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Hawaii: Maui trout farmer is closing up shop after rough year

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

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.’” 

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