The History of Orchards in Thurmont with Elmer “Lee” Black
— Part II —
The sale of wholesale fruit was big business for the Black families’ orchards in the 1960s and 1970s. They were the first ones in the area to have Cortland Apples.
“When we first started to sell Cortland apples, we had one heck of a time getting rid of them,” recalls Lee Black.
Then they started to promote Cortland apples. Lee indicated that many Washington, D.C. workers were from New England states, so the Blacks advertised that Cortland apples were an “offspring” of the McIntosh variety they ate up north, and that started a trend here in northern Maryland.
Lee took his black raspberries, that he had planted between his young apple trees for some early season spending money, over the mountain to Cavetown for processing. He also grew strawberries in the late 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, when Pick-Your-Own caught on, it was known as Strawberry Hill with a “Million Dollar View”! Back then, nearly everyone canned fruit so folks could store up for winter and enjoy the “fruits of their labor.” They’d fill up the car with bushels of fruit.
Prior to 1961, Harry Black was in partnership to run the orchard with then owner, Ira Kelbaugh. When Ira retired, he sold the orchard to Harry, Robert Black’s father. Robert remembers, “In the early days of the (roadside) market, Dad (Harry Black) said you could count the number of cars on your fingers and toes in a day.” But, “The first thing Dad did was build a 7,000 bushel cold storage.” This was the beginning of the next generation of smart growth at Catoctin Mountain Orchard.
Up on the hill at the Strawberry Fields, Lee had three small ponds that irrigated all of his strawberry fields, peaches, and apples. He said that the strawberries would have burnt up without the water sources.
“The hills are great, but if you don’t have water, the trees won’t perform,” said Robert.
Ironically, Harry built the first pond for swimming, but it had to be used to irrigate the peaches on the hills on the west side of Kelbaugh Road. Lee had watered most of his orchard on Black Road and told Harry he could borrow his irrigation pump and pipe in 1961 since it was really dry at the time. The pond was fed by a good well and spring combination. When they thought the spring had started to go dry, they put in a submergible pump to pump water from the well into the pond. Even though they could still irrigate the peaches, the Blacks feared that they would lose the source of water for the peaches, so they built a second pond that year, pumped both of them dry, built a third, pumped all three dry, then a fourth pond the year after that. Since then, they have had enough water to keep the trees producing a good crop. Building the ponds helped the business and provided a great resource for generations to come.
Today, Robert 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, thanks to the 20-25 gallon-per-minute spring that feeds them. The irrigation system is now all piped underground to minimize loss from evaporation.
To battle a frost, Catoctin Mountain Orchard is strategically placed down a slope from the mountain. Since cold sinks to the lowest level, it will keep moving through open fields and then over Route 15.
“We are grateful it keeps moving. Damming the cold air up would cause a freeze or frost to settle, killing the blossoms for that season,” stated Robert.
Both Lee and Harry credit Hooker Lewis and Ira Kelbaugh for understanding how the air moves off the mountains. “Hooker Lewis figured out the air would come through the break in those two mountains there. That’s why he bought the land. He knew this,” said Lee.
Robert added, “Most of the orchards here along the east side of the Appalachian Mountains have a great ‘track record’ of having a yearly crop. The years we lost a few peach crops were when we had several weeks of above-normal temperatures in late December or January, that had advanced the buds, followed by a sharp drop to below zero in a very short time.”
In the last couple of years that he ran the orchard, Lee had strawberries; however, a hail storm hit that ruined all the fruit. He said they were “devastated.” “Hail is the enemy. The heavy rain can be managed,” stated Lee. They usually advertised pick-your-own strawberries, but did not have any that season.
Insurance allowed for the catastrophic damage; they then had a total freeze-out for peaches in the 1980s. The insurance paid to maintain the farm to stay in business for the following year. However… “An orchard owner doesn’t want claims. They want a crop to stay in business,” said Robert.
“The biggest thing the government did for us is soil conservation,” Lee mentioned, “just as automobiles started coming in. I went into soil conservation and made a show place out of this farm. The government paid you per acre for helping with soil conservation measures.”
