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VOL. 40 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 15, 2016

Mt. Juliet orchard owners giving up their slice of Eden

Breedens have harvested many happy memories

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Tommy Breeden shows off the fruits of his labor, another perfect Breeden’s Orchard peach.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

MT. JULIET – Bouncing the decade-old John Deere Gator through the golden-delicious orchard – the pastoral locale for so many autumn memories with my kids (when they were kids) – driver and orchard-master Tommy Breeden jostles us around trees, over uneven ground and beneath low-hanging fruit.

“Mr. Tim, this is home to me. Forty-two years. I’m going to miss it,” says Tommy, 75, as the vehicle lurches to a halt. “These are white peaches here,” he says, rescuing a pair of them from one of the approximately 400 peach trees (and about 250 apple trees) at Breeden’s Orchard.

He brings a couple back to me in the Gator passenger seat. “Here, let’s add these to the other ones,” he says.

But as he places the peaches into an overflowing box he already picked for me during this happiesh-melancholy day at one of my favorite Middle Tennessee escapes, he halts and looks at one of the whites … then shows it to me.

“Breeden, just what kind of peach picker are you?” he says, gently mocking himself as he points to a couple of scars in one of peaches. “It’s still good, though. Just make sure to cut out these couple of spots.” I did and it was.

The driver, vying for the title of the kindest man I’ve ever met, climbs back behind the wheel and we roll on through his orchard, 11½ acres of apple and peach trees scaling both sides of the hill where he’s spent the last 42 years of days and nights, the rare exception being when he was on a vacation cruise or off visiting the world.

“I never thought I’d see the Panama Canal back when I was growing up in Old Hickory,” he says, crediting Breeden’s Orchard & Country Store and hard work for the fact he’s seen so many other horizons.

“I’m going to hate to leave here, but it’s time,” says Tommy, parking the Gator at the bottom of his hill and walking to the massive yellow “for sale” sign that faces Beckwith Road in a still-agrarian edge of Mount Juliet, the Wilson County boomtown.

I’ll note here that instead of my usual route to the orchard that takes me through Mount Juliet’s “slightly urban” core, I have followed Tommy’s advice and negotiated the gloriously agricultural hills and valleys, the 31-year-old Saab winding past orchards, goats and wildflowers lining Beckwith Road as it connects I-40 to this orchard.

“I know it’s time to give it up,” adds Tommy, who still is trying to talk himself into believing selling the orchard is a good idea. It really is, he says – blaming his health’s slow decline and age – time for him to say “so long, farewell” to his you-pick-’em paradise.

His wife of 48 years, Marynell, who makes sure I note she is two years younger than the love of her life, tells me that for the last few years she’s been campaigning to escape the shadow of the hundreds of fruit trees.

“It’s about time we finally did this,” adds Marynell, who occasionally leaves the counter of the country store to duck out the side to add an occasional wisecrack or anecdote to the nearly three hours of conversation I am honored to spend with my favorite fruit farmer.

When she is inside, just yards away from our shaded perch, I can hear her telling customers that the inventory reduction has begun. Jams and jellies and the like are for sale, but she’s not restocking. Once they are empty, those jelly shelves and other store furnishings will be sold.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for three or four years,” she says, as she goes about the business of directing customers to the spots in the orchard where the peaches are ready for picking, by the box, by the basket, even by the little, red wagon-load. Enthusiastic and optimistic pickers may choose from the fleet of Radio Flyers to collect and transport bounty found in the ripe, perfect-picking places.

“Boy, he’s sure got a lot,” she says as a regular pulls his little red wagonload uphill to the store. Many people make it a habit to stop at Breeden’s during peach-picking, which begins around the Fourth of July, and the apple-picking frenzy that begins the day after Labor Day.

“Last year we sold out of the golden-delicious in 10 days,” says Tommy.

I often came here when my kids, Emily, now almost 23, and Joe, 20, were pretty much fresh from toddlerhood in Romanian orphanages. That’s a story for another day, but the day trips to Breeden’s were a family tradition.

The kids would jump from their booster seats and spout serious glee whenever we parked by the country store crowning the hilltop. We’d go visit the Breedens inside the open-air store and grab a tall, plastic pickle bucket or two to carry for the filling down into the orchard. The Breedens since have switched from plastic pails to peck-and-a-half baskets for customers to carry down into the orchard.

I was carrying forward a family tradition, as my mother was an apple-picking enthusiast back when I was in my kids’ demographic, 60 years or so ago. In fact, my mom had picked at Breeden’s, and during her years of decline before her death in 1999, she was the happy recipient of apples picked by her Eastern European grandchildren. “I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck,” she’d say.

Well, Suzanne and I did most of the picking while the kids sank their young teeth into the golden-delicious bounty.

Some sampling was expected by the Breedens, whose orchard was an oasis for kids – Romanian and otherwise – on Saturday mornings. The place opens at 7 a.m. and closes at about 2 p.m. daily, seven days a week, during peach season. Apple season is 10-4 Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 12-4 on Sundays.

