Mar 31, 2011
Maryland family celebrates 50 years for farm market

Nestled in the rolling hills of the Catoctin Mountains in Thurmont, Md. is the Black family farm, Catoctin Mountain Orchards. The Blacks grow fruits and vegetables, have a farm market and bakery, build a pumpkin pyramid each fall and are just a stone’s throw away from Camp David, the presidential retreat.

The 100-acre farm started in 1948 and was bought by Harry Black in 1961, who just worked for the original owner at the time. One of the things he did right away, which has contributed to the success of the farm, was to put in several irrigation ponds.

Harry’s son, Robert Black, who owns the farm now in partnership with his sister Patricia, says they probably couldn’t get through all the red tape to put those kinds of ponds in now.

“We had the foresight back in the 60s to put in eight acres of irrigation ponds,” Robert said. “The ponds are spring fed and we’ve never had to worry about water.”

Robert handles the production side of the farm, while Patricia runs the business side of things as well as the farm market. They have 10 employees running the farm and as many as 12 in the farm market during the busiest weekends, with four usually working during the week. Robert pointed out that 40 to 50 percent of their business is now done with credit cards, which is a big switch from just a few years ago.

The Blacks are constantly looking for the next thing to develop on their farm. Roughly six years ago, they added a bakery that produces pies, cakes, cookies and other assorted baked goods. They also sell frozen pies, frozen berries and other fruit. They have some pick-your-own black raspberries, flowers and blueberries, but have not yet gotten into pick-your-own apples.

“We might get into that,” Robert said. “We’ve been right on the edge of doing it and I’ve been getting advice. Most people tell me to just not look at the ground under the trees if I do decide to go that route.”

As for apples, the orchard grows several varieties, but has one unique to it. The family found and patented a variety of Gala called Autumn Gala, which ripens later in the season and has great pressure and brix for a firm, sweet apple.
They also grow Paula Red, Cortland other Galas, non-spur type Red Delicious, Pink Lady and Honeycrisp, to name a few varieties. They also grow Lodi apples and promote them for use in applesauce. One thing you will not find on the Black’s farm is club varieties.

“I don’t promote any club varieties and tell my customers not to buy them,” Robert said. “I just don’t like the way all of that is handled, and you can quote me on that.”

After working with several specialists, Robert has gone to higher density plantings on his farm. He put in some 14 by 4 foot spacing and is going to try 14 by 3 foot this season. All of his planting is done on Bud 9 rootstocks.

“We’ve had some fireblight problems here and the Bud 9s seem to have reduced that,” he said. “We’re also hoping to get into some of the G series rootstocks soon too.”

They also have pears, plums, nectarines and have as many acres in peaches as they do in apples.

“We kind of lucked out with peaches,” Robert said. “We’re located close enough to Adams Country, Pennsylvania, that when they started having plum pox problems, we got in on some trials and got some really great test trees.”

As with all of the fruit and vegetables produced at Catoctin Mountain Orchards, they strive for taste and flavor over color and appearance.

“You can have the prettiest fruit in the world, but if it doesn’t taste good, why are you eating it?” he said.

In the farm market, they worked out a system that allows them to keep things moving, while still providing great customer service, he said. They arranged their tables in a U-shape in the center of their retail space. Behind the “U” is where all of the production work takes place. Produce is placed on the tables directly and is pushed forward. Berries are packaged as small as one-half pint and go up from there.

“We have some blackberries and strawberries that are strictly for the market,” Robert said. “The busiest times are October, followed by August and then September. It is usually around peach harvests.”

The biggest challenge facing Catoctin is the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB).

“It started with some early peaches,” Robert said. “We thought it was due to a late frost, but it wasn’t.”

Robert has been working with Tracy Lesky and the USDA team working on the BMSB problem. He allows them full access to his farm to set traps and try different control techniques. He has seen a 10 to 15 percent loss in peaches and pears and as much as a 60 percent loss in nectarines. In apples, it seems to depend on the variety. Some have been in the 5 to 10 percent range and others more. Robert said he had a 50 percent loss in Pink Lady apples last season. He also said he has 1 acre of concord grapes that have seen no damage.

Check out this video of Tracy Lesky talking about the BMSB.

“We found out that field corn and soybeans are host plants for BMSB,” he said. “Well, I have that on three sides of me. I tell people about what I’ve seen so they’ll know. If you think you have hail damage but can’t recall there being a hail storm, you probably have BMSB.”

Robert plans to do his best to educate his customers, too.
“We’ll probably have some signs telling people what the damage is if they see it, and ask that we hope they will continue to buy produce from us until we can solve the problem,” he said.

Robert was happy to point out one other fact about the stink bugs.

“I did confirm that Camp David has stink bugs, too,” he said.

By Derrek Sigler

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
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