This undated photo depicts part of a small village that was located near the Pungo area of Virginia Beach. The cottages housed migrant farm workers from surrounding cities during harvesting seasons in the 1930s and 1940s (Courtesy of the Virginia Beach Public Library Archives)
An early 20th century postcard depicting workers harvesting strawberries in Pungo, Virginia Beach (Courtesy of the Virginia Beach Public Library Archives, Edgar Brown Collection)
Shown is a crew laying the train track through Seaboard Swamp in Virginia Beach, just east of the current-day municipal center and north of Pungo. The rail lines allowed farmers in the early 20th century to ship and sell large amounts of strawberries without the need for much travel (Courtesy of the Virginia Beach Public Library Archives)
A Virginia Beach farmer waters his crop in this undated photo (Courtesy of the Virginia Beach Public Library Archives)
VIRGINIA BEACH — After only a few minutes of listening to Roy Flanagan talk about farming and agriculture, you get the feeling that he really cares about farmers.
Southside Daily rode into Pungo with Flanagan to meet some of the city’s veteran farmers and hear what it has taken to keep Virginia Beach strawberries on the map.
Strawberry farms of yore
According to the book The Strawberry in North America: History, Origin, Botany, and Breeding, Jamestown Settlers found wild strawberries in Virginia Beach while exploring the woods near Cape Henry. This likely explains why strawberry leaves are so prominently featured on the city’s official seal.
Joe Burroughs, a sixth-generation Virginia Beach farmer, wasn’t around in 1607, but he has worked on his farm off Muddy Creek Road in Pungo for close to 65 years. He’s 85 and no longer farms, but he’s still happy to discuss how it used to be.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Burroughs said he would grow about 35 acres of strawberries a year — more acreage than the city grows today — selling most of the berries to a company in New York City. The strawberries didn’t go to supermarkets though — they were used for food prep in schools and nursing homes, Burroughs said.
Burroughs would pay a man to pick up laborers from surrounding cities and bring them to his farm during harvest time. At the height of strawberry season in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Burroughs said five or six school buses full of men and women would pull up to his farmhouse and drop off workers.
Burroughs suddenly recalls the name of the man who brought the people to his farm.
“A guy named Bishop Jackson — that was his name — and we used to pay him by the head,” which came out to about 50 and 60 cents person, Burroughs said.
Burroughs said it took more than 200 people working his farm several days out of the week to harvest strawberries in May.
“We used to pay them 20 cents per quart,” said Burroughs, who would stack 16 quarts per crates and sell them wholesale for $6 to $8.
Burroughs estimates those 200 workers would harvest 800 crates a day — at 16 quarts a crate, that’s nearly 13,000 quarts a day — or an average of 64 quarts of strawberries harvested per person.
And that’s just one day, on one farm in Virginia Beach.
That amount of labor is not needed anymore, said Burroughs, who was the first farmer to introduce “U-pick” to Virginia Beach.
Farmers in Virginia Beach are no longer growing as many strawberries, and the 11 farms that do grow them are mainly harvested by consumers themselves. Despite the decline in demand, strawberry sales still contributed an estimated $2,618,368 in economic impact to Virginia Beach, said David Trimmer, the city’s director of agriculture.
Flanagan said it’s mainly the city’s population that makes u-pick so successful.
“Not all strawberry farmers have a city with over 400,000 residents just 10 miles away,” Flanagan said. “Most strawberry farmers in rural areas would need to sell a lot of product at a local farmers market or wholesale to grocery stores in order to be profitable.”
So where did all those strawberries go?
Flanagan said that significant drop in dedicated land is indicative of farming in general — there’s less land overall for the farming of almost all crops, and less markets to which small farmers can sell.
“It has a lot to do with development in Virginia Beach,” Flanagan said. “There used to be strawberry fields and farmland in Bayside, Kempsville, Strawbridge — all those neighborhoods used to be farms.”
Some farmers in Virginia Beach still grow strawberries, like Winkey Henley, but are having second thoughts about them.
Henley, who is married to City Councilwoman Barbara Henley, is another longtime local farmer. He still works the 150 acres of Henley Farm at age 78, and has been growing strawberries for more than 50 years.
It’s an expensive crop to grow — farming research out of North Carolina estimates it takes about $13,000 per acre to grow strawberries, although Flanagan puts that figure closer to $9,000 per acre for Virginia Beach farmers.
“I got to have $8,000 to $10,000 coming in before I can even buy a Pepsi Cola,” Henley said.
Indeed, it looks like he may not be able to have that cola this year: Henley said he’ll only break even on this year’s strawberry crop.
“But next year I think I’m going to cut the acreage down even more,” Henley said.
Even u-pick is not as profitable as it once was.
“I used to have 15 or 20 cars parked out here everyday,” Henley said. “Now I’m lucky if I have three or four. People used to buy six or seven dozen ears of corn, dozens of quarts of strawberries. Now it’s just one or two.”
People’s relationship with food has shifted in recent decades and patrons just aren’t coming to the farm as often or picking as much produce as they used to, Henley said.
“They were canning the stuff back then and that’s why they bought so much at once,” Henley said. “People don’t can like they used to. Now, they come to u-pick mainly for the experience, and only buy enough for a day or two.”
Flanagan said grocery stores becoming more connected to global markets is another contributing factor for the decline of strawberry farming in the area.
So why do farmers like Henley even bother growing strawberries?
“Sure, a year like this — with so much rain — half the crop is going to end up rotted,” Henley said.
“If you go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, odds are going to be against me. What we do here, the odds are usually in our favor,” Henley continued. “Farming can be a gamble, but once in a while, you win big.”
For additional information, contact the Virginia Beach Cooperative Extension Office at 757-385-4769. If you’d like to pick your own strawberries this season, here’s a guide to u-pick strawberry farms in Virginia Beach.