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Andrew Pimbley on the future of the Wirral Food and Drink Festival and his plans for Claremont Farm

PUBLISHED: 00:39 20 June 2013

Farmer Andrew Pimbley with strawberry plants in the polytunnel at Claremont Farm

Farmer Andrew Pimbley with strawberry plants in the polytunnel at Claremont Farm

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The Wirral Food and Drink Festival has had the plug pulled for this year, but one of its founders, Bebington farmer Andrew Pimbley, is busy sowing the seeds of several new enterprises

Andrew Pimbley busy at work on Claremont Farm, BebingtonAndrew Pimbley busy at work on Claremont Farm, Bebington

At 36 Andrew Pimbley’s farming career has already included asparagus farming in Australia, growing tobacco in Zimbabwe, raising tiny Kapenta fish in Mozambique, a bit of frog farming in Cambodia while helping out at an orphanage, and cattle ranching in Venezuela where trigger-happy rustlers were part of the scene.

Ever one for a challenge on his return to the family farm in Bebington he established the Wirral Food and Drink Festival, and isn’t letting tough economic times spoil that party.

‘I started the festival with Anne Benson, Chairman of Wirral Farmers’ Market. We wanted to show there are great suppliers of tasty food on our doorstep, you don’t have to buy from abroad.’ he says.

Held on Claremont Farm where his family has worked the land for generations it became an August Bank Holiday fixture on the Wirral. The first festival ran in 2006, and attracted 14,000 visitors over the two days, an attendance eventually nearly doubled. ‘There were cooking skills demos for kids and adults, a sheep show, a food-and-farming tent, about 100 stalls, and plenty of entertainment.’

While the numbers attending grew, obtaining the sponsorship necessary to run the jamboree became more difficult. Several major contributors backed out or reduced support in 2012. ‘We had new ones – a local taxi firm, Liverpool One with their style-bus - but they didn’t quite meet the shortfall. Going forward we need to make sure it’s a more sustainable festival.’

‘So it was decided to take this year out, and change things for 2014,’ says Andrew: ‘We’re looking at evening events as well now. We always stopped at five, but would like to do, for example, a beer festival in the evenings. Orb Events from Liverpool are on board now, we’d never used an events company previously, but it’s become quite a big beast that we - Claremont farm and the committee - can’t deliver alone anymore and get the full potential from it.’

The 2014 festival will take place in May, preceded by a four-day schools event: ‘We already do school visits, about 3000 school-kids a year come to do what’s called a welly walk around the farm. They get to pick and eat a strawberry fresh off the plant and their minds are blown. What they get to eat usually has often been flown over - hard, tasteless, it’s such a shame.

‘And there is a shortfall of kids wanting to go into agriculture,’ he explains. ‘It has an image of low pay and long hours, but there are so many more aspects to it. There has always been that educational element underlying the festival anyway. For the schools thing we are working with Leahurst on the veterinary side, Chester University on skills, Reaseheath on horticulture, and John Moores University on food technology.’

Another reason underpins the move to May - Claremont’s asparagus crop: ‘They have the asparagus festival down in Evesham. Maybe we can have a section of the Wirral festival dedicated to the asparagus here.’

Running down the spine of the Wirral is a sandstone ridge which provides the ideal soil for asparagus, a major crop for the 250-acre arable farm and a big seller in season in the farm shop. When Andrew returned from Venezuela (‘It was getting to the stage that we would have to carry side-arms, and I was not going to shoot anyone or be shot at’) he saw the potential of local restaurants as an outlet: ‘We started selling the asparagus and strawberries direct to chefs, knocking on their doors saying we could pick them in the morning and they could have them on their table that evening.

He has another promotional route planned too: ‘We are in talks currently to have a pop-up asparagus restaurant in Liverpool One, just to sell asparagus: boiled, steamed, baked with ham, Delamere goats’ cheese and asparagus...’

They already do asparagus evenings at the small cookery school on the farm: ‘We take people out to cut their own, then return for a chef to show how to use it best.’

With planning permission just received for a much larger cookery school that is another element the family plans to expand, home too for the cheese-making, bee-keeping, and sausage-making courses they run. The same building will house a larger farm shop, an enterprise started by Andrew’s grandfather who was also a pioneer of PYO, much of Claremont’s soft fruit still sold by that method.

A farm these days has to exploit every possible source of income: ‘We host hovercraft experiences run for team-building, and we dug out the old farm pond to make a fishery, with three types of carp, rudd, bream, tench, even a few catfish.’

But the fishing may be more sedate and difficult than some he experienced in Venezuela: ‘A bit of meat on a steel hook and wire trace, and the piranhas were straight on!’

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