By Lyn Hagin Meade
Do you remember the cherry tomatoes that you gorged on as a child? Can you remember the sweetness – the tart and sweet bursting on your tongue and the smell of the land, sweet grass, wildflowers, the buzz of the hedgerows as you passed by? Tucked into a busy urban centre, the 38 acre Airfield Estate recaptures that past in a modern and accessible way.
On my podcast with Grainne Kelliher, I tasted a cherry tomato that came straight from my childhood. As sweet as candy, I could happily have munched my way around the 3 acres of delicious food in the 6 acres of managed gardens! The threatening rain held off and the sun shone, giving an Indian summer feel to a late afternoon. I spent a happy few hours in the balmy outdoors and the fresh air was a panacea to the traffic outside as I felt restored from my afternoons work! Grainne describes her job as CEO of Airfield Estate as the perfect match of philosophies. Bringing with her a deep love of food, a diverse business career and a childhood on a family farm, she has been able to merge her desire to create a sustainable social enterprise with running a visionary Trust.
A unique working farm in a city, the vision of Airfield as an education and sustainability hub, puts it at the fore of experimental ideas for farming and visitor experiences.
South Dublin is already a leafy and green suburb, with plenty of park amenities, nestled between the Dublin Mountains and the sea, but urban development has decimated all other opportunities for farming in the area. Airfield’s innovative educational, farming and tourism development thrives as an idyllic respite from the frenetic hub outside its gates.
The farm at Airfield produces food to serve in its highly rated cafe-restaurant, Overends – a unique farm to fork experience. It’s not simply the usual salads and fruit offerings either – carrot top pesto, multi coloured beetroot salads, Irish grown quinoa, deserts made with Airfield produced Jersey milk, potato gnocchi from the farm’s own potatoes and my small son’s favourite – a blue egg, laid that morning by a resident hen – grace the menu along with preserved delicacies from other seasons.
The Restaurant Chefs and Head Gardeners meet to plan the vegetables and salads a year in advance, to ensure that any gluts are taken advantage of and that the seasons best is used in its entirety. Sustainability and utilisation of the whole product is a key tenet for the cafe.
A democratic and hands off leader, Grainne can be found learning from her head gardeners and farmers, working with them, to allow their own creativity and the flow of ideas germinate and produce the truly spectacular.
The gardens are burgeoning with new and interesting initiatives. With their Organic Growers certification, and their initiative with Seed Savers, growing heritage varieties, they also redesign the beds regularly. One year, barley, wheat and oats were grown in waves, while the apple orchard holds promises for decades to come. Demonstrating how food is produced – from the spreading of manure to the weeding of beds, how food growth follows seasonal cycles – helps to connect children and adults alike to the work that goes into food production. Airfield is subtle, but precise, in their education methods. Grainne believes that by giving visitors a tangible link between food and farming a respect and appreciation for the production effort, and not just the price point or nutritional content of food, can be achieved.
A day at Airfield
The weather had turned cool, it was drizzly and breezy, yet at Airfield, a week before the schools returned from their summer break, the car park was full. Excited summer camp children greeted their parents with pizzas they had made, while another group held small tree branches fashioned into tools. “Look what I made!” was the excited refrain. Airfields CEO, Grainne Kelliher, emphasises how education is central to the mission of the Airfield Estate, established as a Trust in 1974 by the owners, sisters Leticia and Naomi Overend. They had a vision to gift their beautiful estate to the locality and the people of Ireland for the purposes of sharing the farming heritage they built there with their parents from the 1880s.
Nowadays we tend to visit managed spaces where our views are interpreted. We are guided through an experience and exploring is streamlined. Airfield bucks this trend in favour of visitor-led exploration. Self created tours mean that every visit can take on a different character. I notice that the spaces are open – a deliberate design feature – to allow the visitors, child and adult alike, to experience something different each time they visit. Learning is organic and free form; a friendly smile and a simple question can inform visitors and staff work throughout the farm, happy to engage with visitors who take an interest in their work.
Airfield is about starting the conversation, Grainne says, it is a quest for discovery, a way to excel at a business, a way of life and a sustainable future for farming and its links with the community.
Finding the balance between visitor expectations and a working farm can add logistical challenges. Farms need animals cycled through different fields. With opening from 9.30 – 5pm daily, animals get moved early and late. Equally, milking takes place on schedule, at 10:30am each morning. School groups and preschoolers alike delight in watching where the milk comes from and the many calves that can be viewed at times in the barnyard are perennially popular.
Farms are businesses, and the soft fruit is caged – not just to protect from the wildlife, but from hungry visitors! The crop would be siphoned without protection. Grainne explains, The crops at Airfield are products that are needed to pay the estates own way and supply the kitchens. With 8 farming types on a small scale such as this, scientific methodologies and expert knowledge are everything.
Grainne, who grew up on a Co. Kerry farm, has direct experience of the farming lifestyle. These qualities of farming are preserved in Airfield and an equilibrium is sought between creating a visitor experience and the necessities of farming. There is no petting corner – the animals on the farm are a vital part of its economy in a traditional sense. The staff don’t mince words about the role of the animals either, clearly stating that the turkeys that appear in the Autumn will end up on the dinner table. Beef was also a product, but recently the farm is moving away from this, chiefly for sustainability reasons: the diners at Overends had a palate for particular cuts rather than the whole animal and Airfield strives to eliminate any waste. The GLAS principles are central to the estates philosophy, Go with the seasons, use Local produce, Avoid waste, and produce Sustainably.
