Sarah Frey, CEO of Frey Farms, Frey Farms, Keenes, Ill., was the honoree and featured speaker June 16 at the United Fresh LIVE! Women in Produce general session. ( Amy Sowder )

Harvard Business School did a case study on Sarah Frey’s negotiations with Walmart to sell melons.

Frey herself had to give up her college dreams of bachelor’s degrees and beyond.

But Frey has earned so much more as the president and CEO of family-run Frey Farms, Keenes, Ill. a pumpkin and melon grower, packer and shipper that sells millions annually from 15,000 acres in seven states.

Frey was the honoree and speaker at the Women in Produce general session June 16 during the United Fresh LIVE! virtual conference and trade show. 

She spoke about her life, her influences and how she does business.

“Taking risks came very natural to me at a very young age. When I had an idea, I just went for it, and I have a little bit of an obsessive personality,” Frey said. “And I follow through.”

Frey grew up poor and her family ate what they hunted and grew. They didn’t have central heat.

At 16, she sold her first pickup truck full of 300 melons and took over her mom’s melon route, growing the number of store customers exponentially.

She wanted to leave her rural home, but decided to stay and save the family farm when foreclosure was imminent. 

A turning point was in 1997, when she saw Walmart opening a distribution center nearby. She stopped by and negotiated a deal that she barely understood at the time. But she’s been learning and taking risks her whole life.

Since then, Frey’s been a force of nature in the industry.

“She went from poverty to literally owning that ground,” said U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who introduced Frey. Davis is a member of the House Agriculture Committee and has known Frey since 2010. “She’s a leader of women who have succeeded and exceeded any and all expectations.”

Davis said she has vision, tenacity and will.

Frey is the founder of Tsamma Watermelon Juice and Sarah’s Home Grown.

“If anyone is having cocktails, watermelon juice makes a good mixer,” Frey told United Fresh LIVE! attendees with a smile.

She’s authored “The Growing Season,” scheduled for release by Random House in August.

One of her big early influences was the late Frieda Caplan, founder of Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif. Caplan gave Frey a scholarship when she was in her mid-20s.

“I knew someday I wanted to build a company like the she did, a family company. She got me to my first public policy conference,” Frey said.

Frey was a new mother then, on her first trip away from her baby.

“And it helped shaped me as I asked myself, is it possible to be a good mom and a good businesswoman at the same time?” Frey said. “I thought about the woman who made that trip possible to me, Frieda, and she was both, raising her two children Karen and Jackie, to be really good humans. She taught me that the two things are not mutually exclusive.”

The men in her family have also been supportive and inspiring, as well as her two sons, William, 16, and Luke, 13, who photobombed Frey’s speech with waves to the screen.

To help out during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, her sons advertised on Facebook that melons were for sale on the farm, and cars came from hours away, lining up to buy on Easter weekend.

“These kids were selling melons by the semi-truck load. And they weren’t going to the customers. The customers were coming to them,” Frey said.

That bright note in a dark time illuminated a shortfall in the industry of relying on retailers to communicate to consumers, she said. Farmers have the technology to connect directly with consumers.

“We know farmers have been using it to tell their stories, and it’s really effective. And people show up if you ask them,” Frey said. “In the end, I believe we all have agrarian roots. Whether we grew up on a farm or in the city, there’s a natural desire to connect with our food.”

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