Farming is a tough business, but lately it’s been especially hard on John Dobovan. 

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In the last year alone, Hawaii’s first commercial aquaponic trout farmer steered his small business through the massive December 2021 storm that flooded his hatchery — and that was after losing much of his income and falling behind on rent when restaurants stopped putting in orders during the pandemic.

Then a freak island-wide power outage in August left thousands of fish dead. Three months later, Hawaiian Electric officials say they’re still working to figure out what triggered the event that left 65,000 customers on Maui without power for most of the morning. Dobovan didn’t know if he was going to be able to keep Kulahaven Farms alive after losing an estimated 4,000 trout when the back-up generator failed. 

But in recent weeks, things started to look up. 

John Dobovan estimates that Kulahaven Farms lost at least 4,000 trout during the Aug. 23 power outage — enough to wipe out his business. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Workers have been harvesting hundreds of fish a week. The demand from restaurants and other consumers is growing faster than ever — far more than the farm can meet. And now, Dobovan said, the farm is turning the highest profit in its nearly seven-year history. 

That made it especially ironic, Dobovan said, that as soon as everything started going well again, the farmer is now facing what many others might see as an insurmountable hurdle. His lease is ending after the August power outage threw him behind on 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 off thousands of fish and move out. 

“It was a gut punch at first,” he said. “But after I sat for a couple of minutes, I realized, ‘Well, this is actually the universe telling me it’s time to get off my butt and build the big farm we’re capable of.’” 

Dobovan’s goal was always to move to a bigger farm — one where he could raise five to 10 times the amount of fish, build a commercial kitchen, offer farm-to-table tours and even put in a trout fishing venue. He also wants to stand up an educational center as part of a dream to one day create an aquaponic training ground where his team can coach up-and-coming farmers and help them launch their own rainbow trout operations.

John Dobovan started Kulahaven Farms as an experimental project in May 2016. He wants to expand to a bigger farm. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

But Dobovan is now running into one of the biggest barriers for anyone who’s working to feed Hawaii’s families — a lack of access to land. It can be nearly impossible for local growers to raise the hundreds of thousands — or millions — of dollars needed to buy property, and it can be just as daunting to find a landlord willing to sign a long-term lease.

In Upcountry Maui, where Dobovan ideally wants to farm because of the colder temperatures needed for the trout, finding a steady supply of water can also be an issue on some agricultural land in a place where water infrastructure development has lagged for years. And even though Maui County has recently looked at expanding its agricultural park with a focus on organic farming, Dobovan said that won’t help someone like him who needs to live on the land 24/7 to care for the animals — in his case, thousands of trout.

Those issues are part of a complex mix of factors that have made it so much harder to grow more local food in Hawaii, where an estimated 85% of the food consumed is imported. That drives costs up, too. On Maui, for example, the top reason why people call 211, the service that directs people to social services ranging from rental assistance to health care resources, is because they need help buying food.  

“I’m really deeply concerned about Hawaii’s food security,” Dobovan said. 

That’s why Dobovan ended up investing $1 million and eight years trying to figure out how to establish Hawaii’s first aquaponic rainbow trout farm, which recycles water from the fish tanks to grow organic baby watercress. The farm has been able to 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, that are grown on about one-third of an acre. Compared to other agricultural operations, his business also uses little water; it only needs to replace what evaporates from the tanks once they’re filled, he said.

John Dobovan started Hawaii’s first rainbow trout farm. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The silver lining, Dobovan said, is that he was already talking with a potential investor who wanted to see his business expand when he got the letter in the mail about his lease ending. He considers this the end of the experimental “Phase 1” — and now, he’s on the hunt for a new property where he can boost his income with other revenue streams like farm tours and the ability to cook up and sell trout on site. Ideally, he wants 5 to 10 acres above 2,000 feet elevation so he doesn’t need to use power to cool the trouts’ tanks.

“I really don’t know how to quit,” 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, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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