When Jamie Collins quit her job as a social worker in 1997 to become a farmer, she wasn’t thinking about the price of cardboard boxes. She was excited about growing food because it felt like work that matters “in the big scheme of things,” unlike her previous plan of interior decorating. But here she was on a Tuesday morning eight years later, the farmers market just hours away, calling around for a deal on boxes in which to pack her prize-winning organic heirloom tomatoes for sale to Trader Joe’s. Her persistence paid off. She found some for 91 cents, well below the first quote of $1.50.
“That’s a big difference!” she exclaims, widening her light blue eyes like someone who has just heard a scandalous piece of gossip. “Because then you have your clamshells and your labels…” She shakes her head. “I never thought I’d be spending so much on packaging.”
At 32, Collins looks the perfect part of the organic farmer. She’s pretty and strong-looking, prone to smiling and doling out enveloping hugs, talkative and easy in manner. She has two nose rings, prefers sparkly eye shadow and wears her burgundy-colored hair under a cowboy hat. Positioned at a table under a tree, chopping tomatoes for salsa and chatting affably with visitors at Serendipity Farm’s U-Pick stand, she seems like a good-time girl in the middle of good-time day.
But Collins’ groovy exterior hides a wealth of energy, drive and hustle. The persistence that lined up those cheaper boxes is propelling an entire enterprise along the pothole-riddled road that is a typical farming year. This year late rains and unusually cool weather cut the tomato season in half. On the other hand, her produce won eight blue ribbons—including best heirloom tomatoes, chard, peppers and kale—at the Monterey County Fair this year.
Collins spends most of her time working at the farm, and when she’s not working at it she’s thinking about it, even now, at the height of tomato season, when things get busiest just as the body gets weariest. “This time of year you’re beyond exhausted,” she says. “You’re just in the zone.”
All business is hard, but running a small farm is famously one of the hardest.
Collins and business partner Roberto Garcia own Serendipity Farm, an organic concern operating on two parcels in Carmel Valley. On eight acres just around the bend from Château Julien, they grow tomatoes in 15 varieties, sunflowers, chard, herbs, kale and incendiary Oaxacan peppers. An acre and a half just down the road are the hot-weather plants: corn, bell beppers, eggplant and squash.
On a late September day, the main part of the farm, where the U-Pick stand is, brings to mind every cliché in the book about bucolic serenity. Boxes of Orange Oxheart and Black from Tula tomatoes are stacked on a table, ready for the farmers market. Five of the farm’s eight full-time workers relax in the shade during lunchtime, being entertained by their colleague’s impossibly tiny Chihuahua puppy. Bees buzz. Birds sing. Collins’ blue heeler, Amity, lies panting beneath the open tailgate of her truck. It’s an idyllic scene.
But four years ago Collins was working three jobs to support what she jokingly calls her “farming hobby.” There was the full-time desk job at Earthbound Farms headquarters, which left her itching to make use of her crop science degree from Cal Poly. There was the part-time job as regional service rep for California Certified Organic Farmers. And there was a third gig doing inspections for CCOF, something she still does on occasion. In evenings and on weekends she would head up to Moss Landing to do the work she really loved, cultivating beets, carrots, kale and sunflowers on two acres of certified organic land which she had found, well, serendipitously, in the classified pages of the Weekly.
So the name was decided.
People came out of the woodwork to help her in the early days, Collins says. Friends and co-workers sometimes even came up on their only days off. Soon Garcia, who was a foreman at Earthbound, joined Collins full time, bringing the wisdom gleaned from decades of tending crops and a comforting presence. “He’s like a father to me,” she says. “He’s taught me so much. He’s so kind of Zen, I guess.”
The first couple of years were touch and go. Collins was paying people out of her own salaries, and there were times when checks arrived barely in time to keep the house of cards from tumbling down. She learned how to barter, trading fresh vegetables for abalone, dog food, and massages. In the beginning she sold her produce at the Monterey Farmers Market (she’s still there each week, in front of Rosine’s) and her sunflowers to Whole Foods, as she still does. In 2002, she started selling to A & A Organic Marketing. By the end of that year, she was able to quit her job and farm full time.
By 2003, she realized she needed to start growing higher-priced foods, like peppers and tomatoes. So Serendipity came to hot, sunny Carmel Valley. Collins cultivated a list of 15 restaurants that would buy the farm’s produce, including The Covey at Quail Lodge, Montrio, Adrian’s Gourmet Kitchen, the Wild Goose, Garden Bistro and Tehama Golf Club.
In 2004, things bumped up a notch when Serendipity expanded to nearly 30 acres.
Even though Serendipity scaled back its acreage this year, Collins still sells to some of these places. Tehama has a standing order for tomatoes. Adrian’s and the Wild Goose buy whatever she’s selling. Last weekend Montrio’s Harvest Feast seven-course gourmet dinner featured Serendipity’s produce, as will this weekend’s Hurricane Katrina benefit, Community Feeds the Nation, on Oct. 7 at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
This year the farm also started to hit three farmers markets a week: Monterey on Tuesdays, Los Altos on Thursdays and Montclaire in Oakland on Sundays.
Diversifying still further, last month they put up a sign near an old tractor at the entrance of the main property near the five-mile marker on Carmel Valley Road. The U-Pick stand is open on Saturdays, 9am to 5pm, through October. Customers are invited to grab a five-gallon bucket and wander through five acres of tomatoes, picking Brandywines, Brown Cherries, Tigerellas, Aunt Ruby’s German Greens, Pink Ping Pongs, Purple Calabash and all the rest.
Collins says it’s working out well. Serendipity hopes to grow in the coming years and looks positioned to pull it off. The business is tough, but the farm’s reputation is good.
The ribbons at the fair say it all.
“I feel like this is a year of recognition,” Collins says. “I never won a ribbon before. It’s just a little thing, but—I was the only small farmer who was competing in that building! And I was competing against the big boys!”