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Young Farmers Cultivate A New Image for Valley Agriculture

Amber Balakian grew up on a farm in Reedley. Her family grows 80 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, plus a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

But it took her attending Harvard University’s Extension School to realize that her family’s business was pretty cool. She returned to the 20-acre farm after she earned her master’s degree in 2009.

“My main goal coming back and working here was to make things more efficient,” Balakian says. “I just didn’t know how. One of the main things – we were dumping a ton of fruit, ton of vegetables.”

Two years ago, she started canning her family’s heirloom tomatoes. She worked in the kitchen of the local Armenian Church, following a recipe that is similar to one her grandmother has used for decades. She developed six flavors of blended heirloom tomatoes.

“It’s not a sauce,” she explains. “You can use it for soup, sauté, pasta, anything that calls for tomatoes.”

Today, her tomatoes are on the shelves of Williams-Sonoma, Dean and Deluca, Crate and Barrel and Sur la Table. She’s been featured in Sunset magazine, and most recently, O, the Oprah magazine.

In the Central Valley, returning to the family farm is not a new storyline. Neither is organic farming. This is the nation’s most productive agricultural region, of course.

But what sets Balakian – and several other young people – apart, is how they have planted their own seeds of innovation, social consciousness, technological expertise, and youthful energy on their family’s farms.

They’ve developed niche products that allow them and their families to connect with consumers, locally and beyond, in a new and more intimate way. They are re-branding their family’s farms, with attractive websites, and a strong social media presence.

In the process, they might just change our views of farmers, and agriculture, in the region. 

"We are seeing a renaissance of some kind" - Ryan Jacobsen, Fresno County Farm Bureau

“We are seeing a renaissance of some kind,” says Ryan Jacobsen, the executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

He’s excited about this trend.

“Finally, after many years of children leaving the farm and never coming back, we have children that are actually making plans, coming back to the farm, and making what I consider to be very beneficial changes,” he says.

“Some of them may be the inclusion of social media, trying to find some niche products that may not be, typically not grown on these types of farms historically, and really trying to outreach to a different consumer whose looking for that different product.”

Anne Marie Gardner, editor-in-chief and CEO of Modern Farmer magazine, says this is a nationwide trend, spurred by a blossoming consumer interest in food, who grows it, and where it comes from.

“The farmers today are definitely changing the stereotype, because a farmer, to be successful now, has to know about farming, but they also need to be highly tech savvy,” she says. “Farmers now have to blog, they have to do their own PR, they have to have relationships with their customers online and through their website, and they have to give them recipes, so they have to be savvy.” 

"A farmer, to be successful now, has to know about farming, but they also need to be highly tech savvy" - Anne Marie Gardner, Modern Farmer magazine

Kristi Bravo is an example of today’s farmer. Her parents operate KMK Farms in Kingsburg.

After graduating from CSU Bakersfield with a degree in kinesiology, she returned to Kingsburg. She launched a community supported agriculture business, or CSA, utilizing the organic produce grown by her family and T.D. Willey, an organic farm in Madera.

“My dad didn’t want me working for him hourly, so we figured out a way for me to make more revenue,” she recalls. “So we sat down and created the Farmer’s Daughter CSA and I got my own little clientele.”

Most CSAs require clients to subscribe to a weekly share of produce from a local farm. The Farmer’s Daughter is unique, Bravo says, because clients can select the produce they receive, and determine how much they want, and how often they get it.

The CSA has helped link the farm’s produce to local consumers. Bravo says she encourages her father to share his experiences in the fields, to deepen the connections between the farm and the community. This request, though, highlights the differences between generations of farmers.

“They’re picking a whole bunch of eggplant, and I’m like, ‘snap a picture!’” Bravo says. She says her father has an iPhone, but often says, “Oh, I’m too busy to pull out the phone.”

Holly Johnson, 22, and Hannah Johnson, 26, moved back to their father’s farm in Laton in 2010. Holly was always interested in farming, but Hannah was not.

“I always thought it was cool to wear boots and jeans, and people thought it was OK to do that and not look cute all the time,” Holly Johnson says. “I thought cowboys were cool,” Hannah Johnson adds. 

Their father was 81 at the time, and could no longer take care of the farm himself. So Holly Johnson took on the task of farming 50 acres of alfalfa. She also gleaned inspiration on the Internet, Hannah Johnson recalls.

“Holly got super nerdy into farming, and was on Google and Pinterest, pinning every single thing farm-related,” Hannah Johnson says. “And suddenly, I come home, and there are chickens and a chicken coops she’d built that day.”

They started with seven chickens. They named them after the six characters from the show, ‘Friends.’ The seventh they named Willie Nelson.

Today, they use social media to share their daily experiences and funny stories from their River Roots farm. They connect with people at farmers markets, where they also sell their fresh eggs, called Just Got Laid.

Holly Johnson explains where they got that name.

“I tweeted it a long time ago,” she says. “Nobody even responded to it. So that was lame. But I just thought: How funny that would be – a big egg company doing that? I would buy those eggs.”

While their father farmed conventionally, the Johnson sisters are conscious of what goes on the food they grow, and in their stomachs. They point to the chickens that are milling about and eating organic heirloom tomatoes that are grown on the farm.

“I love me some Double-Stuffed Oreos but, you know, we’re very aware of what goes on food, especially with what we do now,” Holly Johnson says. “What’s in it and how it affects everyone’s body.”

"We're only giving products to people that we would eat ourselves" - Hannah Johnson, River Roots Farm

“It’s the choice we made, and we’re only giving products to people that we would eat ourselves,” Hannah Johnson adds.

Back in Reedley, Amber Balakian attributes part of her rapid success to her unique story.

“I think that since I’m younger, just my background – I’m not a typical farmer with jeans, I’m not like that and I don’t try to be like that,” she says. 

She has more creative ideas for how to utilize her family’s produce. She’s looked into creating a Bloody Mary mix. She’s floated the idea of starting a beauty line, featuring products like summer squash body soufflé, and heirloom tomato body scrub.

She says people often tell her: “I love your product, but I love your story even more.”

“It helps to have that story, definitely,” she says.

The same could be said for other young farmers that are cultivating a new look for their family’s business – and maybe the Valley’s agricultural industry, too.

Rebecca Plevin was a reporter for Valley Public Radio from 2013-2014. Before joining the station, she was the community health reporter for Vida en el Valle, the McClatchy Company's bilingual newspaper in California's San Joaquin Valley. She earned the George F. Gruner Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and the McClatchy President's Award for her work at Vida, as well as honors from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Plevin grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is also a fluent Spanish speaker, a certified yoga teacher, and an avid rock-climber.
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