How An Illinois Woman Turned a Passion for Produce Into a Business
Growing up on a small farm in Wayne County, Sarah Frey dreamed of the day she could leave rural life behind.
“It was never my goal to stay on the farm,” she says. “I wanted to be a corporate attorney and live in the city.”
Until then, she settled for weekly outings with her mother.
“My mother had a small delivery route, and as a small child, I joined her. She would buy watermelons and cantaloupes in southern Indiana, and we would deliver them to independent grocery stores,” Frey says. “It was a way to get off the farm.”
At 16, Frey took over her mom’s melon route. Before long, the savvy salesperson expanded it from about a dozen retailers to 150. She also secured her first contract with a major national retailer: Walmart.
Around that time – as she finished high school and junior college simultaneously – this go-getter experienced an “aha” moment.
“It just clicked in my head that I had begun to build a profitable business that I couldn’t walk away from,” Frey says.
Embracing her future as a farmer, she purchased the family farm at age 19. Under her leadership, Frey Farms grew into a multistate enterprise producing watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet corn, pumpkins and squash for the nation’s top 25 retailers. With more than 12,000 acres in seven states, Frey Farms employs more than 500 seasonal workers – not to mention Sarah’s four older brothers.
This enterprising entrepreneur even found new uses for watermelon, her personal “passion fruit,” as she refers to it.
“Watermelon is an amazing fruit – a superfruit with unique properties,” Frey says.
For example, the low-calorie, nutrient-rich fruit offers an abundant source of cancer-fighting lycopene. Watermelon also contains L-citrulline, which aids in muscle recovery and blood flow, making it a new favorite among athletes.
Inspired by a growing body of research on the nutritional benefits of watermelon, Frey set out to make this rather unwieldy fruit more accessible.
She succeeded with the launch of Tsamma bottled watermelon juice in 2014 – the first of its kind to be distributed nationally. Today, consumers can buy this convenient form of watermelon at 2,000 retail locations.
Next up: Frey plans to launch value-added pumpkin products to capitalize on another underrated source of nutrition.
“I believe our responsibility as farmers is to educate consumers. And now is the time to do it because people have more interest in their food and where it comes from,” Frey says.
She also spends countless hours educating lawmakers on issues affecting agriculture, such as immigration reform.
“We need a large amount of people to harvest in a short amount of time. Unfortunately, domestic populations in these rural areas cannot support our needs,” says Frey, who relies heavily on the nation’s H-2A program.
5 Ways to Eat Watermelon
After you select your watermelon at the store or farmers market, check out five watermelon recipes from sweet to savory. Watermelon gazpacho, anyone?
The longstanding program grants work visas to temporary agricultural workers. In recent years, however, H-2A became bogged down by bureaucratic inefficiencies after lawmakers tied it to comprehensive immigration reform.
Urging politicians to treat H-2A as a stand-alone program, Frey seeks to streamline and grow the nation’s existing guest worker programs.
Whether making the rounds on Capitol Hill or promoting new products, this country girl spends much of her time in the city, after all.
“My life is definitely ‘town and country,’ ” says Frey, who now appreciates the farm life she once wished to escape.
“As a little girl, I wondered why we didn’t buy food at the store like other people. Now I can see that we were really rich to have good, clean, wholesome food,” she says. “Now people long to get back to simple food.”
And that Sarah Frey happily delivers.