Meet Amber Balakian; Educator, Entrepreneur and Farmer
Growing up in a farming family, Amber Balakian spent many long days farming alongside her family and their employees (who she considers practically family) on their 20-acre Central Valley 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, and working on a farm, it was part of my life, but after graduating high school, farming was something that I just didn’t consider for a career,” said Balakian. “I went on to study economics at UC San Diego and then Harvard for my master’s degree in management.” Going to school on the East Coast, Balakian was one of the few students from California, and even rarer, she grew up on a farm. “Classmates would ask about my family’s farm, and that’s why I started thinking of it more like a business and thinking about how I could help my family with my business background.”
Instead of a career in corporate America, Balakian decided to head home to California and see how she could contribute to her family’s farming legacy. “I’m a fourth-generation farmer, my great grandparents came over from Armenia to escape the genocide, and they started farming in Reedley.”
Today, the family grows a diversity of organic crops including heirloom tomatoes, tree fruit, peaches, plums, pluots, summer squash, persimmons, pomegranates, Armenian cucumbers, eggplant and apricots.
Balakian’s entrepreneurial spirit combined with her 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. “The sauce has been popular, and we are actually undergoing a rebrand and will be doing some co-packaging,” added Balakian. “We will be able to supply more sauce to more retail outlets, which is really exciting.”
In addition to her tomato sauce business, Balakian is a full-time professor at Fresno City College where she teaches entrepreneurship. “I love teaching, and I especially love teaching at FCC. I feel like I have the best students, as they are all very eager to learn,” said Balakian. “The demographics of our student population is not what you would see at typical universities. Some of these kids have come from very difficult circumstances and have overcome many obstacles to be on campus, and they are some of the brightest students I’ve worked with.”
“Growing up I didn’t expect to have a teaching career and a tomato sauce business, and I have so much gratitude for those opportunities,” added Balakian. “It’s rewarding to be able to encourage the young people in my classes to go for it and follow their dreams.”
The farming life
Farming is more than a career, it’s a 24/7 commitment to the crops. “What I like most about farming is probably the lifestyle. I guess what I mean by that is when it’s farming season it’s so integrated into our lives, it’s what we do, what we talk about and even what we eat. What we eat is based on what’s in season,” said Balakian.
Balakian works alongside her family…and her extended “farming family,” employees that have been with the operation for so long that they feel like family. “We have two employees that have been with us for 30 years, brothers Angel and Benny, and even their relatives have worked for us,” said Balakian. The family also employs a mother daughter duo, Yolanda and Eva, who have worked for the family for 15 years.
“We trust our employees and we listen to their suggestions; they know so much about our farming operation, and in some cases, maybe a little more than we do,” added Balakian.