking as much so on, so forth. We had ACs out during that time. You name it. That's what I really like it for.
AROYA: What brought you into Aroya? How did you find out about Aroya? What was your draw to it? When obviously having all these climate things, do you use our alert systems? Give us a little bit of background about what you're doing and how you're utilizing the platform.
Devine: Well, I mean how I found out about Aroya running into you in Vegas. And you coming up to me and saying hi walking down one of the aisles because I had a Spark hat on. From there we went back-and-forth a little bit, learned about the program. I've been a big fan of Crop Steering for a long time.
Went back-and-forth for a while and we had a manager here that I was constantly debating with about our watering cycles. I was like, "All right, that's it, dude. I'm getting Aroya. We don't even need to talk about this anymore. I can see what's going on, you can see what's going on and it'll be right there in front of us." It takes a lot of interpretation out of things.
That was the kind of the initial driving force. To be quite honest, I'm not into growing as much anymore. As much as I love this, and I want to be here all the time, I just can't be. And Aroya's enabled me... it's funny, when we were scheduling this, I'm like, "Oh, I don't know if I'm going to be in town then." Oh, even cooler, if I'm doing this from a cabin somewhere where we're back country skiing and whatnot, that's a real testament to Aroya. Because I mean I am OCD, type A plus-plus to a fault.
This has really enabled me to sit back and also see how the crew problem solves here. I'm so impressed on the daily what these guys are doing. Their little tweaks and whatnot. Just amazing.
AROYA: I think that's been the nicest part about this platform is it acts as a mediator. You no longer have to argue is it a deficiency or is it a toxicity? Are you irrigating enough, are you irrigating too much? I got told this a long time back by a grower that our job as growers is, one, problem solving, because you're always going to have a hurdle to cover in a day. And, two, managing drybacks. If you're not drying back, then your plants are suffocating.
I feel like you hit it on the head on just terms of what this platform really does for everybody. Are you using the alert feature? When you're dealing with all these temperature changes and everything else going on outside and inside in your greenhouses, do you tend to set alerts? Are you using that function on the platform?
Devine: I haven't been. Now that you say that, I figured a lot would come up in this conversation of things that we could do more to utilize things. I haven't necessarily been using Aroya for that. I mean I've got a little pulse back in this greenhouse, which will tell me if my heat turns off and whatnot. But I'd like to be using that more, I'd like to be using the tasking more.
Even if I'm not the one who's necessarily generating those tasks and whatnot, I can see how people are communicating. I can see their thought process going on there and the receptiveness to it, which tells me a lot. Could definitely use that more, no question about it.
AROYA: What's probably the greatest thing that you learned while using Aroya? What was an ah-ha moment that you had maybe while utilizing this platform so far?
Devine: Drybacks, no question about it. We are a little challenged with power here and all my indoor rooms are flipped. So we run noon to 12:00 a.m. and 12:00 a.m. to noon. And if you're not in a room when it starts up in the morning, you don't know. My guys are coming here at 7:00 and 8:00 in the morning and they're like, "Oh, they're dry. We need to add this," as opposed to really being able to see what's going on in those 12 hours that nobody's here.
That's been huge because I saw a lot of reactiveness happening at the end of the day pushing a ton of water through the plants when it was really the beginning of the day that they needed that. That's without question the biggest thing.
A lot of things that I've done in the past now … we've got a way to really take a look at that and see what's actually happening as opposed to some punches, some guesswork. Not that we were doing poorly by any means, it was just a really great way to just hone things in.
AROYA: How did you do irrigation before in the past? Were you guys using scales? Were you using the old lift it method? Or were you just following a set program?
Devine: Man, I've done it all over the years. I've grown in 20-gallon pots and one-gallon rockwool. Kind of touch and feel. I've got an interesting knack for that. I can walk into a room, man. it's just ingrained in me at this point.
AROYA: I hope so after 30 years. You better have knack for it. Give us that's been in it long enough, we could walk in a room and sense shit's off.
