A seed is sown

by Jill Dickie

Five generations of the Oakley family have successfully farmed and grown vegetables in Canterbury and the current managing director, Robin Oakley, is taking the business forward with a focus on potatoes, beetroot, pumpkin, and broccoli.

From a start with great-great-grandfather John Oakley, then great-grandfather William Oakley, they were originally on a 20 acre farm. William went on to farm 50 acres, growing potatoes commercially with oats and wheat before his retirement.

Grandfather Walter Oakley farmed with his father until 26 years of age then bought his first farm at Hororata. He also leased land from neighbouring farms to grow potatoes, before purchasing land to farm with his wife, Rose.

Robin Oakley and a sample of his fresh broccoli

Graeme Oakley, son of Walter and Rose, bought the first titles of the Halkett Farm and fully irrigated it to enhance production. He worked together with his father on the Hororata and Halkett farms diversifying into barley, fodder, beet, seed potatoes and red clover for hay.

Graeme worked the Halkett farm with his wife Dorothy until retiring in 2010 and still lives on the original property providing a valuable source of knowledge and support for son Robin.

From an early age, Robin had a keen interest in growing vegetables, winning awards at his local school. His father offered him the opportunity to use one of the farm paddocks to grow vegetables commercially and sell via phone orders. By the age of 15, he was growing certified seed potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, sweet corn and pumpkin and selling produce from a roadside stall to neighbours and the local community.

He left school to work on the family farm and to pursue his vegetable growing interests. At this time there was no specialised machinery for any of the new vegetable crops, so all work was done by hand, though he was able to use his father’s machinery in exchange for labour on his potato farm. By 1985 he was leasing approximately 15 acres from his father and growing cauliflower and cabbage for winter production, as well as pumpkin, sweet corn and seed potatoes.

Young potatoes growing with the aid of an irrigator

There are now 350 hectares of land under production providing a year-round supply of beetroot and broccoli, autumn harvested pumpkins, and gourmet and all-purpose potatoes. The business supports 20 permanent staff, and 15 people are employed part-time.

The business not only promotes buying fresh but also how to store vegetables appropriately after purchase and even offer recipes through their website oakleys.co.nz.

Robin has a deep involvement in various boards and committees, which promote awareness, health and consumption of fresh vegetables in New Zealand, and education and marketing programmes such as Fruit in Schools and 5+ Plus A Day. Outside work time Robin is a keen cyclist, and when asked what he would be doing if not growing vegetables he said, “Biking my way around the world, I am quietly doing it bit at a time. On Sunday I leave for four weeks biking in Tibet and Nepal. I will ride my bike to base camp on the Tibet side of Everest and enjoy views of the mighty mountain itself, part-time living the dream!”