By: Matt Billings
You could call me a third-generation almond farmer turned “entrepreneurial yogurt innovator;” and those two titles are linked more than you can imagine. I’ve been able to combine my love of the land and our family farm with a drive to innovate and create, adding a whole new branch to our family farming legacy.
As a result of running an almond farm in the San Joaquin Valley, California, the land has always been an integral part of my family’s life, and it runs in my blood. My great grandfather started our farm in 1913. For over 100 years, we have been farming in California, and it’s been a true labor of love. Sustainability is the key, and our family is driven by the desire to pass on healthy, living soil to the next generation.
I earned a B.S. in Agriculture from the University of California, Davis, and have served as an alternate on the Almond Board of California’s Board of Directors and as Chairman of the Production Research Committee. Farming is my passion, and I love being a lifetime learner regarding how to constantly innovate and support the farming community. And of course, we Billings love what we think of as a pretty much perfect food–almonds.
Walking the orchard is always the best part of my day. Our almond trees live up to about 30 years, and to watch their seasonal process is both beautiful and grounding. The bare branches of the winter bloom gloriously in the spring and summer. Then, in the fall, the almonds are harvested when the tree is shaken to loosen the nuts. The cycle of nature, as well as the challenges, stay true. Like any farmer, there is so much appreciation for the earth and a strong desire to take care of it. One of the guiding tenets for our farm–and family– is, “leave the earth a better place than when you started.”
I am also an innovator and have a passion for better health through wholesome foods. About four years ago, the family came together to figure out how we could offer our almonds to consumers in a new way. It’s a pretty amazing thing when generations can build upon each other. We believe in the dietary goodness of almonds, and knew we could do more with our product. It was time to take a big chance. For the Billings family, that meant creating AYO Almond-based Yogurt.
At first, it seemed like a pretty straightforward endeavor–using our organic almonds in almond milk based yogurts. But nothing good comes easy. We created a whole new retail product, and we weren’t going to go to market until we were confident that our yogurt was the best offered.
We like to call AYO Almond Milk Yogurt “farm-to-spoon” because we created this yogurt every step of the way. I truly oversee the entire process, starting with the 20 almonds that go into each cup. The almonds are cleaned and sorted, then blanched in boiling water to remove the outer skin. Then, they are roasted and ground into almond butter–the pure nut butter almond base that is used to make AYO. AYP is all-natural, contains nothing artificial, and is probiotic-rich.
Being a father, the importance of creating wholesome food–we call it “better for you foods”–that I want to feed my own kids is a driving force in creating our product. We worked hard to create a healthy yogurt that isn’t full of sugar, but that kids (and adults) like. We did just that, and like to say it’s “kid tested, parent approved.” We churn our organic almonds, and create a creamy yogurt with a touch of toasted almond flavor. Then we picked the flavors the kids and adults love: vanilla, organic peach, strawberry, blueberry, and more to come. And we’ve been proud to say that we are getting fantastic feedback from our customers–they love the taste and texture. We are thrilled with their reviews.
Every day I am reminded of my forefathers’ challenges with running an almond farm–water supply, the challenges of mother–you name it. But jumping into the retail food market is a whole new learning curve. First, I wouldn’t recommend launching a new product during a pandemic. I can say that with a smile, but it has been a challenge to market something with incredible taste when you can’t have in-store tastings. We’ve had to work harder on other fronts and, just like in farming, you have to surround yourself with trustworthy people that share your vision and work hard for a common goal.
I love farming. I love creating wholesome food that our customers enjoy. We’ve had the joy of creating a product our family is proud of in a tough time. Just like the generations before me, I truly believe with a commitment to quality and core values, you’ll find success.
To Find AYO near you, visit this website.