Q: In so many ways, your life’s story is the personification of the “American Dream”. What is it about your personality / character that led you to where you are today?
Sarah: By our nature, Americans are ambitious, independent, loyal, and hard working. We celebrate achievements, comeback stories, and admire those who have overcome adversity to earn their success.
I was raised to believe in myself and to not fear any situation or person. My brothers instilled in me a mindset that I could do anything. As a result, I believe there is nothing a person cannot do if you believe in yourself. I learned that to get things done you have to own your power, and sometimes ask forgiveness, not permission.
I believe that people are either hunters or gatherers, and I am a hunter. I think that is an apt description of my personality. I love being an entrepreneur. I never like to sit back and wait, so I am always on the lookout for opportunities or ideas. I love making deals. I love helping people grow and develop their own businesses. I would not be where I am today without being a hunter.
Q: You said your first lessons in negotiation and sales came from your experience working on a melon route with your mom. What did you learn about deal-making as a child?
Sarah: I learned two major lessons in negotiations and sales from my experience working on the melon route with my mom. First, I learned to be aware and look out for our customers’ needs. Their wants rarely changed. They expected value, service, quality, ease of doing business and trust. I saw firsthand how our customers felt that the whole experience of doing business with my mom, then me and now Frey Farms, has been and will always be of value to them.
Second, we don’t plant more than we know we can sell. As a farmer, we are well accustomed to a high-risk business because there are so many things out of our control: weather, events, labor shortages, COVID. This industry requires you to have the ability to pivot quickly. We must anticipate the needs and plan as best we can.
Just like there is no wasted life, there is no wasted fruit. I noticed at the end of the harvest we would always have “ugly” fruit left over. It was visually imperfect but otherwise tasty and delicious. Instead of plowing under the fruit that doesn’t meet supermarket visual standards, we convert them into juices and ingredients. Today, we make two branded beverage lines, Tsamma Watermelon Juice and a line of Sarah’s Homegrown Agua Frescas.
Q: Your parents were about to lose the family farm when you stepped in and bought the land … when you were still a teenager! Why did you decide to purchase a place you wanted so desperately to escape?
Sarah: Although I loved the land, and the Hill was my home, the decision was driven by my love of family. The farm was a place where we shed blood, sweat and tears, but also a place where we learned and grew. We created bonds that would last a lifetime on that one small patch of Earth.
At that singular moment, I could see two paths for my brothers and me. One path would scatter us all to separate corners, and we would drift apart. The other path would be one where my children and my brothers’ children would grow and thrive together.
In my mind, the Hill still represented family unity and bonds. I did not want my family to become disconnected and grow away from each other. When I viewed it through that lens, the choice was clear.
Q: You’ve said you have worked every job at your company from harvesting to truck driving to cleaning the floors to balancing the books. How has having that wide range of experiences impacted how you lead?
Sarah: Most of the leadership advice consists of how to build, energize, inspire, and guide a team. The knowledge I gained from working in the fields, driving the truck, making deliveries, and too many other tasks to name, gave me a detailed understanding of every aspect of my business and our nation’s supply chain. Plus, it made me appreciate my business and the significance of the various responsibilities within it more than if I had not done it all. It’s hard to tell people to do something you’ve never done yourself.
Richard Branson said, “There are few things more valuable to an entrepreneur than being able to call upon experience to make decisions. This can be personal experience of similar situations, knowing how to deal with difficult predicaments, or having the knowhow to make the right call.” He is right.
Q: You say as your company became more profitable, for the first time in your life, you actually had something to lose. How did that change how you approached your business?
Sarah: I professionalized the company and hired individuals with skillsets different from my own. When I realized that I had something to lose that would impact others, I became laser focused on the mission.
By staying entrepreneurial I have been able to come up with ways to better our business and use more produce. As I stated above, I’ve created two juice brands that use the fruit that does not get sold to stores. Through COVID I have seen that our business needs more direct-to-consumer marketing. Staying focused does not have to mean being narrow minded. The year 2020, although challenging, highlighted new opportunities for our business and exposed weaknesses that needed to be corrected.
Q: You are in business with your brothers, as well as some of your nieces and nephews. What have been some of the challenges of running a family business – and what have been some of the benefits?
Sarah: Running Frey Farms with my brothers makes separating personal life from the family business challenging. While passing the potatoes at dinner or in a board meeting, our conversations flow back and forth between business to family matters.
Often, people are warned to stay away from starting a business with family members or friends. Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. There is an unexplainable level of commitment. There is no job that none of us haven’t done, and we have a shared vision and identity, which opens more opportunities and ensures our continued success.
This year, the next generation of Freys lead the way with building our farm direct-to-consumer effort, which increase our competitive edge over other non-family farms.
Founder & CEO, FREY FARMS
Frey Farms is a Certified Woman Owned Business founded by Sarah Frey in 1992. Today, Headquartered in Keenes, IL, Sarah and her four older brothers operate farms and facilities in seven states. Frey Farms distributes its fruits and vegetables throughout the country through its Sarah’s Homegrown label. With a mission to end food waste in the fresh produce industry, the family makes natural food products and beverages from imperfect or “ugly fruit”. They feature a complete line of juices through Sarah’s Homegrown Tsamma Watermelon Juice.
Sarah Frey has been described by the New York Times as “the Pumpkin Queen of America”. Sarah sells more pumpkins than any other producer in the United States. Her family business, Frey Farms, plants thousands of acres of fruits and vegetables in Florida and six other states.
She is the author of The Growing Season: How I Built a New Life–and Saved an American Farm published by Random House in August of 2020. Sarah will serve as Co-Executive Producer of the upcoming ABC television production of The Growing Season based on her story.