10 Questions with KC: Amber Balakian-Balakian Farms

Oh, I love Farm Girls. I love being one, I love the ones I grew up with, I love meeting new ones – especially ones like Amber Balakian, that are changing the way we grow & eat food.  (And you know I’m sucker for an heirloom tomato!) Her Yellow Roman & Orange Strawberry Blended Tomatoes blew my mind with their fresh & authentic flavor, and I thought: I have to meet this girl.

Turns out Oprah thought the same thing: Balakian Blended Tomatoes made the June 2013 “O” List! Read more about Amber, and then make her family’s Shaya Soup with Gluten Free broth & GF angel hair pasta. Take it from a fellow Armenian Farm Girl:  Amber’s the real deal.

1. Tell me about Balakian Farms.

Balakian Farms is an 85 acre farm that started in 1925 by my great grandfather, an immigrant from Armenia, who came to the United States during the Armenian Genocide. We originally grew grapes, but now we grow everything from figs to summer squash to peaches. Everything we grow is certified organic. Our farm is different than others in that it is centered around tradition. We really work to treat our employees like family. Our employees have been with us since I was little, I grew up with their children, we played together and it was all intertwined so we have never had that barrier that happens with most employee/employers. We can leave and know without a doubt that our employees would be able to run our farm and see that things go smoothly. There is a lot of trust and dependability. I’ve never been in that kind of environment except for our farm.

3. How did you come up with the idea of jarring/canning tomatoes?

After I came back from grad school, I wanted to work with my family’s business to see if it was something I would like to do. When I was going to school, I took great interest in one of my classes called “Managing in the 21st Century”, in which we discussed waste management, sustainability and building trust through business and our choices in business. I had never really heard this before, and I used Balakian Farms throughout the class to further explore and analyze using different theories/principles. So, when I got home, I already had an idea of ways we could utilize our waste and be more efficient. One of the biggest bothers I had was the XL trashcans that we kept by the packing tables. They were full of fruit and tomatoes. I would often times get what I wanted out of there and keep it for myself, after all, they were perfectly fine but did not meet the visual standards that are placed on fruits/veggies that make there way to stores. It almost reminds me of being in modeling, that standard that is placed in black and white before you even step foot into casting: 5’9 and up, age 16-24, etc. etc. The tomatoes that were being tossed were perfectly fine, they just had these unrealistic standards placed on them by years and years of conventional GMO’s bouncing down conveyer belts across America like scarlet tennis balls and into your local markets. So, when heirlooms became known in the marketplace, that standard was still engrained. An heirloom still could not be completely unorthodox in appearance. But that isn’t the reality of it, especially when you’re organic. These seeds are hundreds of years old (heirloom) so you can’t really tell/make them do what you want, they are just going to be. And that is really what is best for people and the environment. But you don’t know a lot of this stuff unless you are in it, you know? So, I decided the dumping had to stop. It bothered me, and I had just gone to Haiti and was internally uncomfortable with throwing so much good, healthy food in the trash. That’s when I started thinking about canning. However, mixing 80 varieties was not an option. I do like things to look and taste amazing, so this was definitely not an option. I started experimenting with separating them by varieties using my grandma’s recipe she took from her mom and I chose the 6 I liked the most.

4. Tell me more about your trip to Haiti.

It was definitely a life changing experience. Up until that point, I had never seen anything like that. So much poverty, destruction and so many people living in tents. It’s a different world, and there is no level of media, etc. that can portray it. But the people are beautiful and have such an amazing spirit, especially the children. I recently went to India and saw a lot of similarities. There is something so wonderful about developing countries, I am drawn to them mainly because of the people. I’m not going to state the obvious when it comes to the challenges but it is definitely difficult to see at first.

5. After a long day, what’s your favorite easy meal?

I have a somewhat secret recipe that I wasn’t going to share until later, but I’ll share (this has been in my family for years): Shaya soup, helps with anything from a cold, to fatigue, upset stomach or cleanse. You mix 2-3 cups of chicken broth with half a can of blended tomatoes, add a handful of vermicelli (previously browned in a pan with olive oil), lemon juice and crushed dried mint. Bring it to a boil, then cook 2-3 minutes and serve. It’s amazing and is simple, yet so tasty and effective. I will be doing a video demo for this on my website in the next few months. Another recipe I love to use it for (besides my delicious pasta I make every week), is Armenian Summer Salad. I could eat that everyday.

5. What’s next for Balakian Farms?

Being a catalyst of change in the food industry, hopefully. Especially when it comes to tomato products. I am looking into a Bloody Mary Mix, Armenian Bread and Butter Pickles and Tourshi.

6. What’s your favorite thing about life in Reedley?

There are a lot of things I love about Reedley. Some of my best friends live here or near here, family, food and fun things to do. Whether it’s hanging out at the river or going to dinner with friends, there is always something to do. Plus, it’s so beautiful here, there is so much nature that you don’t see other places. I sometimes take it for granted, but when I leave and come back I always have so much more appreciation for what I have here.

7. Got a food or beverage you can’t live without?

I love lobster (seafood in general), Hawaiian poke and fruit. I can’t live without coconut water.

8. If you could be granted one food wish, what would it be?

To be able to have food prepared and delivered to me from different places, Paris and Italy would be at the top of my list.

9. Where can we buy your Heirloom Tomato Sauces?

Williams Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, Sur la Table, West Elm and balakianfarms.com

10. Anything else we should know or mention?

I welcome recipes and suggestions from customers! Since my product is fairly new, I love getting new ideas on how people use it. I even had a local chef create and heirloom tomato ice cream with candied basil. It was delicious! Who would have thought!

Thanks for the interview!

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