Robert Black knows how lucky he was to grow up working with his father.
Harry Black’s dad died when Harry was 16. The self-taught farmer started an open-air market seven miles northeast of Catoctin Mountain in 1948. He bought the farm the market sat on in 1961 and turned it into one of the preeminent orchards in the state. Robert worked side-by-side with his dad to make it so. The orchard’s formative years nearly mirrored Robert’s.
“How fortunate was I to be able to grow up with my dad, working beside my dad,” Black said, reflecting on helping grow the family farm. “... We’ve worked together. We’ve been progressive. We’ve traveled to other farms. We did all those things together … to learn and to try to do the best, grow the best varieties, give them the best quality and just stay up to date.”
Now, decades after building what has become a staple of Frederick’s rich agricultural community, Black’s work, and that of his family, received the recognition it deserved as he earned the title of American Fruit Grower magazine’s Apple Grower of the Year.
It’s an award that solidifies his legacy in a community to which he’s given his life.
“Of course I was just fully ecstatic for him,” said Katlyn Robertson, one of Black’s granddaughters, of the award. “I’m like, ‘you do realize how [much] you deserve this. You have worked so hard. You’ve done so much since, you know, you took over the business.’”
The nation’s top Apple Grower
The Apple Grower of the Year Award recognizes apple growers for their efforts in innovative production, marketing horticultural, and management practices. When Black heard he won the award, he was sure they had the wrong name.
Robert Black, owner of Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont, earned the title of Apple Grower of the Year by American Fruit Grower magazine. …
After all, it’s a rarity for a Maryland farm to receive such an honor. Only one other Maryland operation has ever won, and that was in 2008.
“I was totally surprised,” Black said. “It’s quite an honor to be among those that have won this before me.”
Black, who co-owns the orchard with his sister Patricia Black, said he’s had some very special times with some of the people who’ve won the award.
“Many are very good friends, too,” he said.
And when Black got the news that he had won the award he told the person there was no way he was of the caliber of those people
“I always look up to them,” he said. “And I really tried to play it down that I almost didn’t want it.”
But a good friend told him to “accept it, shut your mouth and say thank you.”
When news that he had won the award got out, Black said he was overwhelmed with emails, texts and phone calls.
“I am not the smartest grower,” Black said. “And I feel there’s a lot of those other folks that are a lot smarter than me but we’re always learning.”
As for what he would tell people who want to know the secret to good apple growing and how he’s come this far, Black said always be open to new ideas.
“Get off your farm, go visit some folks and just talk to other growers,” he said. “I think most growers will absolutely welcome you into their farm.”
Black is assisted with running the orchard by Katlyn Robertson, one of his granddaughters.
You can always learn from someone, he said, because no two farms are the same.
“And the extension service,” he said. “We’re so lucky to be where we’re located at. We’ve got Penn State, Virginia Tech, of course University of Maryland and then actually Cornell is really not that far away so there’s a lot of neat places close by where you can go where you can learn some things.” It’s also important to never think you know it all, Black said.
A community’s farmer
The 100-acre orchard, which contains mostly apples and peaches but also includes blueberries, apricots, grapes and pears, is well-known for its unique autumn gala apple.
The apple, which the family patented, is sweet and crunchy, and holds a special place in Robert’s heart. His license plate reads “HB GALA” to commemorate the apple, which he originally named the “Harry Black Gala” before changing it to Autumn Gala.
There are a variety of apples available at the orchard and Black said variety is exciting, something new.
“The old adage is ‘variety is the spice of life,’” he said. “Spectacular taste, crispness ... all those traits make up a great variety. And just wonderful flavors. So many of them have all different kinds of flavors.”
Black takes apples with him to nearly every meeting he attends. He loves to see people’s reactions when they take a bite.
“People get the apple and they say, ‘oh my gosh, this is the best piece of fruit I ever ate.’” Black said. “So that’s what you want to hear.”
Black has long been a steward of the land. He’s incorporated innovative irrigation practices to yield better quality fruits.
Robert Black, owner of Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont, earned the title of Apple Grower of the Year. He is assisted with running the or…
Similarly, he’s taken advantage of new technology to limit damage from stink bugs.
But his work extends well past his own farm. He’s done extensive work to ensure farming remains a viable way of life. He’s sat on the agricultural business council, and advocated for businesses like breweries and wineries, which he has said are a boost for the entire ag industry.
The orchard also extends its services to the school district by providing apples, so students have access to fresh, local fruits. They also host students on field trips.
Not only does the farm remain a mainstay in the agricultural community, but it’s also a boost for the county’s thriving tourism sector. The orchard has been recognized in the past as the person who consistently hands out more visitor guides than any other location in the county.
All of this has helped solidify Black’s place in Frederick’s economy.
“When it comes to the agricultural community, he’s so open to anybody who’s willing to learn,” Robertson said. “He’s just willing to teach and give back all of his knowledge.”
‘Everyday’s a learning day’
Looking forward, Black said winning the award is very special and they’re likely going to display the honor in the market but they want to continue giving customers the best tasting products possible.
Black said he, his granddaughter Katlyn Robertson and her sister, Kylie, are learning everyday and talking about the future.
Robert Black, owner of Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont, earned the title of American Fruit Grower Apple Grower of the Year. He is assist…
As long as you can give [customers] a good product then people will be happy ... We’re grateful for the folks that do want to come out to the farm and get fresh stuff. And that’s what we have,” he said.
One thing Robertson said her grandfather has taught her is to learn what she did wrong and not do it again, advice she gives to him from time to time when he beats himself up about something.
“That’s really what farming is,” Robertson said. “Basically, learning from your mistakes.”
As Black likes to say, on the farm, “everyday’s a learning day.”
Robertson also said she matured earlier than most children and that learning what it’s like to be a true farmer and to live it is eye-opening and life-changing.
“You feel what nature is like,” she said. “You put something in the ground. You watch it grow. You watch all of your hard work come to life.”
Robertson said there’s always time and room for change, something she said Black has done since owning the business.
“I don’t really know how I can do better than him, but that’s what I have to try to figure out,” she said, adding that each generation has its own aspects of change and ways to adapt to today’s society.
One thing Robertson can see for the business and the farm is opening up more outlets to get customers into the farm, not just for pick-your-own.
“If I can figure out how to get them more involved to get them more educated then maybe they’ll come back more,” she said. “They come back now ... but I really want to pull them in more. I want to try to hit that target market of the millennials and get them to come in.”
Black has also taught his granddaughter how to respect the land, give back when things are given to her and work hard.
“I’m forever grateful,” Robertson said. “But I’m even more grateful to have such an outstanding grandfather as I do. You know, he’s my best friend. He’s taught me everything I know.”
Editor Allen Etzler contributed to this article.