Mar 25, 2022Catoctin Mountain Orchard perfects innovation, marketing
The story of Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont, Maryland, is marked by hard work and determination since its foundation.
Robert (Bob) Black is 70 years old, and has seen all of the farm’s growth since his father, the late Harry Black, took over the operation in 1961.
It is Bob Black’s own significant involvement in the tree fruit industry, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region and in national grower organizations, that makes him a popular and knowledgeable speaker at grower events. His progressive commercial plantings practices, along with his direct marketing savvy, has allowed Catoctin Mountain Orchard to become a bellwether operation from which others can learn profitable techniques.
“I want to thank a lot of the folks, like (local grower) Evan Milburn,” Black said. “We have got so much from so many people. I think that’s the thing about this whole group, we are all willing to share. I don’t know anybody that’s not going to help you along.”
Bob Black (pictured at top with granddaughter Katlyn) outlined the history of the current four-generation operation in Frederick County, located in the northern part of Maryland and just six miles from the Pennsylvania state line, during a presentation at the recent Mid-Atlantic Fruit & Vegetable Convention in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Ira Kelbaugh, son of Johnny Kelbaugh, planted an orchard along Kelbaugh Road. Bob’s father, Harry, worked for Ira during World War II. When Ira semi-retired, he told Harry he would sell him the orchard. For years, Harry took care of the orchard for half the profit and eventually bought it.
“My grandfather died when my dad was 16,” Black said. “My dad graduated in 11th grade. That’s what they had, 11 grades. He lived right across the street from the farm. The 1930s were tough. So, Mr. Kelbaugh approached my dad and asked him if he wanted to work weekends and evenings to help make ends meet. My dad built a chicken house. They bartered eggs. They sold chickens and the neighbor dairy farmer gave my dad’s family milk for free because they knew my dad’s father had died.”
“Mr. Kelbaugh said, ‘Harry, do you want to work for me?’ So, my dad started working, and Mr. Kelbaugh said, ‘you’ve really taken an interest in this.’ Dad was self-taught. He just liked it. Mr. Kelbaugh said, ‘do you want to help me manage this farm?’ So, he did. He liked the work so much, he started looking for a farm in another area in West Virginia. That farm is a housing development now, so I’m so glad dad didn’t do it.
“The word got back to Mr. Kelbaugh, and he said, ‘Harry, do you want to work out a deal? You help grow the best crops we can, and we’ll split the profits.’ That’s how my dad got the farm. We’re super lucky it was able to work out like that. We hope we can stay here a real long time. We can’t just pick up the ponds and move, so we’re hopeful we’ll have access to Route 15 and future generations can still be selling stuff here and growing off these hillsides because being on a hillside sure makes for nice drainage and we just get some good crops.”
After Harry Black got the farm, “We built four ponds in four years,” Bob said. “We were so lucky we could build ponds then. We can’t build ponds in Maryland right now. They won’t let us do it because it warms the water for trout. So, trout rule over people. Sorry to hear that.”
Today, Bob and his family use trickle irrigation to water the fruit trees, berries and vegetables. This process uses less water and energy to water only the tree row, thus saving gallons of water by not over-watering. The water source is still coming off of those ponds. The irrigation system is now all piped underground to minimize loss from evaporation.
Market a Maryland staple
Catoctin Mountain Orchard is known for its roadside market. Supplying that operation is done by growing a host of fruit and vegetable crops.
From June 20-July 31, they sell black raspberries, sweet cherries, sour cherries and blueberries. They offer cut-your-own flowers from July 1-Sept. 30. September and October features U-pick apples on weekends.
Other seasonal fruit in the market include strawberries, peaches, nectarine, plums, pears, Concord grapes and kiwi berries. The market sells fresh baked or frozen pies, jams and preserves, apple cider and apple cider donuts.
“We’re very fortunate that we are able to grow a lot of plums of all kinds of varieties,” Black said. “We start in May and run all the way through to September with peaches. That’s been a big draw for us.
“We have an acre of Concord grapes that have been good. I know they’re seeded, but there’s nothing like a wagonload of warm Concord grapes. Put them in a cooler, and the whole cooler smells like grapes. I wish we could can that.”
U-pick drives the show
“We have been lucky to work our way up the mountain (near a ridge where Camp David is located), we’ve cleared off a lot of land over the years,” Black said. “It’s pretty steep. We have terraces. Our wagons are used for pick-your-own apples. All of our county officials know us. I always take fruit to the meetings. We think we’re a vital part of Frederick County.
“We haul our pick-your-own people out to the field,” Black said. “When we don’t have some varieties, we’ll take a bin wagon out there with a couple different varieties that we may have harvested earlier just to give the folks another variety to pick from. If you don’t grow Crimson Crisp for pick your own, you should really try it. It’s a really good variety.
At check-in, the U-pick business sells bags to customers to put the produce in when they are in the orchards.
“For u-pick, the pandemic forced us to go to boxes. We put the scales away, we’ll never go back. Our apple bags are a half peck. We were charging $32 a half bushel. Don’t be afraid to charge because you are getting some waste.
“We don’t check (customers) out. We already have our money. It’s also a $3 admission and the wagon ride is free. Strawberries are picked by my men so we have fresh strawberries in the market.
