Mr. Melon!

Published 10:16 am Tuesday, August 2, 2016


MURFREESBORO – The opening of the 31st annual NC Watermelon Festival in Murfreesboro is tomorrow (Wednesday).

The festival, which runs through Saturday (Aug. 6), was begun by Percy and Lynette Bunch, aided by other Hertford County citizens, in 1985.

Many people are not aware of how the festival came about and how deeply the watermelon legacy is instilled in Percy Bunch. What you need to know first is that Percy Bunch is a true Hertford County treasure. He started raising watermelons in Murfreesboro in 1943, when he was just 12 years old.

Bunch inherited his love for the land and the importance of agriculture from his father, Ned Bunch. Ned was originally from the Rocky Hock area of Chowan County. In the late 1930’s, Ned Bunch had a devastating year with his crops.

Ned packed up his wife, Roxie, and children and relocated to Murfreesboro. He had heard that the tobacco crop along with other agricultural staples were faring well in the Murfreesboro area. Lynette Bunch, while conveying this story about Ned Bunch, pointed out that Chowan County raised produce (fruits and vegetables) as cash crops. She further iterated that in Hertford County only tobacco, soybeans, peanuts and cotton were grown in large scale. Ned Bunch had learned to grow and market produce in Chowan County in large scale.

Percy Bunch took the knowledge of agriculture and work ethic he had acquired from his father and began his first watermelon crop at age 12 in Murfreesboro. A true businessman, he still remembers the statistics on his first crop.

“I made $160 that summer on my crop; I sold 2,000 watermelons at 8 cents a piece,” he recalled.

Each year his crop became more successful and by the time he was 16, Bunch was selling his watermelons to a broker in Washington D.C. Bunch was forced to take a break from his beloved watermelons when he became 18 when, as he stated, “Uncle Sam wanted me.”

After serving a stint in the U.S. Army, Bunch returned to Murfreesboro and started working at Union Camp in nearby Franklin, VA. However, he didn’t give up on his dear watermelons. He was raising melons on the side and his produce business was getting bigger and bigger.

In the early 1970s, the broker Bunch had been selling watermelons to decided to retire. Bunch moved to Washington, D.C and took over his business. In time, he found it was more profitable to find farmers outside the D.C. area to buy from rather than truck his melons up from Murfreesboro.

Bunch was a true pioneer of the “Farm to Table” movement even though that phrase wasn’t coined yet. He sold watermelons to Safeway, Giant Foods, Jumbo, and Pantry Pride (grocery stores in the D.C. Metropolitan area).

He was acquiring watermelons from growers as far south as Mexico. He would begin importing produce from Mexico in the early spring and move northward, having his produce trucked from southern states and later form the northern states and finally from Canada. He moved northward as the growing season progressed, starting in early spring and extending into autumn.

Bunch never neglected his wife, Lynette, and three beautiful children – Fran, Julie and Mike back home.

He purchased and learned to pilot his own plane so he could fly home and be with them on the weekends. As time went by, he really grew tired of the big city and missed his family intensely.

“I would have paid $50 to smell a ditch burn again,” he said, referencing a job that’s commonplace on a rural farm.

He moved back home in 1983 and built a packing house and continued his watermelon business in Murfreesboro.

He was a true innovator in farming in this area. Since crop rotation is vital for productivity, Bunch said he would trade off land with other local farmers. He would use their land to grow melons and those farmers would grow their crops on his land. He also began to import bees. Since the bee population had been depleted and it’s imperative to have bees for cross pollination of plants, he had bees brought in.

Starting in 1980, Lynette Bunch, also a progressive innovator in the local area, along with Charles Freeman, who was an educator at what was then Murfreesboro High School and later at Hertford County High School. He started recruiting girls in the local area to compete in the NC Watermelon Association Pageant in Raleigh. In 1985, Whitney Culbertson, a local participant, won the statewide pageant.

After that event, Lynette and Percy started the local watermelon festival. Percy had seen a watermelon festival in Florida and had been wanting to start one here. Lynette wanted to start the festival to promote the newly crowned “NC Watermelon Queen”. They put their heads together and with the help of Kay Thomas, who was executive director of the Murfreesboro Chamber of Commerce at the time, among others and started watermelon day in 1985.

The inaugural event had two vendors, a parade, and a little princess contest. Every year the celebration has expanded. Amusement rides, food vendors and artisans selling their wares have been added along with fireworks and bands. The event is now four days instead of one.

And, following a tradition started at the outset for the event, Bunch sees to it that free watermelons slices are available to the public at each festival.

Each year, a new t shirt for the festival is designed. Designers have included Lynette Bunch, Kay Thomas and Lynette and Percy’s granddaughter, Maggie.

“My only requirement for the shirt design is that there be an ant on them,” said Percy. “It represents my motto: You kick my anthill down, I will build it back up.”

The annual event held in Murfreesboro is the only one in North Carolina that can be officially called the NC Watermelon Festival. It has grown every year, starting with about 800 attendees and spreading to about 25,000.

Percy has now turned his watermelon farming business over to his son Mike.

“Mike is still in business and doing well and I am very proud of him,” he said.

And….Mr. Bunch….so is your watermelon festival.

Be sure to visit Murfreesboro over the next four days; it’s a “sweet treat” you do not want to miss!