REEDLEY- Amber Balakian’s great-grandparents were hardworking immigrants who fled the Armenian Genocide over a century ago and settled in Reedley, California, a small San Joaquin Valley farming town where they planted vineyards. Balakian Farms was founded in 1925 by Zadig Balakian. His son, John, was the eldest of Zadig’s six children. He continued the family business for many years adding tree fruit and other crops along the way. In the 1990s, Ginger Balakian, Amber’s mother, transitioned to organic practices, and began growing heirloom tomatoes.
There are over 3,000 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in active cultivation around the world, and over 15,000 varieties worldwide. The Balakians currently grow up to 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, with the season peaking in July and August. Heirloom tomatoes have a striking colorful appearance that is beautifully diverse. The Balakians grow organic crops, including peaches, plums, nectarines, pluots (part plum and part apricot in heritage), apricots, lemons, eggplant, Armenian cucumbers, pomegranates, persimmons, summer squash, and heirloom tomatoes.
Amber’s energy and entrepreneurial spirit combined with her solid farming background led her to launch her own brand of tomato sauce from the heirloom tomatoes that weren’t quite “perfect” enough for fresh tomato customers. “As a fourth-generation farmer, I set out to create healthy and tasty products. Adapting my Grandma Stella’s Armenian recipe passed down through generations, we created our own line of Organic Blended Heirloom Tomatoes. These blended tomatoes are quite popular. We’re undergoing a rebranding and will soon be doing some co-packaging. We can supply more blended tomatoes online and to more retail outlets, and that is really exciting for us.”
As a girl, Amber spent long hours working alongside her family and their employees (who she considers practically family) on their 20-acre Reedley farm. While she loved spending time on the farm, working in agriculture was never part of her dreams. “I grew up going to farmers markets (including to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco on Saturdays), and working on a farm was a major part of my life. After graduating high school, though, farming was something I didn’t consider for a career,” she says.
“I studied economics at UC San Diego, and went to Harvard for my master’s degree in management and operations,” she says. “Going to school on the East Coast, Amber was one of the few students from California, and even rarer, she grew up on a family farm. “Classmates asked about my family’s farm, and I started thinking of it more as a business, and wondered how I could help my family with my business background.”
Instead of a corporate career, Amber returned to California to see how she could contribute to her family’s legacy. She remembered how her Grandma Stella cooked lunch every day in her own home for the farm’s employees — many of whom had worked for the family for over 20 years. This sense of devotion and service gave Amber the belief that working together on a farm creates invaluable relationships that last a lifetime. “I’m a fourth-generation farmer, my great grandparents struggled and came to America to escape the Armenian Genocide, and began a new life in Reedley. I’m very proud of their dedication to their family and their farm all these years.”