17 years ago, Richard and Judy Bono hosted their first pawpaw event at Blue Moon, a restaurant in downtown York. At the time, the couple were excited to share their enthusiasm for this forgotten native fruit with their friends and advocates of the Slow Food movement. Their passion for pawpaws started a year prior, after visiting Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard, just outside of Westminster, Maryland. Seeing Jim and Donna Davis’ pawpaw orchard firsthand, the Bonos were inspired by the potential to cultivate pawpaws, an otherwise impossible orchard fruit.
The first event was a huge success; about 80 people were in attendance. The restaurant’s chef, David Le Heron, orchestrated a culinary symphony, incorporating delectable pawpaw fruit into each course. Following the first pawpaw dinner, the Bonos began to sell the fruits every September, starting at the Central Market and then at the Gardener of the Owl Valley, a native garden and gift shop run by Judy at her home. For many years, the York County Pawpaw Festival was a humble event, just a few folding tables at the bottom of the Bono Family driveway. But over the years, the event grew as more and more people began to appreciate Slow Food, foraging, and organic foods.
Today, the York County Pawpaw Festival is in its 17th year and serves approximately 1800 visitors. The event is held annually at the Horn Farm Center, where Dick Bono manages a small pawpaw orchard. Dick, York City Architect Emeritus and cofounder of York County Farm and Natural Lands Trust, was heavily involved at the Horn Farm Center since its founding. At the time, he was determined to demonstrate that cultivating a variety of pawpaws was possible. After some experimentation at home, Dick broke ground on his orchard at the Horn Farm in 2012, starting with 24 trees.
“I made a whole lot of mistakes in those early years,” says Dick. “Nine years later, the orchard has expanded to 48 trees and 20 varieties. I couldn’t do it without Tim Hamulack, who is a talented helper and fruit tree enthusiast.”
Dick continues to grow a wide variety of pawpaw cultivars in the pawpaw orchard. His goal is to produce consistently abundant yields, year after year. He follows the work of Neal Peterson, who experiments with developing new pawpaw varieties. Dick notes that while the Peterson varieties are often named after rivers, their names do not necessarily indicate where those cultivars were found.
The pawpaw is a naturally organic fruit – it resists almost all pests, and it experiences less browsing by wild animals than most other orchard fruits. What is most unique about the pawpaw is that it is truly seasonal. The pawpaw has little to no shelf life, which means it will never be commercially produced. The fruits mature in late August through mid-September. During this short window of time, the Susquehanna River region, as well as much of the eastern United States, is a pandora’s box of this highly nutritious, anti-oxidant-rich fruit. Late summer in York County is a chance to enjoy our bio-region’s natural abundance, just as the Susquehannock’s did years ago, by filling their bellies with pawpaw before facing the harsh winter.
In recent years, pawpaws have developed somewhat of a cult following, with pawpaw fanatics traveling across several state lines to get a taste of this unique fruit. In the past few years, people have traveled from upstate New York, Pittsburgh, and even Atlanta, Georgia to attend the York County Pawpaw Festival. In 2019, Bono Family estimated that they sold over 2000 pounds of pawpaw at the festival.
This year, the York County Pawpaw Festival will be held on September 18 & 19th at the Horn Farm Center. The event will feature local food vendors, artisans, and community organizations. Of course, the true stars of the show are the pawpaw fruit, both wild and cultivated varieties, and pawpaw trees, which will be available for purchase. Visitors can also enjoy tours of the farm and pawpaw orchard. We hope that you will join us to celebrate all the things that we love about pawpaws.