Devine: Definitely. Granted, during that time in the past it was a very different gig. For me, I've always been a real multiple water-a-day guy. About 10 years ago when I really made the switch to coco, I found that the more waters, the better I did. Every time you water it's bringing in oxygen behind it so it was then. Then having some irrigation mishaps and seeing how rooms responded to a lot more water than I was used to giving them. It was like, oh my God, that zone right there, what's going on with it? Oh, whoa, the timer's all messed up.
Or gravity was kind of doing its thing in one of the wacky groves I had and it was siphoning a lot of water out of one of the tanks before I knew what was going on with that.
AROYA: Have you increased, decreased or maintained your substrate size since you started using Aroya? Have you changed your substrate size at all or have you maintained the same substrate size that you were using before?
Devine: Actually, we're changing it. I'm loving slabs, man. We talked about that a lot in the past. It's really hard to steer a six-inch rockwool cube. It just is.
AROYA: I think that's the coolest thing to see with people that we work with is once they have the data, it's astonishing how fast people move away from a Hugo block. Once you see that dryback and how uncontrollable it is, those Hugo blocks get thrown out the door pretty quickly.
Devine: That's just it. It's hard to calculate those dry downs, or not even calculate them, but get them really dialed. You're fighting at the beginning of the day to get your water content up there. Keeping it there is hard and really keeping it there a lot of times you'll get channeling and whatnot. I'm seeing with the slabs it's way easier to steer and the plants are telling us differently.
It's so easy to get in your head about all this shit. You can sit back and go, "Oh my God, Spark waters 12 times a day." Really, the plants tell you what's up. I've had people say, "Oh, dude, you're using too much calcium," or whatever. I'm like, "Yeah, argue with my plants." I mean really.
It's funny too because you get so set in these ways and then you have a mishap like an AC out or watering problem and you start to see, and I've known this, there's no one way to do this. I don't care if you water once a day or 12 times a day, but it's got to balance out somewhere or another.
In this greenhouse, I am sitting on five gallon pots that I had from two and a half years ago full of coco. I figured, let's just leave them there, I'll put our cubes on there. It's been a learning experience for sure. I thought it'd be like slabs. It's been interesting. One of the things that you've probably encountered is what you put a coco block, or, sorry, a rockwool block on top of coco, that coco is going to wick that moisture out of that block all day long.
“Honestly, I can't imagine growing without it anymore. Just for that data right there so you can correlate firsthand.
I couldn't get my water content to about 30% in the blocks, yet my five gallon pot is just like a brick. Actually, now I've put a little mound of perlite down and stack our block on that.
So the roots grow through the perlite, we top dress underneath the perlite with our SI granular and worm castings and whatnot. I've been having a little better control with that. I don't know … the plants have always done great out here given that. I need to water a lot less in the greenhouse. I like keeping a lower water content in the medium for sure.
AROYA: That makes sense. I'm sure you find that during the wintertime your plants maybe aren't transpiring as much as during the summertime when your micromoles are much higher. Are you adjusting strains as well winter to summer, or do you run your same strains all year around?
Devine: We're finding different strains do better out here so we're getting that down to the same strains back here for sure. I have a much higher relative humidity in the wintertime because we're not venting as much. So in turn, I'm watering less also, and feeding a little more because I'm not watering as frequently and whatnot.
AROYA: When you have lower rates of transpiration you tend to need to increase your yeast D, your feed DC and substrate DC because they're not moving as much nutrients up and through the plant. That I tend to find as well, is that winter crops need a much higher substrate DC and feed DC versus summer crops that you can feed a lot less because at the end of the day you're feeding more in total volume than you would during the wintertime, so that's always an intriguing part about it.
What is your favorite feature of Aroya? I don't know if I asked you that one yet? What's your favorite feature that we released or that you've utilized?
Devine: I don't know. I keep it pretty simple. I mean just checking our watering all the time, all the time.
