KEENES, Ill. — Sarah Frey is a farmer who looks at life’s lessons through a farmer’s eyes. So, that’s how she looks at the past months of this year, with the unexpected struggles brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a growing season and the seasons that are fallow can teach us just as much as those that are bountiful,” she said.
Frey is the owner and CEO of Frey Farms, a business that she grew from a single pickup truck delivering melons to local grocers. Today, Frey Farms is a multi-state fresh produce growing and fresh juice operation.
Frey herself is the mother of two sons and is in demand as a guest speaker at events. Recently, she’s appeared on national TV, from CBS Sunday Morning to Fox TV with Maria Bartiromo to promote her book, "The Growing Season: How I Built A New Life — And Saved An American Farm," and talk about her story.
That story starts and continues in southern Illinois. Frey grew up in a house that didn’t have indoor plumbing until she was 5 and that was heated by a woodstove.
Counting her parents’ children from previous marriages, she was one of 21 children. Four older brothers were at college, and Frey was the youngest child left on the farm.
Her path to success was a route — a route that she traveled with her mother delivering melons to grocery stores.
“My mother had a melon route when I was a little girl, and I used to go with her on the melon route and sell melons,” Frey said.
She moved out when she was 15, and by 16 she had an old family pickup truck and had taken over the summer delivery route. She also was attending high school and college simultaneously.
“I grew the 12-store route to probably 150 grocery stores, that I was delivering fresh produce to, and I just kept getting bigger and bigger trucks,” she said.
Frey started buying farms and was able to take over her family’s farm in southern Illinois.
“I decided I was going to put my stake in the ground and build a future from a small family farm,” she said.
Her pride in the business she has growing and continues to grow is obvious. She uses examples from the farm as inspiration.
Take Tsamma, the fresh watermelon juice that Frey Farms makes, from fruit that might be considered imperfect or at least, not perfect enough for grocery stores.
“There’s fruit that we often refer to in the industry as the ugly fruit, that might taste perfectly fine, but might have visual imperfections. What we do on our farm is we take that fruit or those vegetables and turn it into ingredients. That was the inspiration when I started making the Tsamma, the fresh watermelon juice. It was to take the watermelons that we might not otherwise use on our farms and make a delicious juice out of them,” Frey said.
That turns into a life lesson.
“In life and in business, I treat it the same way, look past the bad and focus on the good,” Frey said.
It was through sharing bits and pieces of her life that she was inspired to put her whole story down on paper. But the decision didn’t come without some doubts.
“I really struggled with getting my head wrapped around writing a memoir. Usually people write memoirs when their give a damn gets up and leaves — and I am still young. I questioned the importance of doing it at this point in my life,” Frey said.
She said it was through her interaction with a young woman in Washington, D.C., that she decided to share more.
“I gave her some business and life advice. She was bartending at the time, and I maybe talked to her for 10 to 15 minutes. She was contemplating starting her own business,” she said.
When Frey ran into her again, two years later, she found out how that short conversation had made a big difference.
“She was in a completely different position in her life. She had started and built a successful business, and she was no longer bartending. She said, ‘You helped me, what you told me helped me and inspired me and gave me the courage and the confidence to be able to go after my dream,’” Frey said.
Frey was happy her advice had helped — but along with that there was some guilt.
“I felt like I hadn’t really shared more of my story and my true and authentic story with others and even some of the really hard stuff and that if they knew some of that about me, they might think, well, ‘Wow, if she was able to overcome that, then I can, too,’” she said.
Frey’s message — that leaving your roots doesn’t have to be the only way to find success and happiness — is one that she hopes will resonate with readers.
“I spent my entire childhood planning my escape, but ultimately, it’s ironic, I found that sometimes, in order to get ahead, you have to stay behind. That’s what I did. Ultimately, I dug my future out of the dirt and was able to bring my family back together and to work with me in the business,” she said.