I grew up close to Airfield, and my childhood memories include the charismatic Ms Overend, who drove her Rolls Royce down the local main street and parked where she pleased, having been one of the first women in the country to drive in the 1920s! The estate backed onto my primary school (the Overends had donated the land to build it) and we gaped over at the bull, imagining he would charge at any red clothes we had!
Now Dundrum is far from a sleepy suburb, but is a thriving travel hub with high-rise apartments, less than 2km from a major industrial estate, 6km from Dublin city centre, on the light rail and motorway systems and with the largest shopping centre in the country 5 minutes walk away. Yet, sitting in the walled garden at Airfield, the eye easily drifts past the highrise frame to the greenery of the mountains. When the sun shines, which it often does on these southern facing slopes, you can believe you are far away from city life in another world and another time.
As we live close by, my family has been able to share in the growth of Airfield over the last few years. Membership to the farm has given us a built in country experience in the city. This is particularly useful for my home school children, who have the pleasure of a farm to visit on wet winter mornings and fruitful summer days. I have found that through the stewardship of Grainne, and the whole Airfield Team, regular visitors can enjoy a sneak peak at the farms workings and a friendly welcome. It’s a place not just to visit, but that you can feel part of a wider community. Grainne adds that Airfield actively pursues community outreach. Their no fee Monday morning walk around the grounds, at a brisk pace, can be a welcome panacea to a lonely weekend and the companionship of the walks have bred friendships beyond the barriers, in the Overends cafe.
At the dairy, Grainne talks to me about a new initiative, once a day milking. Farms usually milk twice a day. The summer drought set in motion an initative to trial once a day milking in a drive to save part of the water involved in the washing and maintenance of the milking machines and area. The can-do and flexible attitude of the farmers and the fact that milk is not the main enterprise, meant that they could experiment with short notice to change the milking schedule. The early results are good. With a single milking, there is only a 20% drop in production, but a 50% reduction in water use. Grainne is conscious that many commercial dairy farmers would not be in a position to experiment with once a day milking, so Airfield are happy to pass on their results over time, to interested farmers. Airfield has many local suppliers that supplement the Estates own produce for Overends. Supporting the farming community, and the local economy, through the cafe is paramount to the Airfield ethos.
Airfield pasteurises its own milk, which it provides to the cafe. Taste the milk and you can taste the difference. In Ireland, it is true you can always taste the grass in our milk, but the Jersey Herd that Airfield milk comes from has an even creamier and richer taste. Likewise, the honey for sale comes from the estates bee hives and the cafe often stocks a small selection of seasonal delicacies and vegetables for sale, along with breads freshly baked on site.
The southerly slopes of the farm are sheltered enough for the experimental grape crop, now in its 4th year. One day in the not too distant future, Airfield wine may be available!
The innovative elements of Airfield extend to aspects of design. For example, the tall Reed Bed is actually a natural water filtration system to recycle grey water from the estate farm and use it for toilet flushing. Even the car park has natural grass drainage built in to prevent winter flooding.
Central to the development of the Airfield Estate was education. The Overends’ vision was to provide education that only a farm could give. The natural seasonal rhythm of the land, the production of food that so often seems divorced from its origins in the supermarket, comes to life at Airfield. The principles of organics, sustainability and conscientious farming are actively demonstrated. The education department survey their educational tours to see the extent of the children’s knowledge of where their food comes from. From work experience to special needs groups, primary schools, summer camps, forest school and seniors’ bus tours, the paid visitors flock to Airfield. Thus, a small part of Dublin has become many visitors’ main link to the countryside.
Of course, families with children always want a little place for the kids to let off steam and the Airfield staff had to meet that demand in a way that matched their philosophy of sustainable, educational, and free form spaces. The result was the Naturescape, complete with zip line and willow structures and a tractor tyre swing. The Naturescape is an imagination hub, full of shrubbery and pliable trees that reveal child sized spaces where a fort could be built or a host of Enid Blyton characters could live.
The Airfield Trust
As a charitable Trust, Airfield Estate receives no Governmental funding. Airfield use its spaces for private functions – from conferences to weddings to fund itself. The house, the event space, and the walled garden, provide a beautiful backdrop to conversation and celebration.
Festival events take place throughout the year, from the recent Playfest, to September’s weekend Food Festival and Storyfest, and the summer Woolapalooza, which attracts thousands of visitors each sheep-shearing season. December will see the annual Santa experience complete with a train and hot chocolate. Evening special event dinners give the chefs a chance to flex their culinary skills, with staff and celebrity chefs presenting gourmet foraging dinners and preserved food dinners throughout the year.
A visit to Airfield is truly on your own schedule. Walking through the grounds you can find a carefully placed chalkboard to read telling you what’s new, a practice life-size cow to try milking on, wonderful little hills to run over, or you can attempt to catch frogs down by the pond.
Well cared for, and thoughtfully maintained, it’s a place I will keep going back to for years to come.
Copyright © 2018, Lyn Hagin Meade. All rights reserved.