Sarah Frey: Successful Farmer, Entrepreneur, and Force of Nature

This passionate Illinois native saved the family farm, and along the way she earned the descriptor — ‘America’s Pumpkin Queen.’

By Ellen Uribe

It is a rarefied group of individuals who can boast of founding a company at the age of 17 and developing it into a business that brings in millions annually, but Sarah Frey can. But it would never occur to her.

Founded in 1992, Frey Farms is headquartered in Orchardville, IL.  From the beginning — when it was a simple produce delivery route that quickly grew — it was always Frey’s intention that it operate as a family business, which it remains to this day. Now, the business grows fresh fruit and vegetables in seven states and distributes fresh beverages on a national scale.

Frey, who is the epitome of a woman imbued with a “can do” spirit, is an ardent proponent of women farmers. “The thing about women is that we are not good at blowing our own horns. If a woman touts their own accomplishments — they are looked upon differently than when men do it. We sometimes struggle telling our stories,” she says.

“I have found successes and failures are much easier to discuss when we share them. Confidently expressing respect and admiration for others also makes it easier to discuss our own accomplishments.”

The author of “The Growing Season,” a book published by Random House that chronicles the ups and downs of her remarkable journey, Frey can manifest a laser focus when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Frey, who is the youngest of 21 children, works alongside several family members who joined Frey Farms.

“We are grounded in our family values and believe in creating opportunities for those living and working in rural communities,” she says.

As the nation’s leading producer of pumpkins, it’s no wonder Frey earned the nickname ‘America’s Pumpkin Queen.’ Other products from Frey Farms include watermelon, sweet corn, hard winter squash, fall ornamentals, Tsamma watermelon juice and a line of Sarah’s Homegrown Agua Frescas available in strawberry, mango, peach and watermelon. The Agua Frescas are 60 calories each and made with simple ingredients.

“Some of my fondest memories are of trying to figure what to do with the imperfect or ‘ugly fruit.’ This led to my vision of using all of what we grow and creating farm fresh beverages for families,” says Frey.

Much of Frey’s drive stems from an impoverished childhood where she was raised just as her brothers were raised. “We had nothing, so there was nothing to lose. I wasn’t afraid to take risks, because I knew the worst thing that could happen to me had already happened. Fortunately, I never saw myself as disadvantaged,” says Frey.

“Although, my childhood was difficult, I have gratitude for my upbringing. There is something very special about growing up in the Midwest,” she says.

Despite having little – or because of it – Frey is a very giving person. She engages easily with others who are often surprised by how ‘nice’ she is. She learned early on how to speak with anyone — including some of the largest grocery retailers in America with whom she negotiated while still in her teens.

Frey says other women shouldn’t be afraid to forge ahead, and she loves to encourage them to step out of their comfort zone. “Often times we don’t recognize the obvious. For instance women in my industry are just beginning to get comfortable with calling themselves farmers. But the fact is women have been farming for thousands of years. What is the difference if you are the farmer or the farmer’s wife? You both still work the farm, and the women have just as much to do with the crop as their husbands.”

Now divorced with two sons — William and Luke — who are teenagers and 18 months apart, Frey made the conscious decision to raise them on the Orchardville farm. “I could have lived anywhere, but I wanted my sons to be grounded,” she says.

“I sent my boys to public school. They went to a little country school — only 67 students, but we’ve had the best of both worlds. I was able to take them with me and explore the world but also keep them in a little bubble. I have a big family, and Will and Luke grew up surrounded by family.”

Not surprisingly, despite untold financial successes and numerous personal achievements, Frey’s greatest sense of accomplishment emanates from how well her sons have turned out. Throughout the worst of Covid-19, she spent a considerable amount of time with her boys and got to appreciate them even more for the young men they were becoming. She also found a new sense of pride about her rural home.

“When the world shut down because of Covid, we had land, we had food, and we were self-sustaining. It gave me a new appreciation for the place I grew up,” she says. “I would go mad if I had to stay here all the time. I need the balance to move freely throughout the country, but I come home to recharge my batteries.”

Writing ‘The Growing Season,’ which was published during the height of Covid-19 outbreaks in the United States, didn’t come easily for Frey. In fact, during the writing process she says she questioned herself every day, but she had “a nagging” feeling that she had to do it.

“It was an extraordinarily difficult process, but the following for the book has grown organically,” notes Frey. “A lot of the feedback I received from readers solidified the fact that we did the right thing publishing it during some very dark and scary times.

“When I look back now, I feel a certain sense of accomplishment of having gone through the struggle of writing it. You just throw everything out there when you begin writing a memoir; then it’s like laying out Polaroid pictures, it’s snapshots, and you have to assemble them all in an order that makes sense,” she says.

“No one writes a memoir for money or for fame. No one really looks forward to putting themselves through that process,” she says. “But I felt I needed to do more and hoped that my story could inspire others, and so I took the risk.”

