From choppers to cherry-growing

Kelli Milmine with some of the cherries produced at her Oamaru lifestyle property. Photo by Sally Rae.
Kelli Milmine with some of the cherries produced at her Oamaru lifestyle property. Photo by Sally Rae.
She spent 20 years in the military, including flying Iroquois helicopters, but when it came to cherry-growing, Kelli Milmine was flying blind.

When Mrs Milmine and her husband Darren bought a lifestyle property on the outskirts of Oamaru last year, it came complete with a cherry orchard.

Now she is at the helm of Cherry Farm and selling her fruit at the weekly Oamaru farmers market, online and also direct from the property.

It could not be much further from her past life, which saw her work in such places as Bosnia, East Timor and the Antarctic, but she was relishing the change. There was a lot to learn. Before buying the property, the only thing she knew about cherries was how to eat them, she joked, but she had sought advice and researched the topic.

Brought up in Oamaru and educated at Waitaki Girls High School, Mrs Milmine acknowledged she ''fell into the air force'', rather than it being a career goal.

She had a good friend who wanted to be a chef in the air force and she thought, ''hell, I'll try too''. At the same time, she applied to be a full-time check-out operator at the Woolworths supermarket, but was turned down.

She was accepted into the air force, where she was initially an accounts clerk. Later, being good at mathematics, she thought she would like to be a navigator, and it was suggested she try to become a pilot.

She started on fixed-wing aircraft before moving on to helicopters, first flying Sioux and then Iroquois.

''I had an amazing time and met some amazing people and did some amazing things,'' she said.

But after two decades, it came time for a change and she returned to live in her hometown.

Her desire for a lifestyle property was driven by her long-standing interest in horses and it just happened that she and her husband bought a property that ''kind of came with a business''.

The cherry orchard at the Jessop St property was established about eight years ago and there were 1200 to 1300 dwarf cherry trees, encompassing about six different varieties.

The couple had worked hard, aided by Willing Workers On Organic Farmers, (Wwoofers) from all over the world, to transform and tidy the orchard. It was also very fortunate that her husband was very mechanically minded, she said.

With the arrival of son Fletcher, now aged 2, the cherry venture fitted in well with family life, she said.

Having a child had ''just knocked me for a sixer'' - ''I had no idea what to expect'' - and she had to come to terms with that loss of freedom.

However, being at home meant she might as well be doing something productive, so the cherries were ideal. She was also relishing the opportunity to be her own boss.

Mrs Milmine managed to get quite a long season from her cherries, although it was quite late starting this year. She expected it would continue until at least the end of this month, if not the first week of February.

It had been a ''really rough season'' for the cherries, damaged by hail, thunderstorms and rain, but fortunately she had varieties that were not yet ready.

In the future, Mrs Milmine planned to start producing cherry preserves, all with quirky names to go with the enterprise's logo ''Crazy about Cherries!''

As for flying?

A brush with cancer in 2007, which required a melanoma in her eye to be cut out, meant she could never be a day-night pilot. But that did not bother her, as her life had changed since her air force days and it was ''fantastic''. While further travel was still on the drawing board, she loved being at home with her family, she said.

sally.rae@odt.co.nz

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