Capturing customers with great-tasting fruit
Bob Black and his family try to offer products that will tempt commuters to pull in off the highway.
Catoctin Mountain Orchard sells fruit in quart, quarter peck, half peck, peck, and half bushel containers at its retail market. a peck is about 10 to 12 pounds.
Bob Black channels his seemingly boundless energy into dreaming up more ways to attract customers to his farm and market, and keeping them there longer.
On his 100 acres, he grows apples, peaches, plums, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, cut flowers, grapes, cider, and a list of other fruits and vegetables that’s exhausting just to read.
“I try to do so much,” Black reflected. And yet he’s far from running out of ideas.
His father, Harry, worked at Catoctin Mountain Orchard 50 years ago and bought it from the owner in 1961. At first, he sold mainly through wholesale channels, but now Black and his family sell 95 percent of what they grow through their own retail market. The operation is located on a main highway at Thurmont, Maryland. It’s a route that increasing numbers of commuters use between their work in Washington, D.C., and homes in rural Maryland or even Pennsylvania—a drive of up to two hours.
Black estimates that 12,000 vehicles pass his market every day between Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg. Urban sprawl is pushing agricultural land out of production. A neighboring farm looks destined to become the site of a new Wal-Mart superstore. While on the one hand a Wal-Mart might increase traffic in the area, Black fears it could dwarf his market.
Encouraging as many people as possible to pull off the highway and into his farm is one of Black’s missions in life. He offers self-guided tours of the orchard, which features an “energy release area” (or playground) for children. He hopes people will take pictures of the fruit and flowers, and linger long enough to buy goods at his market.
Last year, he added a front porch to the store, and he’s thinking about providing picnic tables. In the future, he might host weddings at a vantage point looking over the orchard and the picturesque valley below.
If parking becomes a problem, he’s prepared to take out trees.
But Black’s focus on producing high quality fruit hasn’t diminished. His cherry season begins about the last week of June and runs through August. His main variety is Ulster, but he also has Chelan. He’s taking out Heldelfingen because it’s not as firm as people like, and he’s removed his Rainier trees because the variety is too difficult to grow in the humid climate.
August, when the stone fruit season is in full swing, is one of the busiest months at the market. Black tries to have a wide variety of good-tasting fruit to offer, including many different peaches, white-fleshed nectarines, plums, and Pluots.
“We’re getting people back to eating great-quality fruit,” he said. “We’re dealing with taste more than appearance. We want it to look nice, but taste is the number-one thing we’re striving for. Why would you eat it if it didn’t taste good?”
He has a long list of apples available, from Lodi in July to Gala, Cortland, Cameo, and finally Pink Lady in late fall. He insists on nonspur Red Delicious strains, which he thinks have better eating quality than spurs.
“I have to look at my customers when they bite into it,” he explained.
He’s bringing back an old strain called Royal Red Delicious, which has good flavor but has poor coloring and early drop. Black thinks he might be able to solve those problems by using the growth regulator ReTain (aminoethoxyvinylglycine) to delay harvest, and still have great-tasting fruit.
Another apple variety he’s excited about is Autumn Gala, which his father discovered at the orchard. It matures about three to four weeks after most other Gala strains and is a very firm apple. “It’s not much larger, but it does eat good,” Black said. “It’s a really crisp apple, and I would say 95 percent of the population wants a really crisp apple with great flavor.”
The market is closed during March and April. The later-maturing apples, such as Fuji and Pink Lady are held in controlled-atmosphere storage at Rice Fruit Company to provide a supply of quality fruit until the next harvest.
Catoctin Mountain Orchard is a family operation, involving his wife, Frances, son Chris, and sister and brother-in-law Pat and Bill Runkles. Pat runs the market, which features a bakery. Members of a local church make pies to bake and sell at the market, using fruit from the orchard. Pat estimates they sell 5,000 church pies per season, and many more pies from the Gardner Pie Company of Pennsylvania.
“People don’t have time to make a pie,” she said. “They’d rather come in and buy a pie.”
Black said the family hopes to stay in business at Catoctin Mountain Orchards for as long as they can, despite the pressures. They feel that dealing directly with customers is a big advantage, and offering a wide diversity of products is the key to drawing them in.
“We’re just trying to grow different varieties of fruits and vegetables and keep people interested, so they can buy a little bit of everything,” Black said.