A life attainable

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Over a period of 30 years growing orchids in Hawaii under the name Kalapana Tropicals, Mindi and John Clark have adapted to changing times and industry demands to remain self-sufficient.

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The Hawaiian islands were born out of fire. Scientists theorize they formed from lava that churned out from above a hot spot in Earth’s mantle millions of years ago. Molten rock paved the way for Hawaii’s people, cultures and plants to thrive in the vast Pacific Ocean.

But some communities on the Island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island, have struggled in recent decades — and it's a result of the events caused by the same volcanic impetus. Since 1983, Kilauea, the most active volcano on the Island of Hawaii and one of the most active volcanoes in the world, has been consistently spewing lava. In the Hawaiian language, its name, Kilauea, literally means “spewing.”

The lava flowed in pahoehoe form — which the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory describes as “smooth” and “billowy” compared to the “rough” and “jagged” lava type called `a`a — destroying homes and displacing residents within the Big Island’s Puna District. Among those residents was Mindi Clark, who lived with her husband John in the Puna village of Kalapana, in a home they had built over the course of three years. They lost their home in 1990. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, one day we woke up and the lava flow came down and took our home,’” Clark recalls. “No, it’s more like the slow, cancerous death of watching your whole neighborhood’s homes burn one by one by one over seven years.”

For a short while, the Clarks moved into a shack at their nearby orchid farm, Kalapana Tropicals, a venture they had worked tirelessly on for the previous three years — building the structures and installing the irrigation by hand — and where the facilities remained unscathed. “A lot of mainland people couldn’t do that, but in rural Puna at the time, as long as you had a roof over your head, you were good to go,” she says. “So, we had a little makeshift house, outdoor kitchen, we had running water, had a toilet — we were good.”

Above: Mindi and John Clark's home that was destroyed in 1990. Below: Mindi and John in the early years.
Photos courtesy of Mindi Clark

“Very quickly,” Clark says, she and John invested in an older, two-acre home 20 miles away in Kurtistown, also in the Puna District. In their new yard, they constructed more greenhouses and created a hub for marketing and shipping their orchids. Making the transition from cut flower to potted plant production, they expanded their growing space and plant offerings. Meanwhile, as email and the internet grew ubiquitous, they used these new methods of communication to establish markets in Hawaii, the mainland United States, Puerto Rico and internationally. They toiled at multiple jobs for several years and, later, lost revenue due to the Recession, but they continued reaching out to new customers, hiring more employees and providing for their children, Ian and Cheyenne.

The early years

Mindi and John grew up and met in Southern California. “I was wanting to move out of Los Angeles every summer during my college career, and my brother was living in Kalapana at the time and said that it was ok for us to come over for the summer,” Mindi says. “We came over, and I had to go back to school, and my husband — boyfriend at the time — he stayed.” John received a bachelor’s degree in tropical horticulture from the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Mindi’s degree, by her own admission, is “completely unrelated” to growing orchids.

After she finished her degree, Mindi moved to Kalapana. In 1987, she and John began Kalapana Tropicals as a cut flower operation, and they only grew dendrobium and oncidium genera. For several years, Mindi also worked as a cook and waitress, and John worked in construction. “When we started our nursery, we had nothing,” Clark says. “We had nothing. We were both working other jobs and starting a nursery that had zero cash flow for three years. Zero.”

The Clarks made the choice to earn income through other jobs rather than taking out a loan, which Mindi says worked out well because they developed their business acumen gradually rather than having to quickly adjust to the pressures of running a large-scale operation. Within the company, Mindi addresses marketing, sales and shipping needs, while John deals more with hybridization efforts, overseeing the growers and tending to the property.

When they opened their second location in Kurtistown, the Clarks began growing potted orchids there, and around the same time, started shifting the Kalapana facility’s cut flower production to potted plants. “We started selling products locally to other big wholesalers until I got some of my own customers on the mainland,” Mindi says. “But the old expression was, ‘Dialing for dollars.’ Initially, it was cold-calling people on the East Coast, and from Hawaii, that means you’re getting up at 4 in the morning to make phone calls to wholesalers that you hope might want to buy orchids from you.”

That all changed, Clark says, as the Information Age accelerated. “I did get a website up pretty early in the internet game,” she says. Since then, Kalapana Tropicals has connected with most of its customers through internet and email communication. The company’s website is its primary point of sale, and its twice-weekly newsletter draws in customers.

Above: The top of a speed limit sign raises out above lava that flowed from the volcano Kilauea in 1990. Below: Lava from the volcano Kilauea destroyed homes in Kalapana in the Puna District on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Photos courtesy of the United States Geological Survey

From clone to customer

The Clarks employ two growers — one in Kurtistown and one in Kalapana — who each grow different orchid genera. The Kurtistown location, at a 900-foot elevation, has about 50,000 square feet of growing space, and the Kalapana location, at a 200-foot elevation, has about 35,000, Clark says. There are 22 greenhouses total. “Warmer, drier stuff is in Kalapana — dendrobium, grammatophyllum, cattleya, epidendrum — anything that can take a little more heat, a little more dry [conditions],” she says. “Then, everything that we grow in Kurtistown is more intermediate, so slightly cooler, but not what is typically considered to be a cool growing orchid — so more intermediate — intergeneric oncidinae, miltonia, zygopetalum, paphiopedilum.”

Kalapana Tropicals’ two locations generally experience temperatures between 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, Clark says. The greenhouses have 50 percent shaded plastic coverings to keep off the sun and rain, which tends to fall heavily. Shade cloth walls keep out additional sunlight, as well as birds that, if given unfettered access, would eat the flower buds. Pest and disease management is an important component of production at Kalapana Tropicals, given that fungi, bacteria and insects thrive in this tropical environment.

