“Within people’s heads there’s an image of a farmer walking through golden fields and there’s a little dog running beside him and it’s a beautiful thing – and then the flipside of that image is that farmers are ‘killing the environment’. How are we sitting with these two contrasting images in our heads?”

I’m with Dr Kirstie McAdoo at Airfield Estate, an urban farm and food education centre near Dundrum, in Dublin. It’s a beautiful autumn afternoon and we’re drinking coffee in Overends Kitchen – the on-site restaurant. We’re talking about consumer perceptions around farming, and the upcoming Women & Agriculture conference which is set to take place on 27 October. Kirstie will be presenting on topics which take up a lot of space in her professional life – agriculture, food education and how best to bridge the urban-rural divide.

Airfield estate. \ Philip Doyle

She is well-versed to take these on, because she has lived within both social spheres: having grown up in Dublin (“Just two dogs and a fishtank,” she laughs) before going on to study animal science at UCD and marrying into a rural farming family.

“I’m from Churchtown, just beside Dundrum,” she tells Irish Country Living. “I wanted to be a vet, but decided I wasn’t going to get the points for veterinary. I loved ag science, so I went on to do animal science in UCD. It was a really interesting experience – especially my introduction to county colours night!”

Urban background

When Kirstie finished college, she had a hard time finding work in the agricultural industry. She found she was losing out on jobs to those who had farming upbringings. For this reason, she decided to go into research, eventually obtaining her PhD in methane reduction in beef cattle. However, she says that brought with it a different set of problems.

“I was suddenly handed a herd of cows and was expected to know how to feed them, look after them, bring them to slaughter – simple things which I was never exposed to,” she says.

For her, this highlighted how difficult it can be to build a career in agriculture for those with a passion for farming but no access to a farm.

Her research path led her to the realm of education and, eventually, into her current role at Airfield Estate as head of education and research. The farm is on the edge of the city, just steps from the Luas, and is easily accessed and open to everyone. Every day, Kirstie speaks with and teaches visitors about the food system and Irish agriculture – in plain English.

“I think I’m open to educating people [about food and agriculture] because I was coming in from the outside – I’m like three generations removed from a farm. My mom was in insurance and my dad ran a company helping people with special needs into employment. Neither of them understood the agriculture part of me!

\ Philip Doyle

“In my work, I tread a really fine line,” she adds. “Farmers and urban consumers need each other to survive, but we can also nourish each other. At Airfield, we have conversations with people about agriculture and try to stretch their minds a bit. It’s our perceptions, sometimes, which need to flip. The hope is we can get someone to empathise with and understand the farming experience.”

Echo chambers

In recent months, the narrative around farming and climate change has been largely negative. While the science around agricultural emissions, methane and greenhouse gases isn’t contested, there can be little nuance in the news stories which reach our urban populations. Kirstie says, while we work toward a more sustainable agricultural model, we are still always going to need food – and food is always going to produce emissions.

“The media have a role to play but they’re not, ultimately, the bad guy,” she says. “That said, in the city no one’s going to pick up the Irish Farmers Journal to get the farmers’ opinion on these issues. When you’re talking to that group of people, and within that echo chamber, you really need to step outside it. Everyone just wants to be heard – everyone wants to tell their story.”


And telling stories is exactly what Kirstie wants every farmer in Ireland to do. Last year, she launched a new educational programme at Airfield Estate called Farmer Time. This programme connects farmers with schoolchildren through regular chats and visits. She says for a relatively simple concept, the programme has made huge gains in terms of the urban-rural divide.

\ Philip Doyle

“Open up your farms, welcome people in,” she says. “Come to food events. Create that narrative. One farmer [involved with the Farmer Time programme] has managed to change the opinion of 60 kids, which is 60 families. All from spending just 15 minutes every two weeks in the classroom. This worked because he took the time, he paid them value and worth, and he got it back in return. He’s able to show them what he’s doing for biodiversity and how he is caring for his animals. It’s the conversation and the story which will bring people along with you.”

Challenging perceptions

Kirstie brings that narrative into her every day work at Airfield Estate. She is constantly challenging visitors’ perceptions and ideas of what their food should be, how it should be produced and tying things back to those contrasting images of the farmer as either “salt of the earth” or ruining the earth.

\ Philip Doyle

“Airfield is a sustainable food hub where people can come with any question, whether that’s about the regenerative farming we practise here, or the organic horticulture and seed saving part of it – or whether it’s just a mom coming in with her kids because she wants them to understand that a carrot comes from the ground. It’s about merging these questions all together and then, most importantly, patience. Wait time is the most important part of the response. We need to give them that space to go, ‘Oh – I never thought about it like that.’”

She gives the example of discussions with consumers who say they only want to eat free-range, organic eggs instead of those which come from caged hens, because they believe uncaged hens have a better life.

\ Philip Doyle

“Actually, animals in cage systems aren’t under stress; they’re laying an egg every 17 hours,” she says. “Chickens in a field are a prey animal. We just think they are better off outdoors because we project ourselves on to that chicken and say, ‘I’d like to be outdoors in the sun.’ I’m not saying one type of farming system is better than the other; I’m saying there’s a place for both [regenerative and conventional farming].”

Women & Ag

Kirstie tells Irish Country Living that she is excited to present at this year’s Women & Agriculture Conference to help bring the positive narrative around farming and food production even further. There are serious challenges ahead, and many transitions to make before we reach our climate goals. But adding a bit more diversity into the industry will help – and being open about what we’re doing on our farms each day could be as beneficial to the farmers as it is to farming-wary consumers.

“I was telling my husband I was presenting at Women & Ag and he said, ‘What are you? The ambassador for the urban nation?’” She laughs. “Like, I come in peace!”

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