The potato farmer who turned balloonist

by Sam Button / 04 August, 2018
Ballooning Canterbury flies its colours over spectacular South Island scenery.

Ballooning Canterbury flies its colours over spectacular South Island scenery.

The decision to diversify has seen spud farmer Michael Oakley broaden his horizons.

Almost a decade ago, pilot Michael Oakley and his family decided they didn’t want to just farm their land in Hororata – they wanted to soar above it. Today, if you’re looking up at the dawn sky over the Canterbury Plains, you might catch a glimpse of Oakley floating in his hot-air balloon with a basket full of tourists.

A fifth-generation farmer, Oakley was growing seed potatoes when he decided to diversify into tourism, launching Ballooning Canterbury in 2012. “I knew I had to spend considerable money upgrading machinery on the farm and, at my age, I didn’t see much of a future in the potato business,” he says. “So I followed my heart and my passion – and that was ballooning.”

The change was less dramatic than you might think for Oakley, 53, who still works the farm and says “ballooning in the mornings allows me flexibility”. He began flying gliders 30 years ago, and became a national champion before taking up hot-air ballooning in 1997.

It’s not a cheap business to get into: Oakley and his wife, Kate, who have two children, operate year-round and have spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars on the balloon, equipment and getting the licences to fly”.

Their first balloon, which was custom-made in Bristol and emblazoned with the company’s eye-catching colours, cost $160,000. It was on the boat from England, headed for Hororata, when the September 2010 earthquake rattled the region and badly damaged their farm. More shakes would follow, including the catastrophic February 2011 quake. “Tourism was completely destroyed in Christchurch and Canterbury,” says Oakley. “We’d spent all this money and we had no tourists.”

Two years later, the company finally began running commercial flights, and tourist numbers have, well, ballooned ever since – with customers from 67 countries in the past 12 months.

Oakley’s friendships with local farmers are a cornerstone of the business, from the 4am weather checks and dawn take-offs to landings in the neighbours’ patch. “Most of the farmers around us have actually flown with us,” says Oakley. “That’s helped us put our balloons down where we want – in five years, we’ve never had a complaint.”

And it’s not just the farmers who are pleased. “When people review us, they thank the pilot by name. That’s when you know you’ve done your job.”

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.

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