US (HI): Farmer sticks to his price with niche products

John Dobovan, the Maui aquaponics farmer, was 65 years old when he closed the book on a 40-year career in videography to earn a degree in sustainable tropical crop management from the University of Hawaii in 2015. He had a goal: Design an aquaponics system to raise rainbow trout — something that had never been done in Hawaii.

In Kula, Dobovan started designing a trout hatchery funded by his student loans. Slowly, he attracted investors. A death in the family sent some inheritance money his way. And with help from the state Agricultural Loan Division, Dobovan built a successful commercial aquaponics system to raise rainbow trout in two years’ time. “It was the smallest system I could design that could hopefully at least break even, which was my goal — to at least show it could be done,” he said.

Today Dobovan is 74, and his three-year-old Kulahaven Farms is a commercial success. The aquaponics system he innovated is raising about 12,000 rainbow trout that sell mainly to restaurants, such as Mama’s Fish House. The farm also produces 300 to 400 weekly pounds of organic watercress, which he sells to supermarkets on Oahu and Maui. 

Dobovan underscores two keys to his success — he honed in on a pair of niche products and he set a good price for them, shrugging off competition from cheaper imports. “I calculated what I had to charge and I stuck to that,” Dobovan said. “And it’s been a tough sell at times because our watercress is a lot more expensive than some of the other stuff that’s out there.” “But we’re offering unique products — our watercress is organically certified, we’re selling just the very tip of the plant so it’s more like a microgreen than conventional watercress — and we’re able to get our price without feeling like we need to compete with mainland import prices,” he said.

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