Balakian Farms

Balakian Farms, California Organic Farm with Vast History

Sandra Yerges

With the plethora of grants available to American farmers, it can be a challenge to find one that coincides with the unique business plans and aspirations of each farm. When the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) was introduced to Amber Balakian of Balakian Farms around a decade ago, it opened up a financial opportunity for the business that corresponded with their expansion-based ideas. After going through the VAPG process and finding success in rebranding efforts, Amber knew this was the “right fit” for her generations-old business.

There is a long lineage of Balakian farmers now reaching into its fourth generation with Amber. Her hardworking great grandfather developed this business in 1925 as the Balakian family came into the Central Valley region as immigrants during the Armenian genocide. At the time, grapes were the primary product being harvested on their California ranch. However, once Amber’s mother, Ginger, began revamping the business to grow organic produce in the early 1990s, the farm evolved into the company it is today.

Amber was exposed to farming her entire life, and after returning to the ranch after college, she followed in her ancestors’ footsteps while working on the farm. The development of value-added products as well as marketing and management work have been a substantial part of her daily tasks ever since then. Keeping in line with the family business, Amber utilizes her grandmother’s recipes in the creation of these offerings.

A wide variety of fresh produce and manufactured products are available for purchase from Balakian Farms. With five varieties of organic blended heirloom tomatoes along with a bread and butter pickle product, this company feeds into freshness both for local and domestic customers.

After the growing season ends in September and the demand for their fresh produce slows down, the beginning of the holiday season brings forth another large demand for the company’s packaged products. Throughout the year, however, customers are able to browse both in-person and online channels to suit their produce needs. Whether they shop at Whole Foods, the Bay Area farmers market, or through online retailers like Amazon, those browsing will be sure not to miss the Balakian Farms name.

Balakian Farms is not solely confining themselves to consumable products as the business is expanding its offerings to skincare. Even though the company is in the preliminary product testing phase, there is excitement surrounding the ability to transform farm grown produce into natural skincare products. With the help of a future grant, Amber hopes to begin manufacturing and selling this new offering later this year.

When Amber decided to embark on the VAPG journey to expand their offerings and promote more sales, she was fortunate to work with Robert Canepa, a California-based USDA employee in charge of VAPG work. His thorough instruction and support in her grant writing skills instilled in her the assurance she needed to apply for the grant and receive the funds shortly after. “I probably wouldn’t have applied had it not been for Robert,” Amber stated.

After gaining access to the grant funds in September of 2020, there were many parts of the business supported by the grant. Balakian Farms facilitated a rebranding that aided in connecting with retailers and boosted sales growth. With the help of a newly hired social media professional, the company was able to focus on other farm-related matters while receiving an updated online presence. Their website was also revamped with this extra help, which came at a convenient time that no one could have predicted.

As a business with an e-commerce platform, the past few years have revealed a boost of online shoppers, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Being that consumers found alternatives to going to the grocery store during that time, Balakian Farms was there to supply them with their products from across the country.

One of the early problems the company faced with this boom, however, was how to safely ship their products in glass containers. With shipping costs on the rise, they needed to find a way to ensure their offerings were getting to the consumer without problems. After finding the right packaging, they were able to confidently feed into the increasing demand from their VAPG-funded rebrand and the pandemic.

When speaking about the impact of the VAPG, Amber admitted, “It helped tremendously.” Although she hoped to grow in their in-person sales channels with the funds, the surprising online boost was an outcome Amber was elated to see. Being that the business was able to utilize its social media accounts and websites together to drive users to purchase products, the unforeseen VAPG-related results were a great advantage for Balakian Farms.

“To me, it is so worth it,” Amber said when speaking about the VAPG experience. “It’s been the right fit for what we need to really grow our business.”

The biggest piece of advice Amber has for other farmers who may be hesitant to apply for the VAPG is that USDA representatives and training videos on their YouTube channel are great resources throughout the process. Not only will this help farmers through the application stage, but also in gaining the confidence they need to apply without any extra help, just as Amber experienced.