Farm Ireland

Saturday 20 January 2018

Up, up and away in a business flying towards success

Laois farmer mixes work with pleasure as his passion gives pilots a haven to realise dreams and offers a boost to tourism revenue

Pat O'Brien

Jerry Deegan is a farmer with a passion for planes and flying. While most farmers would tell you they have little time for indulging in their passions, Jerry has not only made the time but has created the space to accommodate his love of flight and aircraft.

From the outside, Limetree Farm, located between Portarlington and Mountmellick in Co Laois, looks like any ordinary farm with its sheds and green fields -- but behind and inside the sheds is a different world.

One would expect the building to be full of bales, farm machinery and cattle but instead they are home to an array of magnificent flying machines, from biplanes of the kind that would have seen action over the battlefields of World War One to home-built light aircraft known as microlights and gyro planes that look like helicopters without a body. The field behind the shed is a long, well-kept strip of ground marked out with white bollards.

Limetree Airfield is Jerry's field of dreams built on his 81ac suckler and tillage farm. With the help of his own investment and some LEADER funds from the Laois Partnership Company, he has managed to develop a 408m airstrip, a control room and hangar space. While he claims the investment of €250,000 is not making him a millionaire, it is wiping its face with rental income and creating a lot of life around the farm.

"From the first time I went to Shannon Airport as a young lad to see my aunt off to the USA, I have loved planes and flying," says Jerry.

"I remember looking with wonder at the 707s and the 747s and wanting to fly in them. I had a first cousin who worked on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War and he was one of my heroes."

Twenty years passed after his first trip to Shannon before Jerry did his pilot training and took to the skies in a plane he built himself.

"It is a fantastic feeling to get up there into the blue in a small aircraft, there in nothing like flying," he says. "No matter what's on my mind, when I taxi down the runway in my little plane and take off, I leave all my cares behind and when I come back after an hour in the air I'm a new man."

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Soon after he started flying Jerry discovered that while you can take off and land on almost any flat surface, there was very few places designed to cater for small aircraft and very few places to store them.

"There is an amazing amount of people involved in flying small, microlight aircraft," he says. "These craft come into land at speeds that can be as low as 40-50mph so you can land them anywhere once you have the landowner's permission."

His wife, Geraldine, who had completed a business course with Laois LEADER, put her studies to good use and drew up a business plan to develop their facilities and apply to LEADER for funding.

To their delight, a Laois LEADER grant aided the building of a 60x60m hangar, a building that had to be built to high specification, well ventilated and non-drip to ensure maximum protection for the aircraft.

"In the years of the Celtic Tiger, the demand for space increased dramatically, so Geraldine and I built a second hangar," says Jerry.

Along with these developments, the airfield was changed from an east-west direction to a north-south approach, which involved draining, ploughing and reseeding the strip to a standard where it is now regarded as one on the best landing facilities in the region.

There has been no difficulty in getting planning permission from Laois County Council and co-operation from his neighbours.

"I have to say the council has been great and my neighbours around here have been wonderful," he says.

Jerry believes that Limetree Airfield could be a great advantage to local tourism.

"People land planes here from all over Ireland and Britain and will hang around for a few hours and might even stay a day or two," says Jerry.

"They simply ring up and ask to land at a certain time and we oblige.

"Every weekend there is huge activity at the field; if people can't fly when the wind is too strong, they will service and clean their aircraft or sit around and talk about flying and their machines. The Limetree Flying Club is based here and we hope to have a gyroplane flying school starting here in the not too distant future."

Jerry is a great believer in following your dreams.

"I'm delighted with this, I think flying and plane ownership is not just for the super rich, all the people who have planes here are ordinary people like myself," he says.

By combining his passion for flying with the facilities he has on his farm, Jerry and Geraldine Deegan have come up with a unique on-farm business that creates the perfect mix of business and pleasure.

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