When Sarah Frey (pronounced fry), founder of a multimillion-dollar agribusiness operation, goes to a cocktail party with other high-powered guests on the list, she fits in—the designer clothes, the pearls, the self-assured air of success.
She recounts in her forthcoming book the time a man in a bespoke suit, certain that they had met before, was trying to place her. Where was it? The Vineyard, boarding school, an Ivy League college?
It could not have been any of those venues. Frey, who tells this story in her new book The Growing Time, scheduled for August publication from Ballantine Books, is amused by such encounters. In her own growing-up season, she could not have met anyone at any of those institutions. I guess you could say Sarah Frey went to the University of Hard Knocks, majored in grit, graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
Frey attributes her success—acquiring the farms that make up Frey Farms, the produce shipping business that services Walmart, Whole Foods, and other stores you know, the healthy drinks sold under the Sarah’s Homegrown label, and the pumpkin business that earned her the moniker of “the pumpkin queen”—to what she learned delivering melons in a truck with her mother.
“I really have my mother to credit for my success,” Frey tells IWF. “She started the fresh produce melon delivery route when I was a little girl. I was pretty small, seven or eight when I started going with her. Pretty soon, I was the one who went into the supermarket or grocery store to negotiate, while mom sat in the truck. If they wanted 25 melons, I always tried to up-sell them. Okay, are you sure you don’t want 30? We won’t be back for a couple of days, you know.”
Sarah grew up on a small farm in southern Illinois that her family called the Hill. She was the youngest child of Harold and Elizabeth Frey. “My parents’ first child was a baby girl. Her name was Lana,” Frey says. “Lana was killed in a very tragic accident when she was very small. After that, my parents were intent on having another daughter. So, my mom kept having boy after boy after boy. And then they finally got a girl and that was me. And then she said, ‘oh, that’s great, tie my tubes.’”
There were four older brothers on the Hill, but Harold and Elizabeth both had other children. This accounted for a strange tic: Harold constantly begged Sarah to “stay away” from boys from Southern Illinois; she eventually realized that “the real reason for this isolationism was that he had eighteen biological children that he acknowledged, and he feared we might someday end up accidentally dating someone we were related to.” Harold had once faked his death to escape from his first marriage.
The Hill was Harold’s kingdom, as Sarah makes clear in her book. He was dictatorial and made his children work hard on the farm; yet he was charismatic to his youngest child—he’d read the entire encyclopedia and valued education. He always had a hustle going—like the time he bought a racehorse named Singing Unimack that was supposed to make the family’s fortunes but didn’t. Harold also told Sarah, “Sis, girls can be anything they want to be.”
Frey was in awe when she learned that one of the girls in her school bought her clothes ready-made from J. C. Penney. Now, Frey wears designer clothes.
“In the house where I grew up,” Sarah writes, “everyone had secrets. Our biggest shared secret, one that we all worked hard to keep from everyone in the county, especially the authorities, was how brutally poor we were.” When Sarah spent the night with a girl from school, she became fascinated with a novelty she had never before seen: a thermostat that regulated temperature. The Freys hung blankets to keep out the cold. Sarah had to present her yellow lunch ticket, indicating that she was one of the children who received free lunches, in the cafeteria; she was in awe when she learned that one of the girls in her school bought her clothes ready-made from J. C. Penney.
As for the authorities, they did notice the Freys. Social workers, alerted by callers concerned about the welfare of the Frey children, paid several visits to the Hill. Sarah was terrified that she would have to leave home and the parents she loved. Harold was unflappable. “You think you can do a better job raising them?” he asked. “You can take my children, but if you do, you have to take all of them, and you can’t bring them back. I don’t want them after they have been ruined.”
When another family lost their house, Sarah noticed how the daughter just gave up. Sarah was never bereft of hope. Something inside her made her believe that she could make things better. “I ask myself all the time,” she writes, “why didn’t I give up? Was hope something I was born with? Did I find it in the encouragement of my father and brothers? Did working on the farm instill it in me somehow, make me realize that life could change as quickly as the weather?”
Despite the hardships, Sarah had what was in many ways a happy childhood. She loved the farm animals, especially the goats Baa Baa and Shirley, whom she milked on the porch. She remembers coming home from church on Sundays to delicious meals cooked by her father. When Harold forced her to get out of the truck and lift a heavy tortoise that was on the road into the back, she later was able to bask in the idea that that day she had trapped dinner for the family. “I was Dad’s acolyte,” Frey recalls. “I was spoiled with his love and attention.”
But it was her mother’s melon route that was transformative.
The melon delivery operation was a way of bringing in much-needed extra cash—but it was more than that. “Mom’s melon route opened my world to normal things like eating at a restaurant and going to supermarkets. I was probably eight the first time I saw a real, big supermarket, not just a little discount market, like the kind where we bought 25-cent bags of bread,” Frey writes. The Hometown IGA in Centralia was a revelation: “I was instantly overstimulated looking around at all the packaged food. It was like going to Disney World. I walked down the cereal aisle as if at the best museum in the world.”
