watermelon grower Sarah Frey

Aug 18, 2020
Watermelon grower Sarah Frey’s entrepreneurship, advocacy recognized

From a 16-year-old selling watermelons from a pickup truck to the head of a large, family-run vegetable farm operation and respected voice in the fresh produce industry, Sarah Frey’s come a long way.

Frey, who is president and CEO of Frey Farms in Orchardville, Illinois, was recently recognized at the virtual trade show United Fresh LIVE! as the honoree and main speaker of its Women in Produce session. At United Fresh, she was introduced by her friend, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Illinois, who said he first met Frey 10 years ago while he was working for another member of Congress.

“You could just see the beauty of the fields in and around her community and in and around where she lived, and it was a place that cellphones didn’t work too well,” Davis said. “I doubt they still (work well), but in the end, it’s a place that you can see how somebody with a vision, somebody with the tenacity and somebody with the will could turn that field, that hill, into the operation that we’ve seen operate globally.”

Taking over early

Growing up on a 100-acre farm in southern Illinois, Frey at 8 years old would work with her mother to buy watermelons from local growers and deliver them to grocers. At age 16, she bought a truck and took over the distribution, eventually growing the client list from 12 stores to more than 150. At age 18, she purchased the family business. As the company grew, Sarah Frey’s brothers returned home to work with their younger sister. She tells her story at length in a new book, “The Growing Season: How I built a new life and saved an American farm,” due out from Random House in late August.

“She talks about in the book her first deal with Walmart, and the lengths she and her brothers went through to fulfill the orders,” Davis said. The book describes how, in poverty, the family homestead at first seemed a restrictive place to Frey, but eventually became a source of empowerment that allowed her to travel even internationally, he said.

The company now has growing operations in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois and in the panhandle of West Virginia. It grows pumpkins, watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet corn, hard winter squash and fall ornamentals, marketed under Sarah’s Homegrown produce brand. Sarah Frey also in 2017 launched Tsamma Watermelon Juice, a value-added product manufactured at a new 70,000-square-foot processing facility in Poseyville, Indiana. The facility, which is capable of processing about 6,000 gallons of cold-pressed, unpasteurized watermelon juice per day, can accept hundreds of tons of melons from Frey Farms when they are in season, according to a news release.

“I’m grateful to be accepting this award today on behalf of an industry that is comprised of so many family century businesses,” Frey said at United Fresh LIVE! “I wouldn’t be the produce woman of the year without all of the great men in my life, and I have four older brothers – Ted, John, Harley and Leonard – who have supported every idea that I could ever imagine and who have been with me every step of the way on this journey, and also all of the other men and women in this industry who have, you know, supported our business, maybe bought our products when they were new to the market and put them on the shelves long enough to give them a chance to catch on.”

Frey is a past member of the United Fresh Board of Directors, now serves on the United Fresh Government Relations Council, the National Watermelon Promotion Board and the Illinois Agriculture Coalition committee. But at United Fresh LIVE! she didn’t dwell on such accomplishments, choosing instead to speak candidly during a question-and-answer session.

“Every now and then something seems to hit, but not everything that I do works out,” she said. With a favorable reception from the New York Times, her book is poised well for the release, Frey told Vegetable Growers News. She hopes to use future media attention to educate consumers about where their produce is coming from, and the importance of buying American.

“It’s really shocking to me that people don’t understand our business, the complexity of it,” she said.

Involving the children

In the question-and-answer session, she also urged working mothers to “shed guilt” that they either aren’t working enough or mothering enough.

“I think that women, in general, we’re pretty tough on ourselves and especially when we’re new moms and we’re somewhat unsure of everything and we’re kind of figuring it out,” Frey said. “I don’t think necessarily that we need to spend so much time worrying about that.

“I didn’t do a lot of apologizing to myself or anyone else as I was growing the business,” she said. “I was too busy, and when those feelings sort of started to creep up on me, I’d shed them very quickly. I think once you get yourself in the mindset of doing that, you’re unstoppable.”

In the COVID-19 era, her homebound children have witnessed her handle difficult phone calls and meetings, she said. They started asking how they could help, and she let them sell a truckload of watermelons. Her children and their cousins advertised the melons on Facebook.

“People actually drove hours to get out here and cars lined the road for miles to buy watermelons on Easter weekend here in southern Illinois. People were so happy to come out and to support our farm and
these kids,” Frey said. That sale was such a success, the younger generation has since branched out into other types of produce for future sales. The youngsters are now selling more produce than Frey herself did at their age, she said.

“You know in the past years, we’ve really relied on retailers to communicate our messaging to customers,” Frey said. “But as my sons and my nieces have taught me, this will change and technology has allowed us to create a platform that we didn’t have for a very long time or maybe it was there and we just weren’t using it. Now we know that farmers across the country can reach and educate people about agriculture very effectively and about products that they grow. We know that consumers are increasingly aware of the need to support the American farm – and they show up if you ask them.”

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

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