When Robert was in school, many of the cultural techniques were different. For example, when Harry was running the business in the 1960s, the “practice” was to keep loose soil by discing or cultivating to keep the rot spores from dispersing from the orchard floor throughout the orchard. This was a huge problem when heavy thunderstorms would erupt over the farm, cutting deep ruts that would wash the top soil off of the fertile hillsides. Today, nearly three quarters of the ground cover is planted to Kentucky 31 Fescue, which is a deep-rooted grass that can handle heavy tractor traffic, even after a rain. Several thousand feet of grass water ways and contour ditches were built to keep the water clean and prevent top soil from running off the farm.
The State Soil Conservation Engineers supervised the ponds being built. They stocked the ponds with fish to control the weeds and keep them healthy. At one point, the government stopped building ponds in the area because they felt it was warming the water up for the trout. Brown Trout need colder water to survive. It was an issue. However, now, some of the farmers are able to build ponds for fire protection or use the water for irrigation.
Orchard processes are as close to perfect now as they can be in an uncontrolled environment. There’s more technology available. In the earlier years, a soil test was performed occasionally.
“Now, we want to know what is in the soil—pH, Calcium, magnesium, zinc, etc. We want to keep the nutrients balanced, so the fruit grows best. We take leaf samples to determine if we’re short in zinc, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, sulfur, and so on. If we’re short, we add it to the soil or apply it foliarly to the leaves. It’s like taking a vitamin pill. We add several types of fertilizers, some with sulfur to keep a balance of positive and negative charges in the soil to have everything performing in the soil,” stated Robert.
With Integrate Pest Management (IPM), the Blacks monitor bad insects with traps. Good insects eat bad ones.
“We were coasting until 2010, when the brown marmorated stink bug appeared,” recalls Robert. This bug was introduced to the United States via imported trade from Asian countries.
During the time stink bugs were penetrating the orchard, the Blacks went into defensive mode at the orchard. “I almost lived in the tractor spraying,” Robert said, “We didn’t know what to do. When a stink bug bit or penetrated an apple, it wouldn’t be detected for two to three weeks.” He added, “There’s always a job for an entomologist.”
Dr. Tracy Leskey and her staff, from the USDA-ARS in Kearneysville, West Virginia, called him in July 2010 asking to scout the farm to see if any BMSB were present or caused any damage. They found many bugs, and there was a great deal of damage to the fruit. That bug changed the orchard’s whole spray program, since the old spray wasn’t killing the stink bugs. The Blacks had 90 percent damaged fruit in some areas of the farm that was unsalable in 2010. That damaged fruit was used to feed hogs at a neighboring farm.
In recent years, some new native predators to the stink bug have been introduced—by accident—arriving just like the original stink bugs did, through a sea container on a boat from Asia in the Port of Baltimore. The USDA runs weekly testing at Catoctin Orchard. In partnership with the Blacks, they are doing an experiment on an acre plot where they are only spraying six targeted trees that have a pheromone (attractant) placed on the outer edge for the stink bugs to draw them to that area.
“We could lose six trees and save a crop. There were 3,000 stink bugs killed on one tree, so we may eventually have sacrificial trees,” Robert said. He said that there’s a lot of great testing going on with the USDA-ARS facility in Kearneysville, providing technical lab work to support the research.
Six or seven years ago, Catoctin Mountain Orchard started contracting with the school lunch program, where their apples are used for lunches in Frederick County Schools. “It’s wonderful that kids are eating nearly all varieties of our apples. We’re providing them with great eating apples. Prior to that, they were getting Washington State Red Delicious that really aren’t fit to eat,” expressed Robert.
Robert said he went to the ‘Harry Black school of practical learning.’ He didn’t attend college, but was able to have hands-on-experience every day from his father and uncle. Lee and Harry went to winter meetings and summer tours, held at other growers’ farms that were sponsored by the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, to help them learn and improve their farms. Robert’s sister, Pat, went to Mount St. Mary’s, where she earned a degree in business. She then worked for an accountant for about four months before coming back to the farm. Her financial skills have been an asset to the business.
Today, you’ll find all family members— second, third, and fourth generations of the extended Black family—working the orchard and market. It’s a big operation, where everyone plays an important part.
Since this interview in September, Uncle Elmer Lee passed away on November 9, 2015, and is now buried in the Eyler’s Valley Chapel cemetery up in the mountain. We hope he’s enjoying a well-deserved rest after his full, and well-lived life.
Pictured left to right are Pat Black, Frances and Elmer “Lee” Black, and Bobby Black.
Photo by Deb Spalding