The Growing Season

How I Built a New Life--and Saved an American Farm

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“A gutsy success story” (The New York Times Book Review) about one tenacious woman’s journey to escape rural poverty and create a billion-dollar farming business—without ever leaving the land she loves

The youngest of her parents’ combined twenty-one children, Sarah Frey grew up on a struggling farm in southern Illinois, often having to grow, catch, or hunt her own dinner alongside her brothers. She spent much of her early childhood dreaming of running away to the big city—or really anywhere with central heating. At fifteen, she moved out of her family home and started her own fresh produce delivery business with nothing more than an old pickup truck.

Two years later, when the family farm faced inevitable foreclosure, Frey gave up on her dreams of escape, took over the farm, and created her own produce company. Refusing to play by traditional rules, at seventeen she began talking her way into suit-filled boardrooms, making deals with the nation’s largest retailers. Her early negotiations became so legendary that Harvard Business School published some of her deals as case studies, which have turned out to be favorites among its students. 

Today, her family-operated company, Frey Farms, has become one of America’s largest fresh produce growers and shippers, with farmland spread across seven states. Thanks to the millions of melons and pumpkins she sells annually, Frey has been dubbed “America’s Pumpkin Queen” by the national press.

The Growing Season tells the inspiring story of how a scrappy rural childhood gave Frey the grit and resiliency to take risks that paid off in unexpected ways. Rather than leaving her community, she found adventure and opportunity in one of the most forgotten parts of our country. With fearlessness and creativity, she literally dug her destiny out of the dirt.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Growing Season

Chapter 1

Hunting and Fishing

The clay-­rich farmland of southeastern Illinois sits between the New Madrid fault line and the Wabash River Valley. Earthquakes have rattled this land over the centuries, but no one seems to mind. There have never been many buildings over two stories high, and the plants don’t object to being shaken around.

When I was a little girl, I felt like part of the earth. I was usually filthy, with dirt under my nails and all over my clothes. In the fall, I jumped in piles of leaves. In the gray of winter, I made ice cream from sweet condensed milk, snow, and sugar—­always from the second snowfall, because my father didn’t trust the first one. He believed in the old wives’ tale that the first snow cleaned the air and was full of toxins. In the spring, I picked flowers and helped the mares through labor.

My favorite season has always been summer. The daytime air smelled like honeysuckle. At night, the fireflies came out in great swarms of flickering light. The first evening they appeared, I ran out into the night and spun my arms, my body gently bumping into the lightning bugs as they flashed on and off. I spun until they blurred. Dizzy, I collapsed in the field, then stood up to do it again. If I could bottle that feeling—­that goodness and magic and hope and lightness—­I could cure the world of every ill.

At that age, my greatest wish was for my four older brothers to take me with them when they went on adventures. For what felt like eternity, they didn’t let me go along when they went fishing in the pond or the creek, or when they went hunting for deer, rabbits, or quail in the woods near our house. I had to stay behind by myself.

Our farm was isolated, even by southern Illinois standards. The nearest major town, a thirty-­minute drive away, is Mount Vernon, with seventeen thousand inhabitants. Orchardville, the unincorporated village about five miles from us, has just twenty-­eight houses inside the town limits. Few they may be, but Orchardville residents have contributed a lot to the country. They’ve fought in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War.

Orchardville’s nineteenth-­century nickname was “the Big Red Apple.” Today in addition to fruit trees there are a few hog and turkey farms, thanks to some new Amish and Mennonite neighbors, and a few large grain bins that hold corn and soybeans, but not a whole lot else except an excellent diner called the Skillet Fork Grill (order the curly fries). What hasn’t changed is that anyone you meet would give you the last dollar out of their wallet. They’re good people who fiercely love our country and choose to keep to themselves unless they’re called upon to help others.

Wayne County has been declining in population for the past hundred years. The median household income is around $45,000 a year. In many parts of the country, you might be poor with that salary. But here, middle-­income standards are different, and the ­bounty of nature is there for the taking. The woods and fields are full of animals to hunt and wild fruit to forage. The frogs, crickets, and coyotes perform free concerts every night.

My father, Harold, was born outside St. Louis in 1929. He was spoiled rotten by his grandmother Sarah, after whom I’m named. In 1934, when he was just five years old and automobiles were still rare in the United States, she bought him an actual truck. Not a toy truck. A Ford. His parents let him quit school when he was in the seventh grade. He couldn’t stand being cooped up indoors. Plus, he thought he was smarter than most of his teachers. I think he probably was.

Dad worked as a steelworker and farmer, and then eventually bought into the Dixie Feed franchise, for which he controlled a couple of feed mills. After marrying young, he had thirteen children with his first wife. The marriage was unhappy. She said he philandered; he said she drank too much.