The old truck the Freys used for deliveries broke down nearly every day and it was up to Sarah to be the mechanic. She learned to carry herself with confidence and how to negotiate: if a grocery had leftover melons, Sarah knew it was not the time to try to get them to enlarge their order. She learned that you could never, ever disappoint a customer. If you said melons would be there on such and such day, the melons had to be there, no matter what. Sarah yearned to be 16—that was the age when she could get a driver’s license, be independent, and thus earn more money.
Sarah was working as hard as she could to achieve her overriding ambition: to escape from life on the Hill. No matter how devoted she was to her family, she wanted something better. It looked as if the Hill was over for all the family when Harold’s financial failures finally caught up with him and the bank was in the process of taking the farm. At 16, Sarah had an epiphany—she could not let the Hill go.
Frey attributes her success to what she learned delivering melons in a truck with her mother.
She was closing down the farm. “It was almost a spiritual moment,” she recalls. “I was walking the last horse off of the farm, putting him in a trailer for the last time, and he was the last tangible asset to be sold before I left. As I was walking that horse, taking a look around at the hill, and it was in the evening and the sun was setting—there are some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world there. And that land and everything kind of turned golden, and I was looking at the horse, the horse was looking at me: if we all left, if I followed my plan, which was to get the heck out of there, there would never be anything to come home to. We would have no home, no family history. There were so many memories here—I could see the pond where I learned to swim—and I thought, if I put this horse in the trailer, if I leave now, it comes to an end.”
Sarah made a snap decision. It was based on this “almost spiritual” moment, but it was not sentimental. Indeed, it required a degree of ruthlessness. “If I was going to do this, it would have to be my land,” she reflected. “No more watching Dad take out mortgages. No more watching Mom do whatever he said.” Frey approached banker Jack Dorsey, who knew how fast she had repaid a loan for a truck. He was willing to make another loan. Harold, not surprisingly, wanted to hang onto control. “It’s over,” Sarah told him.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Harold’s family life had gone from bad to worse. When Sarah finally took her mother to a lawyer to discuss a divorce, one more family secret was revealed. Elizabeth and Harold had never been married, either in a religious or civil ceremony.
The Hill would become the nucleus of Frey Farms. It was always a family affair with Sarah and her brothers working together. To make ends meet and to pay off the loan, Sarah and her brothers resorted to some creative ideas until they could make the farm pay. They sold scrap iron and hosted fight nights with some dubious promoters (Sarah didn’t hesitate to call their bluff when the going got rough). At first, Sarah’s business was an extension of the old melon route—with a greater variety of produce and Sarah buying from more farmers. The business grew rapidly and Sarah found herself driving all over the country to buy produce to sell to supermarkets. Her office was her truck.
She always remembered the lesson from her mother’s melon truck days: if you promise produce, you don’t disappoint the customer. That was the cardinal rule. One morning Sara showed up at the St. Louis produce market called Produce Row to find that her usual source had no cantaloupes. She had to have thousands of cantaloupes. Her usual source said the only place to fill the order was at United—but everybody was afraid of Stanley Greenspan, the guy who ran United, and who was said to be a tough customer.
With no other options, Sarah burst in on Greenspan—she was talking a mile a minute, desperately trying to show confidence. Greenspan was silent—Sarah was sure she had failed. Then Greenspan pointed at Sarah and yelled to his employees: “You see this girl? I bet she’s not eighteen and she has more balls than all you [expletive] rejects put together! Get this girl her [expletive] cantaloupes!” Sarah became a regular customer from then on.
Sarah loved making stops at Walmart stores, but what if she could deliver to Walmart’s massive central distribution centers instead? Frey approached the manager of one of these distribution centers and must have made a good impression: she left with a huge order. “When [the manager] said the word ‘semis,’ my heart skipped a beat. In that moment, I realized something: By ‘loads,’ she hadn’t meant pickup truck loads. I had no semi-truck. What I had was a pickup truck and an open-air trailer.”
Sarah quickly put in an SOS call to her brothers, John and Ted. Both were willing to help. John got a license to drive commercial vehicles and taught Ted so that he could get a commercial license. They rented the big trucks and the brothers went all over to get the produce. It was rapid-speed improvisation, but it worked: Walmart is one of the longstanding customers of Frey Farms. “You have to learn to think a different way when you are struggling,” Sarah writes.
Sarah was buying more farms and continuing to diversify her crops. She went in big time for growing pumpkins—so much so that the New York Times in 2016 dubbed her “the undisputed pumpkin queen of America.” She’s on a crusade to get people to cook more pumpkin dishes, as opposed to regarding the pumpkin as merely decorative.
The New York Times on this endeavor: “People who shop at Walmart are just as educated about food as anyone, and they probably cook more than anyone, and they all know how good squash is for you,” she said with the kind of conviction that makes you glad you are not negotiating with her. “I don’t think this is a trend that’s going away.”
Today, Frey Farms employs thousands of people—and, sure, there are some MBAs working there, but Sarah has her own way of hiring.
“I seek out those who haven’t been given a head start in life,” she writes. “It’s not because I’m doing anyone a favor. It’s a business decision for me. I believe that these people possess character and strengths that are important to my business: unique approaches, a strong work ethic, and a healthy dose of willpower. I dug my future out of the ground, and I want to surround myself with other people who, if given the chance, will do the same today.”