Pungo Festival celebrates area’s strawberry tradition
PUNGO, Va. — Virginia Beach celebrates the start of summer and the end of the strawberry harvest amid acres of historic farmland only minutes from the coast.
There in Pungo, where the “downtown” is centered around the community’s lone stoplight and an eighth generation farmer with royal English homestead roots resides on a street in his family name, a weekend-long Memorial Day festival all but shuts down the southern part of the city.
The Pungo Strawberry Festival, set for May 24-26 in downtown Pungo, draws more than 80,000 attendees and diverts traffic from the Indian River-Princess Anne Road entry to the agricultural area. Businesses such as Pungo Realty and the Pungo Offroad tire company close up shop and offer $10 per vehicle parking.
Even the nearby Military Aviation Museum holds its “Warbirds Over the Beach” air show a weekend in advance and for the holiday maintains regular hours while exhibiting and parading at the Pungo festival.
“It blocks a lot of traffic, so we try not to have a lot of unique events,” Military Aviation Museum Events Coordinator Mitchell Welch said.
The Pungo Strawberry Festival features carnival and pony rides, pig races, petting zoo, four stages of entertainment, “down home” style food and beverages.
An hour-long Saturday parade with floats features an honorable witch, a throwback to a 17th and 18th century Pungo farmer and healer who was jailed for cursing area crops and livestock and was posthumously pardoned. Locally grown strawberries are according to event spokesperson Kathy Kieatt a primary draw.
“We just grow amazing strawberries in Pungo,”she said.
The berries are served at the festival in tacos, with whipped cream, dipped in chocolate, mixed with lemonade and in pies as part of a pie-eating contest.
Pungo growers yield some 20,000 strawerries an acre, selling them at property-front farm stands throughout the season and responding to pre-season telephone calls from eager consumers wanting to know when they’ll be ready, Pungo produce and grain grower Robert Vaughan said.
“Winkie” Henley of Pungo is considered the area’s second largest strawberry grower and the largest between Richmond and Ashland, Vaughan said.
“Winkie at one time did as many as 25 acres,” he said.
The 23,000 farmland acres, protected wetlands and scattered residences where Pungo berries are grown span southern Virginia Beach lands about half the size of the city, according to an area real estate representative. The farms are situated beyond the Pungo Board House surf shop, Pungo Realty, Pungo Sports Bar, Pungo Veterinary Clinic and the Pungo Offroad tire shop at Indian River and Princess Anne Roads.
The region cradles the North Landing River segment of the Intracoastal Waterway. There, the 20-acre Pungo Ferry Landing Park looks out on to the Pungo Ferry Bridge. Francis Asbury, one of the country’s first Methodist Episcopal Church bishops, preached at Pungo’s circa-1791 Nimmo United Methodist Church.
An invisible “Green Line” that long prevented development from nearing Pungo narrowed some time ago with a regularly updated plan that guides the city’s development. The Green Line has also “slowed development down in this area, Vaughan said. . . “but we’ve still got houses being built, and farmland is still shrinking.”
Vaughan’s farming family is Pungo’s oldest. The King of England in the 17th century paid his ancestor, Captain Robert Vaughan, 1,500 Pungo acres for bringing 17th century Europeans to settle the New World, he said. He and brother Billy, the eighth generaton of Vaughan family farmers, own 500 of those acres with their father, Bobby.
Their farm is on Vaughan Road and their nearest neighbor a cousin who owns an adjacent parcel some 500 to 600 miles from their residence. Their mother owns land on the other side of the property, and her brother is on the other side of her, Vaughan said.
Virginia Beachers and area visitors in the know shop Pungo farm stands like those of the Vaughan family throughout a produce season that largely begins with the berries.
“No matter what, they want them now,” Vaughan said. “And if you’ve never eaten a fresh strawberry out of the field. . . barring grit, I’ll put mine up against any California berry you’ve got. Mine is going be sweeter, because it’s a local berry.
Pungo growers cultivate a variety of strawberries that either produce a flush of flowers for two to three weeks during spring and bear the largest fruits in June or that are able to ripen throughout the season. Vaughan, to stagger his harvest, grows both.
Visitors who arrive at the right times during spring and fall watch the Vaughan brothers seed and harvest fields of wheat and soybeans using modernday equipment. Their 170-horsepower tractors cover the amount of land in an hour that would have taken their early settler ancestors a week with mule and horse plough, Vaughan said.
The Vaughan strawberry beds are elevated whereas the ages old matted row style of sowing formerly had the fruited plants competing against wheat, he said.
“It’s a game changer as far as what we’ve done,” Vaughan said. “We’re getting more out of an acre than ever before.”
Many other descendants of Pungo farmers have inherited land and sold it, he said.
The Vaughans sold 900 acres of their own land to the Nature Conservancy in the late 20th century, he said. The family property is now “smaller but the farming methods more technical, more precise and more efficient,” he said.
Norfolk and Virginia Beach development to the north has meanwhile “exploded.” One of the more recent developments, a large suburban residential complex with potable water and sewer system that are lacking in Pungo, was built just north of the Indian River-Princess Anne Road intersection.
The region is not a state Agricultural and Forestland District that prevents governments from claiming eminent domain and provides inhabitants control over rights of way. As a city-zoned agricultural district the region is, however, somewhat protected from intense development.
Several Pungo residents participate in an Agricultural Reserve Program through which they have sold the City of Virginia Beach development rights to their properties. The process provides Pungo property owners fair market value for the rights. The city pays for the development rights in installments over the course of 25 years for what becomes perpetual easements, Virginia Beach Agricultural Reserve Program Coordinator Julia Hillegass said.
Property owners who sell their development rights to the city pay property taxes on developable property while they use it for agricultural purposes. At the end of the 25-year installment agreement, they can petition the city to purchase their development rights back, Hillegass said.
Virginia Beach currently owns the development rights to 9,700 Pungo acres that equate to 858 residences that won’t be built, Hillegass said.
“The city doesn’t want to do anything with the development rights” in deference to “maintaining a viable agricultural economy,” she said. Anyone who purchases those properties cannot so much as restore marshes or swamps on them. Buyers would have to petition the city for development rights in order to do anything but farm the properties, she said.
That can change, depending upon the city council, Hillegass said.
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