Then he met a woman named Elizabeth, the wife of one of his mill employees. She was beautiful, with dark hair and dark eyes. Everyone said she looked French. Like Harold, she was dissatisfied with the way her life was going. Elizabeth had become pregnant and married at sixteen to escape a terrible home life. Her father had lost his hand in a corn picker and carried a lot of anger, which he took out on his children. And yet that early marriage didn’t provide the escape she was looking for. Her young husband drank heavily, just like her father had. After her second child was born, she began to look, again, for a way out. That’s when she met Harold.

Ready for a new life, Elizabeth and Harold made plans to run away together. My father was famous for his charisma. He could make you believe almost anything. Harold, Elizabeth believed, would whisk her away into a fanciful new life, full of excitement and adventure. She had every reason to hope that he would take care of her and her two children, and keep their life interesting, too. He was a hard worker with an entrepreneurial spirit. Unfortunately, he was also, as she would come to learn, a hustler and a bit of a con man.

With Elizabeth’s two preschool-­aged children in tow, the illicit couple left Illinois and moved to Tennessee. As you would think, running away from a large family and starting from scratch in the hills of Tennessee is not a recipe for amassing wealth. So why did my father do it? Simply put, he needed to get out of town. A perfect storm of bad business decisions and personal drama made the decision to leave an easy one.

While no one ever said a word, I knew from an early age, simply because of the company he kept, that my father was some sort of “fixer” for men who didn’t want to get their hands dirty. He was someone they trusted with their secrets. He didn’t have many friends in Wayne County, where we lived, but he had plenty in St. Louis. Down around the racetrack there, he had a network of associates and a whole secret life far removed from our isolated farming community. To me, his St. Louis associates all seemed either really wealthy or really poor. I watched him glide effortlessly between the two worlds.

Recently I learned the lengths to which my father would go to “fix” things: the day he left behind his former life, my father staged a car crash to make it look like he had died. His car was found smashed at the bottom of a cliff, burned to its shell and covered in rabbit’s blood, which resembles a human’s. No body was found. His own mother thought he was dead. I’ve seen photos of her before and after this episode. It looks as though she had aged a hundred years. She died not long after—­relatives say the cause was a broken heart, her will to live having left her when she believed her adored son to be dead.

On the run, my parents took refuge in Tennessee with horse-­racing buddies of my father’s. Back at home, for months my father’s thirteen children also believed Harold to be dead, but there was no body, and they didn’t have a funeral.

In the coming years, Harold would resurrect himself and pay his original family visits from time to time, sometimes handing the children bags of coins for spending money. But for them there would be a clear before and after to their childhoods: before, when they had two parents and enough food to eat, and after he covered that car with animal blood and pushed it off a cliff, when they were left to fend for themselves.

Harold and Elizabeth began their new life in Tennessee with high hopes, but they had awful luck from the start. They doted on the first child they had together, Lana. While my mother was working in the house, Lana, just two and a half years old, was playing outside when she was run over and killed by a truck driven by a farmhand.

Guilt-­stricken, my mother, pregnant at the time with my ­brother Leonard, took to her bed. By all accounts, on that day she changed forever. The light went out of her eyes. Defeated in Tennessee, my parents left the state once Leonard was born. They returned to Illinois to try to rebuild their lives, but at a distance from where they’d lived before.

The family of three settled first in a country home in Wayne County. A tornado lifted it off them as they cowered in the root cellar. Then they found the Hill, which would be their home for decades to come: eighty acres of rich farmland, with fields spreading away from the farmhouse in all directions. I think my father liked owning that much elevated land. He knew he could grow crops and keep livestock. I also think he liked that from that perch he could see an enemy coming from miles away. Terrified of another tornado, they turned the musty cellar into an emergency shelter, stocking shelves along the sandstone walls with canned goods.

My father was desperate for a girl to replace the one they’d lost, and so my mother had one baby after another, hoping for a daughter. She gave birth to three more boys after Leonard: Harley, John, Ted. At last I was born on July 24, 1976, the hottest day of the year. I was the twenty-­first and final child produced by their various marriages. Seeing that her husband’s wish for another daughter had ­finally come true, my mother greeted my birth with the warm, maternal words “I’m done,” and immediately had her tubes tied.

- About the author -

Sarah Frey has been described by The New York Times as “the Pumpkin Queen of America.” She 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, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, and West Virginia. 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.” Inspired by her humble beginnings and early life on the farm, she continues to create opportunities for those living and working in rural communities. Frey lives in Southern Illinois and is raising her two sons, William and Luke, on the same family farm where she grew up.

More from Sarah Frey

The Growing Season

How I Built a New Life--and Saved an American Farm


The Growing Season

— Published by Ballantine Books —