AROYA: Substrate sensors.
Devine: Yeah. Sensors have been great. I don't know if I really have a favorite feature, because, honestly, I kind of oversee it. These guys here are rocking it out a lot more than me. When we first got Aroya, man, I was in every day, just adjusting this three seconds. I had to get my lines just totally congruent and we've really gotten away from that, thankfully.
We also have one person who's spending three hours a day just geeking out so hard and just blinders on looking at one little curve there. I mean, honestly, I can't imagine growing without it anymore. Just for that data right there so you can correlate firsthand.
Seeing how our strains deal with the same food, the same watering. We're vertically integrated here in Montana. There's no wholesaling at all. Everything on our shelves we produce. I've never done a monocrop in my life, ever, ever. I see a lot of people's rooms running one, two strains. I'm like, "Oh, man, whenever I'm able to do that, watch out." A lot of times we've got eight to 10 strains that we're feeding all the same. It's a happy medium there.
That's been kind of fun seeing how different zones react differently. And, also, you think, oh, they've all got to be the same and they don't.
AROYA: That's the big theme I like to drive across to everybody is every strain is different. You could find a happy medium, but if you really want to push everything to the next level, then you really have to steer them a little bit differently to do that. So it sounds like what you've done with your team, because the nature of your industry where you're at in Montana, is you've had to find that happy medium to get them all to be in a good balance versus being able to just maybe drive one all the way in a direction that you want.
Which I think that's a key thing to note: when having all these different genetics, you're going to have to find a medium versus pushing one to the max it could. What would you say one of your greatest challenges as a grower is?
Devine: Ask me on a different day and you'll get a different answer.
Honestly. I'll tell you one of the hardest things is being in Montana. There's not a lot of industry standard here. We order everything we use. A couple of things from the hydra store here and there maybe if we run out. Knowledge for HVACs has been the hardest thing for me here. If you can imagine, there's not as many people well-versed with running ACs in the wintertime here. That's the hardest thing. In the summer, our HVAC hums along perfectly. In the winter, when it's 10 below zero, it's a different story.
“If you're getting into the industry, go work for someone really, really, really good. Or give yourself a ton of time to figure it out. I think that's probably the biggest thing.”
AROYA: I hear from a lot of people who grow in cold weather places say your HVAC systems will freeze over, they stop working ... especially as the temperatures drop. I have a lot of friends out in Maine and they say the same thing as you right now is that HVAC in the wintertime is the biggest headache ever.
Devine: Yeah. As is the greenhouses, that was a big factor for me, obviously, less carbon footprint. Don't get me wrong, I love growing indoors, but it's an antiquated approach to grow plants on planet earth. We don't need to hide out like we used to. But there's a huge learning curve there.
I've done a bit of outdoor growing too and I thought, oh, man, greenhouses just kill it. Without question, it’s the hardest environment between the three, I think.
AROYA: You're dealing with three different environments. You have the outdoor environment, you have the indoor environment and then you have your plenum environment that you're having to manage these three things to make something work together, which is a unique set of skills to be able to manage those three elements to get what you want to happen. So hats off to you in that sense.
What I'm seeing you design and how you're continuously progressing, it's nice to watch from afar and see where your mind's going with things and kind of analyze that stuff.
Devine: You evolve. The second I build it, I'm like, "Oh, man, we should have done it like that." Be it a manifold, you name it.
AROYA: Hindsight's always 20/20, right?
Devine: Oh, yeah. I've redone... it's not even funny how many irrigation systems I've redone here and whatnot. I think we got that down pretty good now.
AROYA: What's probably your greatest words of wisdom that you would give to somebody, either getting in the industry, or that's been in the industry? Do you have anything that you'd like to say as, hey, this is the pointer I would give to anybody that is either in it or wants to be in it?
Devine: If you're getting into the industry, go work for someone really, really, really good. Or give yourself a ton of time to figure it out. I think that's probably the biggest thing. I like keeping it simple. I think there's a lot of... we talked about that before, but there's a lot of hype, oh God, if I use this nutrient line or that nutrient line, or this additive, oh, man, it's on.