“We’re closed every Wednesday during apple season,” Tommy says, adding they need that mid-week break to recuperate.

“Back between 1990 and 2005, those were our boom years out here,” adds Tommy, shifting his weight to lean forward on his park bench just outside the open-air store.

“We had six solid weeks of school field trips, at least three buses came here every morning, back then,” he says. “Some of those kids were so surprised by what they saw. … A lot of them thought apples grew at Kroger.”

He and Marynell gave up hosting field trips in 2004, but “those were good years. We were busy all the time,” says Tommy, chuckling at the memory of his wife, dressed as Johnny Appleseed, leading flocks of school kids through the orchard.

The Breedens stopped offering those regular field trips when Tommy’s health began faltering and the bottom half of life’s hourglass began filling up.

With neither time nor energy enough to continue hosting the enthusiastic yellow-busloads, Johnny Appleseed retired.

It was the same year Marynell, who met Tommy on a blind date, found the task of making 10-inch “full” pies and the smaller fried-fruit variety too much to handle. It was time to close the bakery room in their house, an overripe apple’s toss from their country store.

With self-described “dough-roller” Tommy and other family and friends, her baking business had become overwhelming. Not only was she making fried and full pies for markets and restaurants all over the Midstate, “we used to sell our fried pies to Candyland back when there was Opryland and no mall over there,” Tommy recalls.

“The last year she did it, she had orders for 159 whole pies for Thanksgiving and (after filling those orders) we were still going at it up until two days before Christmas,” says Tommy.

“After she got done with that big order in 2004, she said she was done with the bakery. It had wore her out,” he explains.

Tommy – sitting on a park bench, chasing off the flies while he eats a fast-food sausage biscuit – boasts, though, of his wife’s baking abilities.

“She could make it where the meringue would stay up good,” he says. “Even to this day, she hasn’t told people the recipe.”

Marynell and Tommy Breeden relax on a bench next to their country store, located just feet from their peach orchard. The two met on a blind date and now have celebrated 48 years together, 42 of them at Breeden’s Orchard on Beckwith Road in Wilson County. This is their last year at the orchard.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

After she stops briefly to field a phone call – one of many on this day that she punctuates with “this will be the last time” and “we’re retiring” comments – Marynell steps to the shaded bench, where she and Tommy describe how they met.

“It was a blind date. There were about a dozen of us going out to the steakhouse ... I can’t remember the name… and then about seven or eight of us went on to Shakey’s (the pizza parlor) over in Madison,” Tommy recalls.

At the time her name was Marynell Redmon – a city kid from Flat Rock, a swath of South Nashville now in the bull’s-eye of gentrification that dispatches blue-collar refugees to Antioch apartment complexes.

She was visiting her best friend in Old Hickory, one street over from the apartment Tommy shared with a National Guard buddy. They quickly became “an item.”

“We stayed out until 2 a.m.,” she says, flashing bright eyes to her husband. “And we been together ever since.”

While Tommy pursued a career as a sheet-metal worker at the DuPont plant in Old Hickory – where his father also had worked ­­– Marynell began an office-work career that took her to the Donelson YMCA and other locales.

As she ducks back through the open side of the store to serve customers, Tommy flashes back to his youth.

“I always wanted a Corvette. Finally, I bought a white one with 26,000 miles on it” from the vice president of the Nashville Gas Company.

“That VP “literally gave me a fantastic deal, I believe, because of the way I growed up. My daddy died when I was young (16), and I had delivered (the VP’s) newspapers … It was a 1963, split-window Corvette.

“I have to admit I had a tendency to drive too fast,” he recalls. “And you should have seen my little mother driving that thing. She’d get in – she could drive a four-speed – and roll through Old Hickory village.”

With laughter as that anecdote’s exclamation point, he turns the conversation back to the 11½-acre farm “that has been home to me” for 42 years.

When Tommy and Marynell bought the spread, they simply were looking for a spot in the country to raise their children. Scott died in a 1984 car wreck, and Michelle is mom to their only granddaughter, Aspen, who helps with the family business during her summers. “Back then we had horses and cows and wanted a place to raise them.

“We came out here at night,” Tommy says of their scouting for a rural patch. They decided to buy it. “We came back out here the next day and saw all these fruit trees. I didn’t know nothing about fruit trees. I was going to bush hog or bulldoze them down, clear the land” and turn it to pasture for his livestock.

But before he did that, he spoke with Wilson Co. Agriculture Extension Service agent Mr. Wiley T. Bernard (“please put ‘Mr.’ before his name. I respected that man so much,” Breeden says.)

“He said ‘good golly, don’t do that,’” Tommy remembers. The ag agent backed up his words by helping Tommy learn how to properly care for fruit trees.

“He was an inspiration in getting me interested in the fruit,” Tommy says, punching a few letters into his smart phone and showing a photo of Bernard, who introduced him to others in the fruit world.

While the trees flourished around his new house on the hill, Tommy continued to work at DuPont.