Prior to Frey’s decision to save her family’s struggling farm and create Frey Farms, she always thought she was destined for a different kind of life. “From the age of six years old to 17, everything I did was preparing me to get off the farm. I wanted to live and work in downtown Chicago, but I am living a very different life,” says Frey. “But I made the right choice, I have a better life now because my focus shifted to my family.”

Frey also says it’s crucial to be a good steward of the land that has given her so much. In fact, her website touts several messages from her that could serve as Frey Farms’ mission statement. “The Frey family is committed to farming with sustainable practices and in preserving natural resources for generations to come. I grew up on a small family farm where nothing was ever wasted, and food was simple and delicious,” she says.

“Our family works hard to provide you with the freshest produce and products, made with all natural ingredients while keeping with the tradition of conserving and protecting the land we love,” says Frey.

She says through the years she has evolved in the business world. “You know, I am more strategic. I used to be more tactical — everything else used to be hair on fire,” says Frey. “I am a little less impulsive now and more mindful.”

As one would expect from America’s Pumpkin Queen, Frey does know a thing or two about pumpkins. She says the biggest misnomer about pumpkins is that most people think they are supposed to carve them up and put them on their porch. “Technically pumpkin is a fruit, but I like to make savory dishes out of pumpkin. People don’t have to eat them sweet — it’s fine if they are enjoyed in savory applications. They need to be enjoyed, and they are very nutritious,” she says.

Frey experienced one of her favorite pumpkin dishes at Mark’s American Cuisine in Houston while on a business trip. “The Chef’s Special of the Day was a stuffed baby pumpkin with a lobster tail on top,” she remembers. “He cored out the miniature pumpkin and made a stuffing and baked it with a lobster tail on top. The only thing left on my plate was a little wooden stem. It was definitely one of the top three meals of my life,” she notes. “The chef came out and made a point of telling me that people eat pumpkin all over the world, and that was more than twenty years ago.”

Frey has worked with chefs — even former White House chefs — to create new applications for savory pumpkin dishes. “In Australia people eat pumpkins like we eat potatoes. I also saw it on my first trip to Europe. ‘Wow, people really do eat pumpkins in a savory way, not just sweet,’” she remembers thinking at the time. To that end, Frey has since been gathering seeds from all over the world. “We were really missing out in this country. Savory pumpkin dishes are absolutely delicious,” she says.

Never one to be fearful to ask for what she wants, Frey says her pet peeve is when other people don’t ask for what they want, especially younger people. “People can’t say yes unless people ask,” she says.

“We have this fear that if we ask a question — we are going to vaporize. I just ask for the things I want, such as, ‘Could we get that table over there?’ So, I am usually the person that has to ask.” On a lighter note, it also bothers Frey when her kids move her charger and she has to hunt it down.

Clearly, Frey is persistent and has demonstrated that trait time and time again. She’s proud to tell people she is a farmer, and in fact, she is highly capable when it comes to every aspect of readying the fields for the next harvest.

At times, Frey’s beauty queen looks have thrown people off, and belies just how capable she is.

Not too long ago, Frey had to renew her Commercial Driver’s License because she had a speeding ticket. When she arrived at the office there were a few farmers who were teasing her with comments such as, “Oh Sarah, do you think you can remember everything?” Despite the fact she hadn’t driven a truck in 20 years, and hadn’t studied the manual, she decided to retake the test when one of the farmers called her a ‘chicken.’

“Just give me the test,” she recalled saying. “I had to do it, so I sat down and breezed through the first third,” she says. The remaining portions were a real challenge, and she says the last portion dealt with air brakes and it was terrifying. “I was so stressed out, and in the end I only passed by one or two questions,” recalls Frey. “I don’t look like a lot of things that I am,” says Frey. “I think we are all like that, so, I don’t judge people based on what they look like.”

Not surprisingly, she also finds relaxation when she is building things or doing physical labor. “I like building something, operating machinery, and I like to get dirty. If I am doing that, it is such a release.”

Frey also has a strong interest in real estate. “Real estate is definitely in my wheelhouse. My interests are my passions — along with my business and my family. That is the perfect balance.”

When it comes to seeking advice or counsel, Frey has welcomed input from people 25 years older and 25 years younger. “My mentors were diverse to say the least. They ranged in age, race and gender. I always looked to people that were older.

“Now, I actually lean on the young people. I value my children’s opinions. Good leaders ask the opinions of others and not just within their own business but other businesses as well.”

As a respected leader herself, Frey has no problem advocating for farmers. “Farming is in fact the noblest profession, yet no one really ever puts much thought into the actual life of a farmer. I believe that is because people don’t need to — because farmers are solid, they show up and can be counted on.

“Farmers work when they don’t feel like working and love even when they don’t feel loved. They are tough, because they’ve been through it all. Farmers know how quickly fate can change — so they remain humble, all while feeding the world.”

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