Collins Family Orchard

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Collins Family Orchard­s plucks opportunity while growing and adapting through four generations.

STORY BY ISABEL THOTTAM
PHOTOS BY AUDREY KELLY

akelly_collinsfarm_027One hundred and forty-three miles outside Seattle, on the eastern side of the mountains just above the Yakima Valley, sits a 35-acre orchard in Selah, Washington. For over 100 years and four generations, the Collins family has owned and farmed the land.

Calvin Collins sports a Seattle Seahawks cap, and his hands are covered in a hard day’s work. He’s been up since five in the morning, caring for his trees, boxing fruit, and loading a large truck to take the produce to the orchard’s warehouse in Magnolia, where it will be stored in a cold room before going out for sale at farmers markets throughout the city.

Calvin takes a bite from one of the last peaches of the summer season as he stares over the rows of trees whose leaves gently rustle in the wind.

“I bet I could tell you the name of every tree out there,” he says. “They become a part of who you are when you’ve been doing this for as long as I have.”

History of the Orchards

Calvin is a third-generation farmer, and his son, Brian Collins, is the fourth. When Calvin’s father, Don, wanted someone to take over the orchards, Calvin was the only one of his siblings and cousins willing to do so.

“My brothers didn’t want to farm because it’s such a risk,” Calvin says. “Mother Nature can destroy your field in an instant. If you lose your crops, you lose your business.”

He didn’t have any experience, but Calvin was willing to take the risk. After all, he’d grown up with the orchards and had memories of helping his father with the process of “smudging,” the process of lighting fires in metal pots throughout the orchard to keep the trees warm during cold snaps.

When Calvin turned 20, his father asked him if he wanted to take over the orchard. Calvin accepted.

Over the years, Calvin has learned a lot from a trial and error approach, including developing his own pruning method. Though it’s anything but traditional, it works.

“They’ll let me know if they’re not happy because they’ll throw all the fruit on the ground,” Calvin jokes.

Though Calvin inherited the business from his father, he didn’t necessarily envision it as a third-generation affair given the stressful nature of the work. Still, his youngest son, Brian, saw an opportunity to expand the business.

Branching Out

akelly_collinsfarm_006When Brian was 12, he started selling fruit at the Yakima and Ellensburg farmers markets. He sold Rainier cherries and was blown away by how much the business’s profits increased. By age 16, Brian was selling in more markets on the west side of Washington. In Seattle, sales tripled.

Brian spent his summers as a teenager driving five times a week back and forth from Selah to Seattle in a van packed with boxes of fruit. Calvin later told Brian he could keep all the profits if he continued to do the markets. At that time, Collins Family Orchards had just been approved as a vendor for the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, which manages Columbia City, Phinney, Lake City, West Seattle, Broadway, and Magnolia. Additionally, the company was approved by the Seattle Farmers Market Association, which organizes Ballard, Wallingford, and Madrona.

Brian continued working the markets as a student at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, using the profits to pay his tuition. Six times a week, during the summer, Brian made the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Seattle to sell produce.

“I realized in college that if I moved to Seattle, I could really build up this side of the business,” Brian says. “We had gotten in with two really great farmers market organizations, and we honestly wouldn’t be where we are now without them. They allowed us to do a lot more.”

After graduating, Brian convinced Calvin to take him on as a business partner. In 2009, Brian moved to Ballard and hired employees to help run the 20 markets they were selling in. To save money on gas – and time driving back and forth across the mountains – they rented a warehouse in the city.

As Brian worked more markets, he recognized that if they wanted to meet the growing demand and make more money, he would need to plant new fruits.

Hybrid Fruit Heaven

akelly_collinsfarm_003In 1905, when the land was first purchased, Calvin’s grandfather was growing only cider apples – a tart variety too sour for eating. In the ‘50s, Red Delicious apples became available and were the first “eating apples” that the orchards grew. Golden Delicious apples followed, and then in the ‘80s, the family added Gala apples.

By the ‘90s, all of the farms in eastern Washington were overplanting Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Gala apples. At that time, Calvin was primarily selling his fruit to warehouses, which would then sell to grocery stores. He saw that the market was becoming oversaturated with those three apple varieties, lowering the market price. Calvin knew he needed to diversify the orchard to survive.

“We started changing what we grew, like different types of cherries,” says Brian. “Then we started growing peaches, nectarines, and plums, and it progressed to where it is now. It all just started from the market opening our eyes that we could get paid for farming.” That started the diversification of the farm, and, today, the orchard is more diverse than ever.

One of the most popular types of fruit that the Collins family offers is hybrid fruit, created through a process that involves crossbreeding two different varieties of fruit and results in an offspring that includes genetic characteristics from both parents.

Calvin first planted hybrids in 2008 after reading about pluots in Good Fruit Magazine. He first experimented with Dinosaur Egg pluots, and they were a hit with customers. Now, they have an experimental block in the orchard where they experiment with new hybrid varieties.

As the orchard diversified, Brian decided to offer a CSA program to Seattle residents as a more appealing and affordable option – and one that helps the orchard by making sales more consistent rather than fluctuating based on weather. In 2016, Collins Family Orchards had about 700 CSA members.

The Next Harvest

Brian and his wife Brooke are raising their kids on the family farm, and they hope to cultivate the business’s fifth generation owners. But for now, Calvin and Brian are nurturing a successful venture.

Every morning, Calvin still walks through the orchard and checks on his trees. Even though there are hundreds of rows of them, Calvin knows them all by name.

“You feel the dirt, and it’s your dirt,” he says. “It’s a part of who you are. Even though it’s a risk, I keep going because that’s who I am. My dad used to say the same thing; he’d say, ‘I know almost every tree by name.’ After a while, I realized what he was saying. That’s how much these trees become part of you.”

Isabel Thottam is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She writes about food, technology, and business and is working on her first children’s book.

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