One of the highlights of my job is calling an apple grower every spring to let them know they’ve been named American Fruit Grower® and Western Fruit Grower® magazines’ Apple Grower of the Year. I get all sorts of reactions, from tremendous gratitude — you can almost feel the emotion through the phone — to downright disbelief. You can put Robert Black, our 2020 winner, in that latter category.
Over and over, Bob tried to tell me that there must have been some sort of mistake, that the award is reserved for such luminaries as John Rice and Grady Auvil, the first two winners, in 1989-90. I wasn’t completely shocked at Bob’s reaction, as I had heard something similar when the husband-and-wife team of Phil and Judy Schwallier of Sparta, MI accepted the award just a couple of years earlier, in 2018.
“Have you looked at the list of people who are on this Apple Grower of the Year? Doyle Fleming, Darrel Oakes, Grady Auvil, John Rice, my gosh! Do you think we belong with them? They’re exceptional people, great achievements, and the finest growers and citizens in the apple industry that you can find,” Phil said, then concluded his brief remarks with some keen insight. “They have a great passion and a great legacy, and they’re the best of the best. And we never thought — Judy and I — we would ever be anywhere near that caliber. So, you have bestowed upon us a great honor, and one that is very humbling to us.”
If you’ve ever met the Schwalliers, one of the nicest, most sincere couples around, you know they meant every word they said. So did Bob, who respects the award so much. But he’s such a humble man, he kept saying he wasn’t deserving. I told him we had a whole handful of nominations that said otherwise — Bob was one of the most-nominated growers we’ve ever had — and of course he eventually relented.
Part of the reason he relented, I believe, is it gave him a chance to thank all those who had helped him along the way. Bob was able to note how instrumental his father, Harry Black, had been in his success. He was also able to tell the story of a ‘Gala’ apple that didn’t ripen until very late in the season. His father died before the patent was issued, but the son was able to tell the story of the ‘Harry Black Gala’.
Bob could also thank his sister, Patricia Black, the co-owner of Catoctin Mountain Orchard as well as the Treasurer and Secretary, who also manages the farm market. His sister not only watches over all the finances, but she’s also the one who runs the farm while Bob is traveling all over the world attending meetings, freely exchanging knowledge with one and all.
I imagine those who nominated Bob for the award are really glad they did. You too can have that kind of effect on someone you believe is worthy of the award, which is sponsored by Valent USA. Quite simply, the award, now in its 33rd year, recognizes apple growers who have reached outstanding levels of success through their efforts in innovative production, marketing, horticultural, and management practices. Winners demonstrate commitment and leadership to their field by producing high-quality fruit, being actively involved in associations, and taking a strong role in shaping the direction of the apple industry.
You probably know someone who should be similarly honored. Take a minute to make their day by going to this link and enter the name of a deserving grower. You’ll be glad you did — you have no idea how much impact you can have.
For a complete list of Apple Growers of the Year from 1989 to present, scan through the photo gallery.