From left, Kathy, Stella, Amber and Ginger Balakian run their fourth-generation family farm in Reedley, selling their fresh produce and blended heirloom tomatoes at farmers’ markets in the Bay area and various California retailers. Photo contributed
For Amber Balakian, it took her leaving the Central Valley and attending an Ivy league university to realize just how unique her business is.
Along with her mother Ginger, grandmother Stella, aunt Kathy, and father Clarence Robinson, Balakian is the owner of Balakian Farms, a fourth-generation farm that grows certified organic stone fruit, heirloom tomatoes and summer crops in Reedley.
Balakian Farms was founded in 1925 by Zadig and Victoria Balakian, who immigrated to the Central Valley after escaping the Armenian Genocide. Here they planted 40 acres of grapes to produce and sell raisins.
Today, Balakian Farms is widely recognized in the culinary world for its organic blended heirloom tomatoes, which have been carried by major retailers including Whole Foods Market, Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table, and have been highlighted in Oprah Magazine and Sunset Magazine.
The tomato jars can be found in various shops in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, in Fresno at Stems at the Palatine and RSVP Style, as well as Amazon Marketplace.
Balakian, 36, grew up on the family farm in Reedley, graduated from Reedley High School and went off to college at UC San Diego from 2003 to 2007, majoring in economics because at the time, the university was not offering a business major.
Knowing that she did not want to become an economist, she then went off to attend grad school in Harvard, receiving her master’s in management and operation.
It was this Ivy League educational experience that inspired her to see the family business in a new light.
“Growing up in the Central Valley, we are surrounded by ag, and it might not seem as unique and we kind of take it for granted in a lot of ways,” Balakian said. “In grad school, one of my instructors taught a class on sustainability. He was encouraging me to look at my own family business and how sustainability plays into that.”
After graduating from Harvard in 2009, Balakian knew she wanted to return home. She wasn’t exactly sure what her role in the business would be. Though she worked on the farm growing up, she had no experience on the management and business side.
One of the first things Balakian wanted to implement on the farm was a system to help operations run more efficiently and sustainably, and to utilize tomatoes that were not good enough for retail.
This process is what led Balakian to create their popular blended heirloom tomatoes in 2011.
“We were throwing out a lot of tomatoes and I thought, ‘well we could do something value-added so that we don’t have this additional cost and lose money on that,’” Balakian said.
She used her grandma’s recipe to create the blended tomatoes, using family methods passed down from Armenia.
Balakian caters to a clientele sensitive to whether their food products are organic, natural and non-GMO. They want minimal processing and want to know their origins and the background of the company, she said.
Larger competitors in the food space are catering to such demands, which leads to even more interest in Balakian Farms blended tomatoes and fresh produce.
Balakian used to sell their produce at various farmers markets in the Bay Area, serving prime restaurants and a customer base more interested in organic produce.
Now, major retailers have interest in carrying their produce because of the company’s story — and a rising demand in fresh produce from smaller farms with deep heritage.
Social media has also helped, Balakian said, allowing users to get an inside glimpse just where their food is coming from.
Currently, the farm is working on a small test batch of bread-and-butter pickles that is set to launch this month and be added to their store catalogue next year, along with an Armenian Torshi pickle.
Balakian also has plans to sell packaged Armenian food at farmers’ markets and is exploring the meal delivery space.
Before the year ends, Balakian will launch her own skincare line inspired by the farm’s products and is working with a cosmetics company based in Armenia.
The company is trying a figure out a way to ship their produce to meet out-of-area demand, but it is not currently feasible.
Last year, Balakian was selected, out of 9,000 applicants, to participate in Stacy’s Pita Chips “Stacy’s Rise Project,” a grant and mentorship program dedicated to help women grow their business. Stacy’s partnered with actress and producer Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine, to bring visibility and help lift female business founders nationwide.
Balakian, along with 10 other winners, received a $10,000 grant and mentoring from Frito-Lay and PepsiCo leadership, as well as an opportunity to network with retailers and participate in a speaker series featuring Frito-Lay leadership.
After this, Balakian put a bigger emphasis on maintaining Balakian Farms’ social media presence, especially on Instagram, allowing followers to see the process of what goes into the company’s products.
Along with helping run the family business, Balakian is also busy passing on her business knowledge to the next generation of dreamers, teaching entrepreneurship at Fresno City College.
Balakian plans to keep growing fresh produce, her business and knowledge for her students.
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