What I've found is to figure out what works for you. Figure out what works for your plants and your life. Because this can be such a consuming endeavor for sure. What I'm seeing is forging your own path is really important. I do a lot of things here that people would argue with me all day about. You can't do that. Oh, bigger roots, bigger fruit, blah, blah, blah. Whatever. There's a lot of different ways to balance it out.
When you change one thing, it's not the end-all or be-all there, they all connect in so many different ways. I've been in so many grows that I see things that I would never do, but they're working for them so cool. I don't care if you grow with coco or rockwool or peat. I was an organic grower for 10 years and that's evolved for me. Just my likes and dislikes.
Every now and then I go back to organic growing in the greenhouse or around and whatnot. I just don't feel like there's one way to do anything. When people get righteous about that, I get so turned off by it, I mean truly. Because I appreciate the awe and I appreciate all the hard work that people put into this. Love and affection, you name it, all the above. I hear that less and less, but I've heard it a lot over the years in that sense. Find a way and stick with it. Perfect that for sure.
AROYA: I would like to echo that. I think too many people, it's like fishing, if you move spots all the time you're never going to catch a fish. You don't need to copy what everybody else is doing. Stick with what you're doing, persistence is what pays off in this industry. I think the thing that I've gotten from this interview the most is, and your story, is sticking with a path and then figuring out which part of this system works for you.
I think it's all too often as growers you're looking over the fence and you're seeing somebody else do something and you immediately jump ship to join what they're doing before you've perfected what you were doing.
I think that I would love to add to what you said in that sentiment that persistence is what's going to get you there: Stick with what works for you. Don't be afraid to see it to the finish line in that aspect because I think that's key. I think that you're a good example of this, that you've taken things one step at a time. Instead of changing the whole farm, you're making micro adjustments, as you were saying, with your pots and everything else that you've done. If you kind of made a little change here and there and you kept with what worked instead of saying, "Oh, somebody else is doing this, let me just flip over to that and do that exact thing."
Devine: Without a question. We get in our heads so much and that can be a really bad place to be. I'll analyze shit into a crumb and pretty soon wake up in the morning and have 10 other different ideas. It's funny, with the feeding thing, I try to keep that really simple. I got to a point in my life where I wanted to replicate myself. How do you do that? How do you teach someone all these different parameters? And what I keep finding is just going back to the base.
Are they underfed or overfed? I don't know. To me they both look the same, they're not getting enough of a certain nutrient. I really go back to the basics every time. I'm not going to sit here and be like, "Oh, zinc. No, it's magnesium. Oh, I bet it's malignum." Sorry, that's also why I don't mix my own nutes because once again, I will eat myself alive doing that.
So if we have problems, we'll just push our feed, a lot of feed through them and kind of reset that substrate and then work from there. But keeping that thinking out of it. Because it's hard for guys, especially working for someone like me, I'm a pain in the ass a lot of the time. I don't want these guys to have to second guess, "Oh, no, if I make the wrong decision, Bob's going to...'' blah, blah, blah. So really keeping that simplicity there is, I think, very, very important.
AROYA: I think that's why I like the historical data the most on this platform is getting to see what you did and what sequence of events you did it in so that way maybe you don't have to second guess yourself. You can look back at your history and say, "Okay, I did X, Y and Z this last run. It worked great. I just may copy and paste that exact sequence of events to make sure I'm doing the same thing instead of always reinventing the wheel, one run after the next run."
If I was to say, as a grower myself, what my favorite part of Aroya is, is the historical data. I think from what we all conclude on is that not changing things every run is what builds consistency and success. So everybody that's out there that is watching this, you heard it from Bobby. Stick with what you're doing, be persistent. Don't make large changes, but make micro changes. I think in there you'll find success.
