Ask almond grower Matt Billings what matters most to him, and he’ll tell you, “Integrity and family.” As he worked to develop a new almond product, those are the things he had on his mind.
Billings grew up in the Central California town of Delano, but with both of his parents coming from multi-generational farming families, he spent much of his childhood on the family farms.
“It was great. I remember as a little kid getting in cotton trailers and stomping down cotton. I remember going out, sleeping in pick-ups with flashlights all night long when we were harvesting wine grapes. I remember almond harvest, grain harvest, irrigating alfalfa with my dad,” he said. “It was magical.”
Though during his childhood his extended family grew several different crops, the focus for Billings now is almonds. Since graduating from college in 1995, Billings has farmed in Delano.
He now shares the farm with his wife, Eva, and their three kids. In addition to growing conventional and organic almonds at Billings Ranches, the family also has a hulling, shelling and processing company that processes for other growers. Billings said a few years ago they decided to try something new.
“We started looking for a way to get our almonds, which we really, truly love, into the community and consumers directly. Because everything we’re doing is commodity-based, typically.
You go to the store shelf or the cereal aisle or the candy bar or wherever you are, and you’ll never know they’re ours,” he explained. “We wanted to put some sort of a brand to it because I think it is really unique in the world that you know exactly where your food comes from. You can go to farmers’ markets and see it or some other places and see it, but really, you don’t see it very often.”
They considered options like roasting and bagging almonds for sale, almond butter and almond milk.
“My wife likes almond milk, and I was eating yogurt all the time, and one day it just kind of came to us. ‘Why don’t we try an almond milk yogurt?’ Not try to imitate a dairy yogurt, but really showcase the almonds,” he said as to how the idea for AYO almond yogurt was formed.
He said AYO almond yogurt is not an attempt to be an alternative to dairy yogurt, but rather a product on its own accord that highlights what his family grows.
“We roast the almonds before, so they have a little almond flavor, use organic fruit, use organic almonds only from our ranch. That’s what we were trying to develop and showcase, a whole new product,” he said. “We’re not trying to imitate or be fake and make some alternative product. That’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re really trying to showcase the almonds. When you taste it, you taste the almonds.”
Introducing a new product can be an ordeal in the best of times, and AYO started out during a difficult period. Though it was developed and ready for the public in late 2019, the following months were more arduous.
“Our biggest challenge has probably been trying to roll it out during COVID,” Billings said. “Just to get brand awareness and explain this to everybody when for the first six to eight months of our rollout people weren’t even going to grocery stores or were just going through trying to make sure they had toilet paper and canned food. So, to present something new, that’s been really challenging.”
He pointed out perhaps the only worse time to present a new product in recent history would have been during the great depression. Still, he said he is hopeful the consumers will form a bond with the person who is growing the product.
“Believe in Your Idea”
For other growers who are considering trying something new, he had some words of wisdom.
“You have to believe in your idea. Take advice from other people but don’t let them skew what you truly believe. There’s going to be probably a lot more downtime and negatives [than you expect], but as long as you keep pushing and you truly believe in it, I think you’ll have success in it,” he said. “And I think more than anything, be genuine. Be truthful and honest with what you’re trying to produce. Don’t make something that doesn’t fit your values.”
Values are important to Billings, and he said it is his goal that his company’s values mimic his personal values.
“My number one value is integrity. I think without that, you don’t really have anything,” he said. “My second is family and friends. I think it goes back to being a multi-generational farm.”
He recalled some early memories of sitting on his grandfather’s porch listening to stories that at the time he just regarded as funny stories. Now, he said, he sees the values that were woven into the tales.
Those values he now hopes show through the new product his family farm is producing.
“That’s our goal. It’s to be as honest as we can and as transparent as we can in what we’re growing and what we produce,” he said. “We’re proud of the product that we produce as a family.”