Farm In The City

16th March 2015

Posted In: The Interview

“Let me just get my wellies off,” says Grainne Kelliher, CEO of Airfield Estate, Dundrum, Co. Dublin. Grainne has just returned from roaming the 38-acre site to check on a calving cow.

Farm life comes second nature to this CEO as she grew up on a dairy farm in Dingle, Co. Kerry.

“We were pretty much self sufficient; we had our own meat, veg and bread. So I’m very comfortable with all those aspects of Airfield. I always loved the farm so it’s lovely to be back!” she says one year into her role.

Words: Liv Morgan

Airfield is a charitable organisation established by the Overend family in 1974 for educational and recreational purposes. The inspiring Overend sisters Leticia and Naomi farmed more than 50 acres, kept a prize-winning herd of Jersey cattle, maintained a remarkable garden and serviced their own motorcars, a 1927 Rolls-Royce and an almost equally venerable Austin. They were also enthusiastic supporters of the children’s charity that has since become the Laura Lynn Foundation.

Today it is still a working farm with a Jersey herd, gardens, café and heritage experience teaching visitors about food, farming and the natural world. “We had 200,000 visitors last year,” says Grainne beaming with pride. It is nice to see both CEO and Airfield Estate thriving. On April 9th the team will celebrate the one year anniversary since opening Airfield’s doors after an €11 million revamp. “This time last year it was a building site! So there was a lot of tired faces walking around,” she says.

Grainne joined Airfield in January 2014, having spent 20 years in the corporate world. “I always had the ambition to work in the not-for-profit environment and I was kind of planning that transition over the next 5-10 years. Then the opportunity at Airfield presented itself. My background was quite suitable, growing up with farming and I worked in Disney in Paris for seven years so the attraction side was something that I was familiar with. I had also worked in food and beverage so it really was a dream job.”

Admittedly the move from the corporate world was a daunting one. “It was only when I thought through the transition that I got worried a little bit but it is a lovely balance between social and commercial.” The biggest change she says is the decision process: “We always go back to our mission. The bottom line is not the sole driver.”

Despite those initial nerves, Grainne hasn’t looked back since. “How many people can say they live in a city but work on a farm?” she laughs. The change of pace in life has been welcomed: “In the corporate world there’s no such thing as office hours, well they didn’t exist in mine anyway.

“Work life balance has always been a challenge. When I moved to this role I decided not to take a laptop. I prefer to finish work at work rather than to take it home.”

Though this businesswoman has no problem turning the office image on its head, admitting that she has brought her husband and 11-year-old to work on the estate “harvesting green beans”.

Perhaps the most recent affirmation that her career change has been a positive one came from her family: “My 11-year-old commented that ‘it’s so nice not to have conference calls in the car now’. Shame on me!”

Aside from the beautiful grounds and nature on site, each week at the Overends café 2,000 customers are served. “We wouldn’t be able to supply everything from the estate so we use local producers to source produce but a lot of our meat comes from the estate. All year round leeks are coming from the estate because we can grow them in our polytunnels and then in the summer we have a huge amount of vegetables making their way to the restaurant.

“On a Friday and Saturday night we do a smaller specialised menu and so 80 percent of what’s served on that comes from within Airfield. It’s very much field to fork in a very authentic urban location,” Grainne says.

Carrying on the support of the Overend sisters, Airfield still supports the LauraLynn House facilitating charity events and special family days for those it provides care to. Last year Grainne ran the Dingle half marathon with other Airfield team members in support of the charity.

Needless to say the Overend sisters are an inspiration to this CEO. “They were women ahead of their time. Even though I never met them I feel I have gained a good insight into the people they were through the archive we have – 20,000 documents (diaries and correspondence) they had stored in the attic,” she says.

Redevelopment and change is not always welcomed however. Grainne is frank when she admits that some people preferred Airfield the way it was before. “That’s a little bit hard to take when you’ve put your heart and soul into a project but we do welcome feedback! We’ll continue to evolve.”

One complaint Grainne has had to stand her ground on is that the Overends restaurant refuses to serve chips. Perhaps this is why Restaurant reviewer Tom Doorley gave it top marks. With 4,000 school children having walked through the gates of Airfield last year, Grainne re-asserts the no chip rule: “We need education about food. School children are shocked when they come and see that milk comes from a cow and not their corner shop!”

No pinstripe suits here, just honest to goodness business and education.

(L-R: Simon Coveney TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and Grainne Kelliher at Airfield.)