Next Generation Farmer: Amber Balakian
July 12, 2012
It’s Monday morning, and Amber Balakian is looking forward to making the first batch of tomato sauce of the season with her grandmother, Stella, using heirloom tomatoes from their family farm. “I get to experiment and do things that most people don’t usually get to do, like farming, cooking, and making something beautiful,” she says.
With a Harvard business degree and a passion for fashion and design, the 26-year-old might not strike you as the “typical” farmer, but Amber is helping shepherd her family farm into a new era with her recently launched tomato sauces.
Balakian Farms has grown and evolved over four generations. More than 80 years ago, Amber’s great-grandfather emigrated from Armenia to Reedley, southeast of Fresno, an area where many immigrants settled during and after the Armenian Genocide. He started growing grapes, carrying on the farming traditions he learned in his home country. Over the years and generations, the farm has expanded to include warm-season tree fruits and crops such as plums, nectarines, figs, summer squash, and heirloom tomatoes.
Maintaining a strong presence at farmers market, the Balakians saw a rising demand for organic produce and decided to transition their farm in the late 1990s, at a time when it was still a risky move in the Central Valley. In 2002, they were certified through the Guaranteed Organic Certification Agency.
As a girl growing up in Reedley, Amber lent a hand on the farm and accompanied her parents on trips to farmers markets. “I lived in a farming community, so I thought that was normal,” she says. She fondly remembers her grandmother cooking lunch for the farm crew each day and everyone eating together in her family’s house.
But as she got older, she got the itch to explore life beyond the farm fields, and after high school, she attended UC San Diego, where she studied economics—what she considered at the time to be “the opposite of farming.” After graduating, she moved east to continue her studies at Harvard, but to her surprise, she discovered herself being called back to her agricultural roots. “When I told people and my professors what my family did, they thought it was amazing,” she remembers. “It was such a different thing.”
With her interest in farming rekindled, she completed her master’s in business management and returned to Reedley to learn all aspects of the family business, from paperwork to the packing shed. Today, Amber manages the farm with her grandmother, her father, Clarence, and their farm manager, Angel.
Amber’s years away from the farm allowed her to return with fresh eyes. She was especially concerned about food waste, knowing how much work went into growing and harvesting their crops. “It bothered me that we were dumping so many tomatoes,” she says. “If you’re organic, you don’t have as much control over what your tomatoes are going to look like. They were perfectly good tomatoes, but if they had any cracks, stores would reject them.”
Canning those cosmetically challenged tomatoes seemed like the obvious solution, but with more than 80 heirloom cultivars in the mix, it would be difficult to ensure a consistent flavor and hue. So Amber began experimenting with her grandmother’s tomato sauce recipe using individual colors and varieties, and she wound up with a rainbow of tomato sauces, such as Green Zebra, Yellow Roman, Pink Oxheart, and Cherokee Purple.
The colorful sauces were a hit, and the farm started receiving orders from Williams-Sonoma, Dean & Deluca, and Sur La Table. But even as their business has grown, the Balakians have stayed close to tradition and the production process: using Stella’s recipe, each batch is made by hand in a local Armenian church’s kitchen, which Amber helped in getting organically certified.
Amber believes that the simplicity of the sauces concentrates the distinct flavors and natural sweetness of the heirloom tomatoes: “When people ask me what’s the difference between a green and yellow tomato now, I’m able to express that with my sauces because they’re so clean and basic. You’re able to taste the differences in the actual tomato varieties.”
This year, she plans to expand the farm’s value-added offerings with canned organic tourshi (Armenian pickles made with cabbage, carrots, and cauliflower) and bread and butter pickles—using Armenian cucumbers, of course. Excited to apply her marketing savvy and flair for creative product design, Amber hopes to build on the Balakian legacy, while innovating with an eye for sustainability.
“I like the direction we’re going in now, really utilizing everything we grow, but I want to look at ways we can be even more efficient in terms of waste management,” she says. “We’re a small farm, and to be honest, I like the size we’re at and the way things are. I’d like to stay family-oriented because I don’t want to lose what we have: tradition.”
Look for Balakian Farms' produce and tomato sauces at their booth at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
Photos courtesy of Balakian Farms.