Then, also, don't get so caught up in what everybody else is doing. Be content with where you're at and what your journey is because I think part of your journey is enjoying where you are. And you're always going to move forward in that journey. The nice part about watching my friends and people like Bobby is seeing what they've been doing building-wise step-by-step-by-step. He's not going from zero to 100, he's building one greenhouse at a time and understanding what works with it. Then building onto them as he gets to that.
He said it himself, that he's not going to overbuild what he can't control or what he can't manage. He's building one greenhouse, understanding what works, and then going to the next instead of building 20 greenhouses at once that he's never operated because there's always these hiccups that you run into. I think that was really helpful information and great feedback.
Devine: Yeah. I really like what you just keep saying. And having that data there to correlate all these little things that you do. I learned so much from my crew here now having Aroya. Because they'll make choices that I wouldn't make and that I might even freak out about. "What the hell is this? Don't do that." Only to correlate and be like, "Actually, that worked out pretty good." And I learn from them now too, which is really cool too.
Another thing that we haven't talked about, and this is kind of a dirty subject in the cannabis world now, but acquisitions. Your SOPs and whatnot. I know a lot of people think that selling your company is just the worst thing you could ever do. I'm not saying I'm doing that right now, but if you do, Aroya's going to add to the value of your company. There's no question about it. The ROI on that, it's huge, because it's a correlated endeavor that you're doing that you can actually show and teach people.
Now I know, I've sent two people your way. I won't name any names, but some really big companies who are going to be rocking your stuff out in all their multi-states, this and that. I'm really psyched to see what they do with it because they come at this from a very different place. So yeah, we can all say, ah, the big guy sucks, and believe me I subscribed to that at times too. But, the reality is there's a lot that we can learn from them as business owners. Maybe not as much as growers, but running a business and growing cannabis are two very, very different things. And, unfortunately, in this world your business acumen kind of determines a lot of your staying power in this industry.
Obviously, your product dictates that, too, and I'm a firm believer of that or we wouldn't even be having this conversation.
AROYA: I think that's a good unique point. I definitely want to say that for anybody that's out there, it can be and is used to help build your SOPs. Because as you log your information in, we do store that historical data for you so you could always look back at what you logged and start basing your SOPs around that.
Then to your point, if you are a company that is out there trying to get acquired at some point in time, that's what you're going to sell as part of that acquisition is the data that you logged to be able to show that you have the results and the means to get the results. And your results speak for themselves … well done, Bobby. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us and do this interview with us.
Devine: Oh, my pleasure. I got to say, you're one of the most knowledgeable people out there in the cannabis industry. And I'm so grateful that you stopped me that day and we started talking. I can't say it enough, if you're even on the fence, just do it. Do it one room, see what happens. You'll learn something from that. I guarantee if you do it in one room, you're going to do it in another and another and another. Truly appreciate you, man, truly.
AROYA: Thank you. I'm honored that I got to meet with you. I'm honored that you were willing to speak with me at that time and that you had the faith in me enough to join the team and work with us. I think it's always hard when making a financial investment in anything, and I always pay a lot of respect to all those that believe in what we’re doing and what we’re helping bring to this table.
What the Aroya team is doing to help elevate everybody as an industry. We're out there trying our best to bring excellence to the industry. Once, again, if you guys reading are ever in Montana, please go check his product out.
Devine: Yeah, look us up. And, honestly, thank all of you for tuning in. You get to see... man, I'm just a regular guy growing herb who's passionate about it. Beforehand I was like, what am I going to say, this and that. We'll just do this organically and whatnot.
You see, I'm no genius over here doing it. I think that hopefully gives a lot of people confidence that I use that hashtag #HardWorkNeverFails a lot because that's just it. I don't care what you do, just keep at it.
AROYA: No days off. We're all out here trying to work hard and I think that's what keeps us moving forward is the persistence. Everybody out there, keep at it, keep working with it. I think that if you're ever out in Montana, please check his product out. If you don't follow him already. His page is awesome.