Leemer Cernohlavck believes in a product he can take a bite out of. The 73-year-old Millersburg man has been in the apple business since first planting his orchard in the fall of 1988.
Red Bird Hill Apple Orchard, located on Welsh Lane in Millersburg, offers six different apple varieties during harvest season - early September until late October. This time of year, the trees put on a show of beauty with budding flowers that their resident honey bees are eager to pollinate. Cernohlavck has two working hives that cover his whole orchard.
Cernohlavck sells his hand-picked apples at the Columbia and Fulton farmers markets and also from his residence. His best-seller is the Arkansas Black.
"They have a unique flavor, a flavor no other apple has," he said. "They're crazy about them at the farmers market."
Margot McMillen is a returning customer to Cernohlavck's orchard.
"If you have only eaten apples from the store, you really haven't eaten apples," McMillen insists.
She says she'll buy about 10 pounds of apples every fall; the Arkansas Black is her favorite because it's a "good keeper."
"I can keep them in the refrigerator and just use them occasionally all winter," she said.
Originally from eastern Nebraska, Cernohlavck moved to Millersburg in 1967 and built the house where he still resides. He first ripened to apple growing during high school when he started a home orchard through FFA.
"I always liked trees," he says. "I enjoy watching them grow."
He started Red Bird Hill with 190 trees, but a heavy frost about three years ago ruined many of them.
"It did a lot of damage," Cernohlavck recalls. "A lot of my trees are still recovering from it."
He still has about 150 good producers, mostly the Arkansas Black, Empire and Liberty varieties. The King David, Orleans and Winesap trees were hit hard by the fickle Missouri weather. Still, Cernohlavck and his wife, Carol Schuz, are up to their ears in apples when picking season comes. They make applesauce, pies, cider or just eat them raw.
Not content just to grow apples, Cernohlavck also has cherry and pear trees on his property. One of his favorite hobbies doesn't grow on trees. For all the labor he puts into them, the product is not a fruit at all, but a flower - the daylily. Cernohlavck keeps about 200 cultivars of daylilies, each with their own individual metal nameplate. From the magical swirl to the primal scream, each daylily is unique in its color, size and shape. A member of the Central Missouri Hemerocallis (or daylily) Society, Cernohlavck said the group will tour five area daylily gardens during its annual meeting in June, and he is happy to report that his own garden will be among them.
The brightly colored flowers bloom in June and July, a time Cernohlavck says he likes to exercise his photography skills and take photos of his handiwork. But until June, Cernohlavck says he has much work to do preparing his flower beds for the day the society will come to "critique" them. He said that's one thing more than 23 years in the orchard business and almost as many in the flower business takes - "a lot of work."
Customers like McMillen appreciate the effort. She says Cernohlavck is "one of our treasures in Callaway County."