Hawaii’s Rick Cupples
Growing Tomatoes in a Rainforest?
The Tomato Magazine
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
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
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
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
HI 96785; e-mail:
© 2006 Columbia Publishing
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