Episode 243: Sarah Frey

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Sarah Frey is one of our favorite guests and what she has been able to accomplish starting from the age of 16 years old is jaw-dropping. CEO and Owner of Frey Farms, which she founded at the age of 16 and is the largest grower of pumpkins in the United States, founder of Tsamma® Juice, and author of The Growing Season, she’s an incredible pioneer and our first recipient of The Produce Moms’ Trailblazer Award.

Sarah’s life now is a far cry from what she was striving for growing up on a farm. She yearned to follow in her four brothers’ footsteps and get as far away from farm life as possible! Attending high school and college simultaneously, Sarah focused on getting good grades and creating an opportunity to find a successful career elsewhere. At the same time, she started driving around a red, rickety pickup truck and created a fresh produce delivery route where she sold melons from the Wabash River Valley to small retailers. There were plenty of times she’d sleep in her truck at night because she was so focused on saving her money and, at 16, too young to get a hotel room! 

Sarah’s life trajectory changed one day when she had the epiphany that, if she didn’t take over the family farm, her and her four brothers wouldn’t have anywhere to “come home” to, or “call home” ever again. It was at that moment she knew she had to save the farm. She had already been in the process of selling assets off her family’s farm and quickly stopped, trying to figure out how to harvest the crops with a very tight budget. She couldn’t afford to buy the $150,000-$250,000 tractors and equipment she needed, so instead, she found a few buses for $2,500, cut the sides out of them, and converted them into a hybrid tractor-wagon vehicle. Surprisingly, this is the most efficient way she’s found to harvest the farm and still uses hundreds of them to this day! 

Sarah has grown Frey Farms across seven different states, including Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Arkansas and Missouri. Most people don’t realize how many fruits and vegetables are grown in the Midwest. For example, the Wabash River Valley has a sandy-type soil that is very conducive to growing melons, which is what Sarah started out selling, and now uses today for her line of fresh, hydrating Tsamma® Juice made from watermelons.

“By having to think that way when you’re starting out and you’re a scrappy entrepreneur, you actually find efficiencies that, if you didn’t have those challenges, you would never be aware of the ways that you can make your business run better and faster.” Sarah Frey (17:38-18:00)

Speaking of being a scrappy entrepreneur, that’s exactly how Sarah’s managed to have a relationship with Walmart for decades. Sarah and her red pickup truck went to a Walmart distribution center that just opened in Olney, Illinois when she was 16 to try and make her life easier. Why drive around selling to 12 different stores when she could just sell her produce at Walmart? She waltzed in and told them she wanted to sell her produce to them and surprisingly, they agreed! The buyer Sarah spoke to said, “great, bring us more! We need three loads of cantaloupe and five loads of watermelon.”

Sarah left excited, but quickly realized the woman didn’t mean loads from her pick-up truck, she meant semi-loads. Sarah remembers thinking to herself, “I’m going to need to get a license to drive one of those [semi-trucks]! Wait, no… it’s not going to be me driving those. I need drivers for those trucks, and a whole lot more produce.”  Did you know that over 50% of the fresh produce we consume in the United States is imported from other countries?

Sarah’s role with Walmart quickly grew into one where she was identifying different farms in the Midwest and identifying who grew what during which seasonal time frame. They would then partner with different growers and make hybrid deals with them depending on what their needs were, whether it be assistance growing the actual crop, or funding to grow their crops. Sarah helped numerous small farms by partnering with them and bringing them into Walmart as a direct supplier. Sarah says this has been one of the most fulfilling parts of her career because she’s gotten to know hundreds of small family farms throughout the Midwest, learn about their business, the history behind their farm, and help them professionalize their image so they can connect with opportunities like selling to Walmart. 

“When you think of the life of a farmer and how they have to stay optimistic, even in the darkest of times, it’s really quite incredible. Farmers do their work quietly, struggle quietly, and are very persistent people who get up every single day, without accolades or appreciation, and do the hardest work you can do for this country.” (49:41-50:51)

Sarah Frey is an incredible entrepreneur and trailblazer who went from selling melons out of the back of her red pickup truck at the ripe age of 16, to buying and growing her family farm across 7 different states, becoming the largest grower of pumpkins in the U.S., authoring two books, selling to (and helping hundreds of other small farms do the same) Walmart, starting her own line of Tsamma® watermelon juice, and of course, becoming a Produce Mom herself. As much as Sarah wanted to get away from the family farm when she was younger, she answered the call to save an incredible piece of our country’s agriculture. Find out where to find Frey Farm’s incredible produce at https://freyfarms.com/, try Sarah’s delicious, hydrating Tsamma® Juice by visiting https://tsammajuice.com/, try her line of Sarah’s Homegrown™ agua frescas by visiting https://www.drinksarahs.com/, or read The Growing Season at https://thegrowingseason.green/

How to get involved

  • Join The Produce Moms Group on Facebook and continue the discussion every week! 
  • Reach out to us – we’d love to hear more about where you are in life and business! Find out more here

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About Lori

Lori Taylor is the Founder & CEO of The Produce Moms. For ten years she sold fresh produce to over 300 grocery stores throughout the United States, and today she is fully focused on working with the produce supply chain, media, and government to increase fresh produce access & consumption in the US and around the globe. Connect with Lori on LinkedIn.

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