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Hawaii’s Rick Cupples

Growing Tomatoes in a Rainforest?

The Tomato Magazine
December 2005

Coping with 250 inches of annual rainfall, the emissions from an active volcano and more slugs per acre than anywhere in the world, Rick Cupples has his work cut out growing fresh market tomatoes.

Cupples literally owns a piece of the rock. His small farm, near Volcano, Hawaii, is located over a bed of volcanic rock covered with no more than a foot of top soil. Located smack dab in the middle of a rainforest, he purchased the six-acre site in 1985. Later, he cleared two acres of vegetation with a bulldozer and eventually worked himself into growing organic tomatoes for local health food stores.

In order to grow much of anything, Cupples was forced to bring in chopped green mulch from a neighboring dump site, spread it over the top of his rocks and erect a 30- by 100-foot greenhouse equipped with both a hydroponics system and rows of mulch with drip lines. The greenhouse, itself, is a Conley arch-type, constructed after experimenting with an earlier home-made prototype. He began with a 15- x 50-foot structure using plastic stretched over electrical conduit pipe.

Uses a Catchment System
The grower uses “a catchment system” to collect the water important to his home and greenhouse production system. He has a 10,000-gallon storage tank. In addition, there is a 60,000-gallon water reservoir on the property, used mainly as a duck pond. The ducks are very important. They eat up hundreds of slimy slugs that can be found virtually everywhere and which would pose a threat to his tomato crop.

“ We have a lot of slugs here,” the grower says. “With 250 inches of rain each year, that’s 50 inches more than they get in the Amazon. Those kind of climatic conditions bring with them an abundant supply of slugs, and our ducks, called Indian runners, do a good job of stopping them before they can get into the greenhouse.”

Getting started was no easy task, Cupples admits, pointing out that there are no books on how to farm successfully in a rainforest. Today, his small business, such as it is, is a result of “a lot of mistakes,” the product of trial and error.

Much of his expertise in hydroponics tomato production came under the tutorship of Dr. Bernard Kratky of the University of Hawaii. Kratky was the first to bring the concept of non-circulating hydroponics tomato production to the islands, an idea he picked up in Taiwan at the AVRDC (Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center). Cupples worked under him as a research technician from 1992 to 2002, while dabbling in various farming ventures on the side.

“ Fortunately, I learned a lot about tomato production while serving on the job,” the grower smiles. “I was able to learn about the complexities of growing tomatoes in a humid environment while getting paid for it.”

The hydroponics system is non-circulatory. The plants grow in 4-inch pots in a tank of non-circulating nutrient solution. With electrical rates in the area extremely high, Cupples does everything he can to cut consumption. Even having a single vent fan is considered too expensive. The sides of the greenhouse have been raised six to eight feet to permit more air flow. He uses a solar panel and batteries to run the irrigation system.

Serious Disease Challenges
Growing tomatoes in a rainforest also means coping big time with such diseases as early and late blight, the grower says. Experience has taught him that it’s futile to believe you can halt such diseases in their tracks. The challenge is to harvest what you can before the plants all wither and die—one leaf and stem at a time.

“ There are organic products available for early and late blight, but when it’s raining every day, there is not a lot you can do to prevent them,” he admits. “Under my cultural system, one of my strategies is to pinch the plants at three leaves above the fourth cluster instead of letting them go to eight or more. Even under our experiments at the university, the best we could do was to limit the disease using chemical fungicides. After the four-cluster stage, all of the leaves go kaput. That means taking the old crop out and going in with new plants on the same day. Adversity is a great teacher, and dealing with these diseases is never easy.”

They Like His Vine-ripes
But despite his problems, Cupples says local health food stores purchasing his vine-ripe tomatoes couldn’t be happier with the taste. Many locals had never tasted a naturally ripe tomato and find the taste far superior to mature greens artificially ripened with ethylene gas. And the tomatoes they ship in from the mainland can’t compare to his for freshness, quality and flavor.

“ I pack all of my tomatoes very carefully in newspapers,” Cupples says. “Everything is done by hand. No washer-sorters are used. Once I begin making my deliveries, I drive very slowly on the unpaved road from my farm to the highway since these are vine-ripes and can be easily bruised.”

Since incurring an injury at his job as a research technician some time back, Cupples has been forced to cut back on his physical activity. Hence, he is considering selling out and relocating to Arizona.

“ I have a brother in Arizona and have visited that state before,” the grower says. “Going from a rainforest to a desert is quite a switch and has its pros and cons. The Arizona climate would be more beneficial to my health but I worry about future water availability. With so much development going on in Arizona, I’m concerned about irrigating my crops.”

Despite that, it’s “Arizona, here I come” for Cupples, who believes that his next venture into tomato farming will be at a managerial level, either for himself or working for someone else. He hopes to sell out and relocate within the next year.

Editor’s note: For more information on this article, contact Rick Cupples at Volcano Farm Products, P.O. Box 810, Volcano, HI 96785; e-mail: riccup@netzero.net.

© 2006 Columbia Publishing

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