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Fruits of innovation

March/April 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Fourth-generation farmer expands legacy of entrepreneurship


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Amber Balakian returned to the family farm after studying business and launched innovative new products using the farm's heirloom tomatoes. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

The fields of Balakian Farms have produced many things during the last century—one of the farm's specialties is entrepreneurship. For fourth-generation farmer Amber Balakian, it took leaving for college and then returning to her family's land to cultivate her own entrepreneurial spirit.

Balakian's agrarian roots were planted in American soil in the early 1900s when John Balakian escaped the Armenian Genocide. In 1925, he established a grape farm in the Fresno County town of Reedley, where, three generations later, his great-granddaughter grew up.

Amber Balakian left the 85-acre farm after high school to attend college at the University of California, San Diego. She then ventured to graduate studies in business at Harvard University Extension School, but her roots called her back to California. She said a key motivation to return was the opportunity to leave her own generation's mark on the family business.

"I'm really glad that I left, but I'm really glad that I came back, too," Balakian said. "I think leaving gave me a totally different perspective."

When Balakian was growing up, her grandmother cooked lunch every day in her home for farm employees—many of whom worked for the family for 20 years or more. That constant sense of togetherness gave Balakian the notion that working together on a farm creates invaluable relationships that last a lifetime, she said. It was those relationships that helped draw her back.

"I saw the farm not as a business, but more as a way of life," she said.


Angel Chavez, above, and his brother Benny are among the family's 20-year veteran employees. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Growing together

Balakian's introduction to the business side of growing produce came early: "All of us participated in the packing and the selling," she said. The chance to work in so many facets of the farm instilled a holistic business sense that motivated her to pursue an economics degree.

There were also early opportunities for her to interact with customers. In the summer, she'd travel with her family to San Francisco to sell at farmers markets. She got the chance to see how customers not only appreciated the family's produce, but also asked questions about the way in which it was grown and how it could be used.

In the early 1990s, Ginger Balakian, John's granddaughter and Amber's mother, drew on her insight into her customer's preferences when she made a pivotal decision to evolve the business in a new direction.

"My mom took more of a leadership role, and she's the one that transitioned everything into organic when it was a new concept," Balakian recalled. "No one was really doing it, but she wanted to try something different, and it worked out well."


A recipe from Amber Balakian's grandmother Stella Balakian inspired the family's single-variety jarred heirloom tomatoes. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

A new generation of ideas

Several years ago, it was Amber Balakian's opportunity to innovate, as she puzzled through an issue that bothered her during harvests.

"We were throwing away a lot of tomatoes at a time when we were growing 80 varieties of heirlooms. That was at our peak, because heirlooms were a new thing," she explained, adding that they've since narrowed it down to about 30 varieties.

Blemished fruit often went unsold at market, so tomatoes that weren't picture-perfect were tossed into bins. Balakian would stand over those bins, dismayed by the waste of otherwise delicious fruit.

"I thought, maybe I can do something with this," she said.

The answer made use of both innovation and the family's history: organic blended heirloom tomatoes, a take on her grandmother Stella's recipe, jarred in rainbow hues.

"A lot of Armenians can tomatoes that are blended down," Balakian said. "I thought of using my grandmother's recipe, but using the different colors and varieties."

The jarred tomatoes are created in small batches at an Armenian church near the farm. In the church's commercial kitchen, Balakian and her grandmother stand side-by-side, preparing and canning the single-variety tomato products such as Cherokee Purple, Pink Oxheart and Green Zebra. They're sold online and in California specialty stores.

Late last year, Balakian Farms introduced a second product to the market, the Not So Bloody Mary Mix. Pink, yellow, orange and green heirloom tomatoes are blended with brine and spices to make drinks that can be consumed out of the bottle or spiked with the addition of vodka and added heat.


The Balakian family grows about 30 different types of heirloom tomatoes, each with its own unique characteristics. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

The family behind the brand

Whether it's sharing recipes using their products or highlighting what's fresh in the fields, the Balakians stay connected with their customers via social media. Through various channels, the farm offers a curated story about its products.

"It gives people a look into who our people are, where they're from, our process—the day-to-day stuff," Balakian said. "I try to show, through our posts, the progression from greenhouse to actual produce."

The communication goes both ways for the Balakians, forging relationships between grower and customer.

"It's almost like what happens at a farmers market, but you're not always going to have that, where you can explain to people in person," Balakian said. "Social media gives a platform for farms to do that."

Her appreciation for being part of a California farm is evident when she talks about the location of the farm, where they've grown grapes, squash, figs and stone fruits in addition to the heirloom tomatoes that are a key part of their success.

"In terms of being a California farm, I think there's a lot of pride and integrity in that," she said. "I think our way of doing things resonates with people, not just from California, but from all over."

Being surrounded by other farms gives her family a greater sense of community, she said, and a connection to the food they see growing in the fields each day.

"I feel fortunate that we live in an area where there's a lot of ag, where we can grow what we eat," she said.


The family's line of jarred tomatoes and bloody mary mixes is made in small batches by hand in a local commercial kitchen. The products use blemished fruit that often goes unsold simply because of its cosmetic imperfections. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Balakian said she is aware of how hard her great-grandfather worked to become established in America and how every generation of her family has taken risks to try new things on their farm. She also can see how the same tenacity has improved the farm along the way.

"My grandfather and his father were very poor. They built what they had from the ground up," Balakian said. "I think my mom has that mentality, and it's the same for me."

The fact that three generations still manage the farm together is a source of pride for the family.

"Having different generations is having different levels of experience and wisdom when it comes to business," Balakian said. "It has been nice to have my grandma and my mom help me in different aspects."

Along with her many farm duties, and developing the Balakian Farms product line, Balakian also teaches entrepreneurship classes at Fresno City College. She describes it as an opportunity to bring together her agricultural and academic backgrounds to teach students the valuable lessons she has learned thus far. She is eager, she said, to inspire others to embrace the region's agrarian roots and think innovatively about what's next for California-grown products.

Christy Heron-Clark

Family heirlooms

It's no surprise that a family that cultivates an appreciation for their heritage would choose to grow tomatoes with a past. For heirlooms, the secret is in the seed passed down from one season to the next, yielding fruit that is naturally pollinated. These tomatoes are prized for their concentrated flavor and unusual, gem-like hues. Their clever names pair well with the array of creative dishes that can be made with their diverse flavors.

Balakian Farms is known for its heirloom tomatoes. The family has grown hundreds of varieties in the last several decades. Here are just a few:

Yellow Roman Candle

This bright yellow variety lights up sautés and marinades with an intense, yet very sweet, tomato taste. 

  

Pink Oxheart

The heart-shaped, reddish-pink fruit imparts a sweet and tangy flavor to sauces and stews.

  

Orange Strawberry

Sweet and citrusy flavors make this variety a welcome addition to soups and baked dishes.

  

Green Zebra

Compact fruit with green and yellow stripes, this variety offers a sweet-tart combo that stands out in sauces and drinks. 


  

Cherokee Purple

These hefty orbs have a smoky tomato flavor that's perfect for building a sauce around, to lavish on pasta.

Photos by Shutterstock and courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds/RareSeeds.com


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