Spud woes left far below

22:01, Jan 22 2013

With the market for seed potatoes in decline, Hororata farmer Michael Oakley has found a different way to get things on the up again.

He and wife Kate have diversified the business radically by starting a hot air ballooning business, flying from his farm and other sites around the district.

Mr Oakley is the pilot and jack- of-all-trades as he fulfils many roles in the company - Ballooning Canterbury - even driving customers out from Christchurch.

Getting the business off the ground has had its share of trials but he sees the quiet tourist market after the earthquakes in a positive way - it allows the fledgling company to work its way in.

After 30 years growing potatoes on leased land and cropping the family farm which he bought from his grandfather he said the potato market "had gone sick".

Prices were down and it was getting harder to get suitable land with the dairy boom, something he did not want to be part of.


"There was not much of a future, " he said.

Potatoes were 60 per cent of his income (he still has mixed crops) and it had gone.

The national representative glider pilot tried ballooning in 1997 and decided it was something he wanted to give a go and bought his own balloon.

In July 2010 he made the decision to start his own business and put in an order with an English firm Cameron Balloons in Bristol for a commercial rides balloon capable of taking 16 passengers.

The September 4, 2010, earthquake hit the farm literally, making mayhem in his storage shed, amplifying the need to begin the new venture.

The balloon arrived in January 2011, but the Canterbury tourist market dropped off after the February 22 quake. But they were unswayed.

"We never thought of delaying, " he said.

Civil Aviation Authority regulations, which he said took four months to comply with, did slow the launch down, but he has been floating through the Selwyn skies since October.

Every month the numbers have doubled he said.

He has taken advice on how to break into the market - "I don't want to reinvent the wheel"- and now he said, he has the only ballooning business in the Selwyn area .

The majority of customers are from Singapore, Taiwan, and India and he wants to target and support the domestic market.

Selwyn scenery was ideal for the business. One of his premier flights takes off from Terrace Downs golf resort and flies down the majestic Rakaia Gorge and out on the Canterbury plains where there are plenty of landing sites.

But his sights are set on the skies in more ways than one. He wants to grow the business as the rebuild takes off in Christchurch, and the tourists come back.

From his aerial office he is probably able to view the big picture a bit better than most to achieve it.

(Live Matches)