Author shares story of saving family farm during COD virtual event

Author shares story of saving family farm during COD virtual event

  • Sarah Frey on-site at one of the produce farms. She is actively involved in running the farms, which means getting out into the fields.

    Sarah Frey on-site at one of the produce farms. She is actively involved in running the farms, which means getting out into the fields. Angela Talley photo

 
 
Posted4/5/2021 6:00 AM

Diana Martinez, director of the McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage, had just put the turkey in the oven last Thanksgiving. She had a few minutes, so she picked up the book a friend had recommended, "The Growing Season: How I Saved an American Farm -- and Built a New Life."

Martinez had put the book aside when she first got it, not being terribly interested in farming. Now, she couldn't put it down.

 

Through vivid anecdotes of her childhood and young adulthood, author Sarah Frey describes the crushing poverty of her young life growing up on a farm in southern Illinois, and how she turned around the fortunes of herself and her family -- starting a produce delivery business at age 15, saving her family's 80 acres from auction, and now running a seven-state produce company that has successfully branched into juices.

"Why isn't everybody reading this story?" Martinez wondered to herself. She contacted Frey, who agreed to do an author event with Martinez, sponsored by COD and the Daily Herald.

The free event will be held virtually Tuesday, April 20. Visit atthemac.org to sign up. Martinez and Frey have already taped their conversation, which goes about an hour. That will be followed by a live Q&A session between Frey and the audience.

Copies of the book are available online, or at The Book Store of Glen Ellyn, 475 N. Main St. (mention the "Growing Season Book Club" for a 15% discount).

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Frey tells her story through stories -- vivid recollections of events in her life, both big and very small, that contributed both positively and negatively to her view of the world and her determination to be successful.

"The Growing Season" has made Sarah Frey a sought-after interview. She will co-executive produce an ABC-TV production of her book.
"The Growing Season" has made Sarah Frey a sought-after interview. She will co-executive produce an ABC-TV production of her book. - Angela Talley photo

Today, Frey views her former poverty as one of the conditions that forced her to push herself.

"I don't know that you get over (being poor as a child)," she said in response to a question, "but it becomes a tool to work harder."

Frey said when she was young she wanted to become a lawyer. She fell into business when she took over her mother's "melon runs" -- buying melons from local farmers and selling them to local stores. As store proprietors discovered her word was her bond, the more they relied on her to provide them produce. Her business grew.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Frey discovered she was pretty good at selling herself to new customers, and then backed up her promises with reliability. She and her brothers, now working with her, barely slept to fill the orders. A contract with Walmart nearly broke them, but when they pulled it off, Frey never looked back.

Today, Frey Farms is the largest H-2A visa employer in Illinois, as well as the largest grower of pumpkins in the United States. During growing season, her family farm in Orchardville, due east of Mount Vernon, is full of beautiful growing pumpkins.

Replicating her unique story would be impossible, but Frey believes all people have it within themselves to be successful.

"I actually believe it exists within all of us," she says.

For her, it was a process of discovering that "I can build things," and that she likes business in general. Besides keeping an eye on her multifaceted company, she has a keen eye on the markets and on federal policy toward guest workers.

The Frey family farm in Orchardville, Illinois, is a producer of pumpkins.
The Frey family farm in Orchardville, Illinois, is a producer of pumpkins. - Angela Talley photo

And where at one time she couldn't wait to leave rural southern Illinois and her tiny community of Orchardville, she now has a deep attachment to the region and has a desire for its economy to grow.

"I would like to see more opportunity downstate ... entertainment, business, jobs," Frey says. "The little downtowns used to be so alive.

"My hope is that so many of those little communities find a way to come back and be vibrant. It's going to take young people staying behind. Sometimes staying behind is getting ahead."

One of the things Martinez loves about Sarah Frey's story is how Frey credits her local community college in Fairfield, Illinois, with giving her the education she needed, and how it worked around her business schedule to accommodate her.

"Sarah is such as good role model for people to watch, and for people who feel left behind," Martinez said. "It's the American dream, and the pride and comfort she takes in who she is and where she's from. For her to be so honest takes courage.

"People often don't want to tell the most painful parts of their lives, but she shares it and doesn't wear it like a crutch," Martinez added. "She is such an inspirational person."

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