Orchids are heavy feeders, and receive a weekly liquid feed of fertilizer, Clark says. “We supplement with some more botanical [ingredients] — seaweed, fish emulsion — just to get some more organic fertilizer in. We also topdress with a timed release [fertilizer]. So, we have a pretty aggressive fertilization program going on.”

In addition to their two growers, the Clarks employ several people who handle sales, packing and shipping product, greenhouse maintenance and bookkeeping.”

Above: Mindi and John Clark interact in the greenhouse. Below: Mindi with one of the Clark's dachshunds, Koa.

When the orchids are shipped out, Clark says, they aren’t especially delicate, because 90 to 95 percent of the flowers haven’t opened yet. “Basically, we wrap the base of the plant, top of the media, with some shredded newspaper,” she says. “Then, the plants lay down on flat newspaper and we roll it up kind of like how you fold up a burrito.” Still, packing takes plenty of time, considering Kalapana Tropicals ships approximately 70,000 to 80,000 plants each year.

The business’ largest markets are in the mainland United States, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, followed by international markets. The Clarks hold a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) permit to ship internationally. Wholesale makes up about 90 percent of their sales, and online retail accounts for the remaining 10 percent.

The company works with some people who deal with small, independent grocery stores — as well as orchid growers who hope to increase their production volume and variety, garden centers and people who participate in orchid shows. “We work with a lot of botanical gardens for their annual exhibits,” she says. “Some we’ve worked with for close to 20 years.”

Kalapana Tropicals’ greenhouse operations differ from most simply because of how long the crops take to grow, Clark says. The company custom-submits plants to a laboratory in Thailand that hybridizes and clones the orchids and sends the new plants back in a flask. “If we send in a shoot and say, ‘We want 3,000 of this back,’ that’s going to take us about 18 to 24 months to get the flask back,” Clark says. “Then, once we have the flask back, it’s another two years before we have a salable product.”

There’s no way to tell which crops will be in high demand four years ahead of time, so many decisions about what to clone are made intuitively, Clark says. If a crop falls out of rotation, she says, it can prove beneficial to the business once they bring it back, because demand for that crop has risen in its absence.

Because different genera of orchids can be hybridized, the process still piques the couple’s interest, John says. “With 25,000 orchid species out there and hundreds of thousands of hybrids being created every day, the room for increasing your knowledge about orchids is almost indefinite,” he says.

The new orchid age

Hawaii is an ideal location for growing orchids and other tropical plants.

Recently, Clark says, it appears orchid growers in Hawaii — many of whom represent an aging demographic — have closed their operations. “There have been people retiring, there have been farms that people were trying to sell but didn’t, so they just closed up shop,” she says. “So, there are less crops coming out of Hawaii than, say, there was 10 years ago, or maybe even five years ago.” In Hawaii, between 2007 and 2012, potted flowering plant operations under glass or other protection decreased from 257 to 212, according to USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture.

Industry trends also appear to be changing on the U.S. mainland, Clark says. Throughout the U.S., potted flowering plant operations under glass or other protection decreased from 5,006 to 4,051 between 2007 and 2012, according to the same census report.

Clark attributes the closing trend to the industry becoming more corporate, but also to the younger generation entering the workforce being unwilling to work as hard as necessary to succeed in horticulture. Many young people are seeing quicker financial growth in technical fields. “I don’t think they want to settle for something that’s not really cushy, and I think that’s part of the problem,” she says.

Orchid production, specifically, requires a certain tenacity, John notes. “Orchids is a game of patience, and very few people have the patience and time to put into growing orchids,” he says. “I think that’s what still gives them part of their mystique and allure, is that it’s not a poinsettia, it’s not a chrysanthemum. No one’s going to go out and in three months’, six months’ time — just kill it with it. It’s definitely a long-term game.”

When horticulture students from the University of Hawaii at Hilo and the University of Hawaii at Manoa tour Kalapana Tropicals. Clark tells them it’s ok to start small and expand gradually, as she and John have done. The Clarks have achieved significant customer growth, and it’s increased even more recently since other growers in Hawaii and on the mainland have been experiencing issues. “I think there could be a renaissance — maybe in some areas there is — of going back to family-run farms that are very successful,” she says.

When the Recession hit, it slowed down business, John says, but the Clarks were able to keep their employees. They also realized that they didn't have to continue physically expanding to be successful. “We never were after becoming the biggest and the best, and the richest,” he says. “Certainly, you want to make enough money to live a good lifestyle, but we wanted to control the operation; we didn’t want the operation to control us.”

John Clark pollinates an orchid bloom in one of Kalapana Tropicals' 22 greenhouses.

As for the community of Kalapana, some people are beginning to build on top of the molten rock, but they aren’t the same ones who were there in the ’80s. The lot where the Clarks’ home was, now has a layer of volcanic rock that has made it 80 feet higher than it was when they lived there. Dealing with lava just comes with the territory, Clark says. “In the Puna District, where most of the commercial orchid farms are on the Big Island — we’re all in that section of the island that is on pretty young lava, where there could be lava coming down through a lot of the nurseries at any given point in time, really,” she says. “There’s lava going into the ocean right now, it’s creating more new land — not very far from where our original farm is.”

In 10 years, Clark expects Kalapana Tropicals to maintain the level of business it has now, which she sees as a testament to the strength of the industry. “There’s a lot of good things happening,” she says.

The life cycle continues with the budding and flowering of the orchids, and the ebb and flow of a new tide.