“We grow apricots, plums up here (pointing to a photo of the hilly terrain),” Black said. “We have some peaches and a few apples on some real steep ground. We have about 25 acres of apples, 25 acres of peaches and then cherries, grapes, blackberries. We grow lettuce in our own hydroponic-type greenhouses.
“We keep changing. We grow a lot of pears. We are lucky at the moment. We’re hoping our neighbors stay. Their parents have died and they are renting the farm out.”
Among the vegetables the farm sells is lettuce made from Black’s homemade hydroponic system.
“I saw this out in Michigan and we changed it,” Black said. “They’re on the ground, and we raised it up. I got some blocks from my neighbor who is a hauler. He got me four cubes of blocks for $150. I bought a water trough from Tractor Supply, and we have a fish pump from Lowe’s. It all works pretty good.
“We’re cutting that lettuce small, and bagging it just like that. People don’t like head lettuce, they want it done so they can shake it out. We put shade cloth over the greenhouse to be able to run it through the summer.”
A family endeavor
Bob said his son, Chris, “takes care of things, a lot of the field work,” he said. “I have eight guys, including a couple of regulars. We’re still working with H-2A, which is a challenge.”
Bob’s family, including his sister, Patricia, and wife, Fran, and other family members play an active role in the operation of the farm and market.
“It’s a team effort. All of my family and staff members do the work and make me look good … I’ve got to mention my family including my son, Christopher, who represents the third generation along with granddaughters Katlyn and Kylie (Robertson), the fourth generation, who all help work this orchard.”
Since its inception, the farm has had a close relationship with University of Maryland horticultural advisors.
Bob points to visits to the orchard from the University of Maryland’s Extension Specialist Ben Rogers and University of Maryland Professor of Horticulture Arthur Thompson in the late 1970s where they suggested that Harry plant a relatively new variety of apple named Gala.
“My dad became very close friends with Dr. Thompson, professor of horticulture at the university. Ben Rogers, stationed in the Hancock substation, was a big help. Our farm was in the middle of College Park and Hancock, so our farm became a test farm. What a great relationship we’ve had. We’ve been so fortunate to see new things and test things and work with the university.”
The farm has also participated in a Natural Resources Conservation Service cover crop project that used sunflowers, crimson clover, radish and oats.
Legacy Gala developed
“We found an apple that’s been very good,” Black said. “My dad knew about it. It’s the Harry Black Gala. It’s a later gala that comes in the second or third week of September, so it’s a perfect time for pick-your-own. It’s in memory of my dad that I honor on my license plate and on my email address. This past Jan. 17, it was 24 years ago when he went down with a heart attack.”
The story goes that growing all those gala apples as was suggested to Bob’s dad by the university researchers is what led to an important discovery in 1995. To ensure top flavor all workers were advised to pick only the ripe apples leaving all green left on the trees. Three weeks after picking all the gala apples there was one tree that stood out. Bob was driving down the orchard road when he noticed one limb that had 60% red over yellow apples.
“I thought we had picked everything down there, what the heck is that?” It appeared to be a limb sport off of a normal Gala tree that was clearly different and much later. Not only was this variety redder in color, but it offered the “noisy” solid crunch with a sweet, crisp flavor.
The farm contacted expert nurseryman, Wally Heuser, to confirm that the discovery was in fact a new variety. The patent name was “Harry Black Gala” named after his dad, but the “trade name” was Autumn Gala, which have now been planted all over the country. Unfortunately, Harry died in 1998 before the patent was issued.
Apples in the schools
More than 10 years ago, Catoctin Mountain Orchard started contracting with the school lunch program, where their apples are used for lunches in Frederick County schools.
“We’re in the school lunch program from August to May,” Black said. “We deliver from one warehouse, 18 miles south of us. They allow us to use crates that we get back. They usually take 70 to 100 bushel a week that are dispersed to 64 schools. We mix a variety in. We don’t grow anymore Red Delicious. Nobody’s bringing Red’s to the school lunch program, because, tell me, how many Reds do you eat? We’ve been doing it for 10 or 11 years. The state of Maryland had a program that we’re lucky to be in. Apples are so versatile. We do take some pears in. Occasionally, some plums and even some kiwi berries.
“How are you helping kids to up the consumption of apples? Give them good apples – Fuji, Pink Lady, others we offer.”
“(His sister) Pat said I fell on my head when I planted a half acre of kiwi berries,” Black said. “We grow some strawberries, apricots, including some Sugar Pearls, or white apricots. They’re really sweet with a lot of brix.
“We use a lot of plastic. We do not cultivate. Chris spreads tons of compost. We always want to do things better to make higher organic matter in our soil.”
The farm offers U-pick apples, black raspberries, blueberries and tart and sweet cherries.
“We are going to try to grow some (blackberries) that are five feet tall. We want to get things up off the ground for folks. We’re growing some Bristol, mostly Jewel and some Mac Black. We do grow some blueberries. We’re finding sugar is keeping the birds off. Katlyn sprayed some sugar and we think it’s worked pretty well.”
Black said the farm has a quarter acre of cut-your-own flowers.
“We mix up all of the varieties. We don’t plant enough sunflowers. It’s one of those things we just run out of time.”
The farm “is fortunate to get copious amounts of wood chips from a local tree trimmer, so this year we can make it really nice around our flowers. It’s all handwork, but I’m trying to look for a spreader so we can spread woodchips in between there and make it nicer for our customers.”
– Gary Pullano, editor