“I had an involuntary retirement’ in 1987,” which sent him full-time into the fruit business.

“That could be the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says, adding that in 1990 Marynell joined him full-time.

And his “little mother” Opal, who died in 2003 at the age of 91, also “loved this orchard like I do,” though she retired when she was 79 as the business began to boom and tax needed to be figured on the register.

Tommy Breeden, 75, stands at the bottom of the hill that is home to his apple and peach orchard. The  “for sale” sign is a new addition, an acknowledgement that the labor that goes into running an orchard, a store and baking pies has become a bit too much for him and his wife, Marynell. He is asking $849,000 for the business, which he hopes the new owner will continue.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“That cash register was a little too much for her,” Tommy notes. “That was after we built this building. Before that, we operated out of an Army tent. Each of us (Tommy, his hired help and his family) would start the day with $30 in our pockets” to make change for the pickers.

“I would go around and collect the money during the day so that nobody had too much cash out there.”

He looks the few yards over to the house where he and his family lived more than four decades before they moved just up the road this past winter.

“I love this little house,” he says.

He waves to customers returning from the orchard. “We’ve built the business. We get a lot of new people and a lot of return customers. Over 42 years, we’ve seen different generations of a family. …

“I hope we find someone who wants this business. It’s all here,” says Tommy, whose property – including the buildings – carries an $849,000 price tag.

He’d love it if a younger person, physically equipped for the work, buys it and continues nurturing the trees, satisfying the folks who for decades have trekked here collecting memories and fruit.

But he’s realistic, as well. This is, after all, open land in a bedroom city filled with pricey developments for those who work in Nashville.

“Oh, I’d have to sell it to anyone who made the right offer,” he says, knowing full well that could easily be someone who wants to turn this peaceful hill into a subdivision to serve the “It City.”

Tommy won’t look back. He’s had his run out here. A good one.

“When I was growing up in Old Hickory, you know, we all have dreams. I dreamed I’d be a millionaire,” he says. “We ain’t got rich, but we’ve paid our bills, put a daughter through college and we’ve traveled all over the world.”

He notes that the kids he grew up with around the old DuPont plant never would have guessed he’d trade his white Corvette life in the fast lane for that of a gentleman farmer, whose peaches and apples would fund wide-eyed world travel.

“When I was a kid, I never would have believed the places I’ve gone,” he adds, noting he’s taken 22 cruises and has visited the U.K. Marynell has taken 24 cruises and has traveled through Europe and South America. “My favorite country is Italy,” she offers. “Your name’s Italian, isn’t it?”

Of course, I nod proudly as she mentions my heritage. But I’m not out here to talk about myself. I am here to chronicle the end of a family business, a place of tradition for the owners and for the pickers. A pastoral destination for my own family when the kids were younger.

This move didn’t sneak up on him. Tommy’s health has increasingly slowed him in recent years.

Last winter’s move from the house atop a hill filled with fruit trees was blessed by fate.

“Marynell and the rest of the family were up in Pigeon Forge, where we have a time-share, last Thanksgiving.

“My daughter, Michelle, and I were going to go up there after finishing our work (she works for Wilson County) on that Wednesday.

“As I was driving back here on that day to get ready to go, I saw the ‘for sale’ sign on a house. I called my daughter, and she came over.

“The first thing she says when we walk through the door is ‘it’s mama’s house.’”

A few Facetime chats with his wife in Pigeon Forge later, that house became the Breedens’ future home.

“It is the house I always promised Marynell,” he says of the spacious new residence less than a quarter-mile from the orchard.

“It’s a beautiful house. She’s so proud of it. I enjoy it. And I knew when that contract was signed that it was time to sell this hill, these trees,” he says, noting that his own frailties have made it increasingly difficult to maintain this orchard.

“The day before the Fourth of July, I was up here, spraying the trees for brown rot. It was really hot. My old tractor was like an oven.”

The combination of chemicals, heat and physical illness – “I couldn’t do anything on the Fourth this year” – convinced him he’d made the right decision to sell his green oasis.

“Time changes a lot of things,” he adds. “It’s like that song Tracy Lawrence had out: ‘Time Marches On,’ “he says, repeating the title of the Bobby Braddock-penned hit with the line “the only thing that stays the same is everything changes, everything changes….”

Tommy smiles as folks, who are strangers just once, treasure hunt in the section where peaches are ready for picking.

He reaches for a quart Thermos filled with water and takes a long draw. Then he smiles. “I guess I could write a book about my life if I knew how to do something like that.

“I really love it up on this hill, when it’s so quiet at night and where there are all these trees for shade,” he tells me later when he chauffeurs me across the orchard where I spent many happy autumn mornings with my family.

“I’m gonna miss it, Mr. Tim. I’m gonna miss it,” he adds, standing near the “for sale” sign.

“Life is short …. It doesn’t seem like this has been 42 years, and this is it.”

Tommy scans the fruit-tree-camouflaged horizon.

“No fun to get old.”

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