Farming is a tough business, but it’s been particularly tough for John Dobovan lately.
In the last year alone, Hawaii’s first commercial aquaponic trout farmer steered its small business through the massive December 2021 storm that inundated its hatchery — and it did so after losing much of its income and falling behind on rent when restaurants closed during the Pandemic stopped placing orders.
Then in August, thousands of fish died in a freak power outage across the island. Three months later, Hawaiian Electric officials say they are still working to determine what triggered the event that left 65,000 Maui customers without power for most of the morning. Dobovan didn’t know if he would keep Kulahaven Farms alive after losing an estimated 4,000 trout when the backup generator failed.
But things have been looking up in the last few weeks.
Workers harvest hundreds of fish a week. Demand from restaurants and other consumers is growing faster than ever—far more than the farm can handle. And now, Dobovan said, the farm is making the highest profit in its nearly seven-year history.
That makes it particularly ironic, Dobovan said, that as soon as everything goes well again, the farmer is now faced with an insurmountable hurdle for many others. His lease expires after the power outage in August set him back on his rent again.
By the end of the year, Dobovan must now pack up all of his farming equipment on the Kula property he’s called home for years, sell thousands of fish, and move out.
“It was a punch in the pit of the stomach at first,” he said. “But after sitting for a few minutes, I realized, ‘Well, this is actually the universe telling me it’s time to get my butt off and build the big farm that we’re capable of.’ ”
Dobovan’s goal has always been to move to a larger farm — one where he could raise five to 10 times the amount of fish, build a commercial kitchen, run farm-to-table tours, and even set up a trout fishing spot. He also wants to build an education center as part of his dream to one day create an aquaponics training ground where his team can coach aspiring farmers and help them start their own rainbow trout operations.
But Dobovan is now facing one of the biggest obstacles for anyone working to support Hawaii’s families – lack of access to land. It can be nearly impossible for local growers to raise the hundreds — or millions — of dollars required to purchase real estate, and it can be just as daunting to find a landlord willing to sign a long-term lease.
In upland Maui, where Dobovan would ideally like to farm due to the colder temperatures needed for the trout, finding a steady water supply can also be a problem on some farming land in a location where water infrastructure development has lagged behind for years. And though Maui County has recently attempted to expand its farm park with a focus on organic farming, Dobovan said that won’t help someone like him who has to live on the land 24/7 to care for the animals – in his case, thousands of trout.
These problems are part of a complex mix of factors that have made it so much more difficult to grow more local food in Hawaii, where an estimated 85% of the food consumed is imported. That also drives up the costs. On Maui, for example, the number one reason people call 211, the service that directs people to social services ranging from rent assistance to medical resources, is because they need help shopping for groceries.
“I’m really concerned about Hawaii’s food security,” Dobovan said.
That’s why Dobovan invested $1 million over eight years to figure out how to build Hawaii’s first aquaponic rainbow trout farm that would recycle water from the aquariums to grow organic watercress. The farm could produce about 1,000 pounds of trout and 2,000 pounds of watercress a month.
It’s a sustainable source of protein and nutrient-dense greens, Dobovan said, which is grown on about a third of an acre. Compared to other farms, his farm also uses little water; It just needs to replace what evaporates from the tanks once they’re filled, he said.
The silver lining, Dobovan said, is that he was already speaking to a potential investor looking to expand his business when he received the letter in the mail about the end of his lease. He sees this as the end of the experimental “Phase 1” – and is now looking for a new property where he can increase his income with other sources of income such as farm tours and the ability to cook and sell trout on site. Ideally he wants 5 to 10 acres above 2,000 feet elevation so he doesn’t have to use electricity to cool the trout’s tanks.
“I really don’t know how to stop,” Dobovan said. “I’m on a mission.”
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.
Hawaii Grown is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, the Ulupono Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.