In 1997 Jamie Collins was at a crossroads. Trained as a social worker, she was living in Southern California, working with mentally disabled adults and struggling with burnout. Her Plan B, interior design, didn’t seem exciting anymore. She wanted work that mattered “in the big scheme of things,” and it needed to be work that would sustain her, not drain her, on a day-to-day basis.
After work Jamie would come home and tend to the many plants she had growing on her patio—tomatoes, grapes and herbs, to name a few. When an internship as a furniture designer fell through after she’d already given notice at her social work job, Jamie decided it was an opportune time to take a road trip with her dog Ziggy and see the rest of the West Coast. The diversity of crops she rolled past on her coastal trip inspired her next move: enrollment in the Crop and Fruit Science program at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo the following semester. “I felt good about growing plants that could feed people,” she says, “not just make someone’s yard look pretty.”
Four years and one college degree later, Jamie, now living on the Monterey Peninsula, leased four acres of certified organic land in Moss Landing. She was 27 years old, working three jobs and driving up to the property on evenings and weekends to tend her first crop of beets, carrots, kale, green beans and sunflowers. It was hard, but friends helped out and more experienced farmers shared advice. Things seemed to be going Jamie’s way, right down to the chance sighting of the acreage listing in the Coast Weekly classifieds that inspired the name Serendipity Farms.
That first year Jamie sold produce at the Monterey Farmers Market and sunflowers to Whole Foods. The next year, in 2002, Serendipity Farm started selling to a wholesale distributor of organic foods, and Jamie went to farming full-time. The following year she leased eight acres in hot, sunny Carmel Valley and started growing the glamorous, high-value crop that would catapult Serendipity into local stardom: organic heirloom tomatoes, 15 varieties of them. “The vines that year were over eight feet tall and loaded with fruit,” she says. “It was a perfect year for tomatoes.”
Local chefs took notice. As the public began understanding the value of fresh seasonal food, produce from Serendipity Farms—then the only small organic grower anywhere near the Peninsula—her produce started appearing on plates at some of Monterey County’s favorite restaurants: Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, Montrio, The Covey at Quail Lodge, Bernardus Lodge and the Big Sur Bakery, to name a few. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s sold the famous tomatoes. Serendipity Farms was off and running.
The farm’s reputation grew steadily among consumers over the next 10 years. The farm invited people to pick their own produce at its U-Pick stand in Carmel Valley. It expanded to farmers markets throughout the Bay Area and started a CSA for the Monterey Peninsula. Serendipity Farms itself grew to 45 acres at one point, won awards at county fairs and grew produce for the Peninsula’s finest restaurants.
Throughout Serendipity’s history, Jamie has donated time and produce, supported agriculture programs at local schools and served as an outspoken proponent of sustainable agriculture, even traveling to Washington, D.C. to speak on behalf of small family farms. “It’s great that organics have become a choice in the mainstream market,” she says, “but there is another level of consciousness that needs to be understood. Know your local farmer and try not to support produce that is shipped long distances, even if it is organic. Take it to a higher level and vote with your money.”
The seed planted in 1997, it’s safe to say, has borne a bumper crop of good.
Today Serendipity Farms raises more than 50 varieties of award-winning organic vegetables, herbs and flowers on 20 acres in Carmel Valley and Aromas. The different microclimates allow the farm to grow a huge variety of produce, from the fog zone-loving row crops, raspberries and strawberries grown on the historic Odello Ranch at the mouth of Carmel Valley to the inland heat lovers like tomatoes and basil that ripen on the mid-Valley parcel. On the homestead in Aromas are the Meyer lemon, avocado, figs and guava trees, plus the blackberries, tayberries and greenhouse-started herbs. In early 2014 the farm leased one acre of blueberries in Corralitos that will be certified organic in 2015.
Growing interesting heirloom varieties of vegetables for flavor and color pigmentation (linked to higher vitamin content) is a top priority at Serendipity. You can see and taste the difference with varietals like Purple Haze garlic, Black from Tula tomatoes, Bacon avocados and Little Gem lettuces.
As from the start, Serendipity remains a strictly organic concern and carries full certification by California Certified Organic Farmers. Crop rotation keeps soil healthy and productive, with only fish-based fertilizer and slow-released bat guano added to boost nutrients (plus goat, chicken and horse manure for the perennial tree crops). Serendipity Farms has never used pest control, not even organic approved pesticides, instead relying on beneficial insects to keep pests in check.
Things have shifted once again for Jamie, who is now raising her son Ivan Kale, born in July of 2013, with partner Avtonom Ordjonikidze in Aromas. While still overseeing the farm, she also serves as an organic farm consultant, a farm and process inspector for California Certified Organic Farmers and a farm and food writer with a column in Edible Monterey Bay. She also received Edible Monterey Bay’s reader’s choice for Local Hero two consecutive years (2012 and 2013) in the category of best farm/farmer.
Farming remains Jamie’s calling and passion. “Overall, the best things about being a farmer are the challenges and the chances for innovation and creativity,” she says. “I love big work days where everyone works together, whether it be planting an obscene amount of potatoes or building a fence. It feels good to work as a team and to be exhausted and dirty at the end of the day. I also enjoy the business part of farming; I am a nerd for logistics and making things come together efficiently. Working with the chefs to grow what they want to feature on their menu is especially rewarding.”
Jamie still likes to walk the fields and see how the crops are progressing. She pauses and puts her life’s work into perspective. “Being able to harvest your own fresh, organic bounty is such a luxury.”