How One Midwest Girl Built the Family Farm into a Watermelon Empire
At an age when most of us were cultivating ant farms and Chia Pets, Sarah Frey-Talley was building herself a formidable business. At 7, she and her mother started selling watermelons and cantaloupes from a neighboring farm to local grocers. At 17, she was growing her own melons, and at 19, she was navigating her way through national contracts with Walmart stores.
Today, Sarah is the force behind Frey Farms, a Certified Woman-Owned Business specializing in growing, packing, and shipping produce, including watermelons and cantaloupes, sweet corn, and squash. The company is the largest pumpkin producer in the United States and has recently become one of the leaders in the emerging watermelon juice market. (Which really makes you wonder: What do you do all day?)
We caught up with Sarah to hear her story — and to find out what’s next for the melon mastermind.
The Story of a Modern Family Farm
Sarah was raised on an 80-acre farm in Illinois with her four older brothers, and she paints a pretty good picture of a wholesome American upbringing. “We had crops, we had animals, we grew our own food, we canned our own food that we stored in a cellar in our home and enjoyed in the winters,” Sarah recalls. “And I learned how to do all that stuff.”
While she coveted certain conveniences of non-farm life like, say, cereal — “I would get so excited when I would see a box of cereal,” she says. “I thought it was a privilege to go buy packaged goods from the grocery store,” — she enjoyed working in the fields on the family farm. And she showed an early aptitude for negotiating deals in her fledgling melon business.
Sarah and her mom essentially acted as the middle men between neighboring farms and independent grocery stores. And like any good go-between, she got a piece of the action. By the time she was a teenager, her business efforts had became so profitable, Sarah was able to purchase several farms in South Illinois, reinvest in them, and begin to grow melons herself.
“The rest is kinda history,” she says.
The young entrepreneur grew her delivery route to 150 independent grocery stores, then expanded the business to include fresh pumpkins. By the time she turned 20, she was managing some 100 employees, including two of her older brothers. (The other two would soon follow suit.)
Her parents did urge her to pursue a university degree like her brothers, but, Sarah says, “It’s kinda hard to tell a teenager who’s really making money and has a thriving, successful business, ‘Hey, now you have to leave that, go live in a dorm like other kids your age.'”
Instead, she juggled high school and her watermelons while simultaneously taking night classes at a junior college. “I knew that I would always continue my education,” she explains (and she did; as an adult, she was accepted to the executive education program at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business).
“But the timing was such that I also knew that I couldn’t just walk away from the business that I had built,” she explains. “Because by that time, I mean, it was a sizeable business.”
Plus, there was the matter of what would become of Frey Farms. “I felt like if I didn’t save the farm, that at some point in our adult lives we would look back and be sorry that we didn’t have the land that we grew up on, no matter where life took us, how successful we became,” Sarah recalls.
The Next Watermelon Wave: Watermelon Juice
Today, Sarah’s biggest project is Tsamma, the bright-pink bottled juice made with Frey Farms watermelons. It reached supermarket shelves in 2014, just three months after Sarah dreamed up the product. While watermelon juice may feel like just another health food trend, Sarah says she’s been drinking the stuff forever. “Having spent my summers in southern Indiana when I was a little girl and then on the melon route with my mom, I was accustomed to drinking watermelon juice,” Sarah explains. “It’s something that we did our entire lives and really took for granted.”
And she’s not stopping at watermelon juice. Next up is a line of high-end vegetables canned in glass jars, the way Sarah’s mother used to store the fruits and vegetables that grew faster than the Frey family could eat them.
Still a Midwest Girl at Heart
Even over the phone, Sarah balances the straightforwardness of a big-city businesswoman with the warmth of a small-town Midwesterner. Although she’s on the road quite frequently, her home is still in rural Illinois, in a part of the country where cell phone reception is spotty.
And for all of Sarah’s success, it’s her modest childhood that she speaks of with the greatest fondness. “When I was little, I thought, ‘Gosh, you know, I look around and I think we’re so poor,'” she says. “And in retrospect, in my adult life now, I look back on that and think, ‘My God, I was so rich then.'” And, at some point, even cereal began to lose its luster.
Just recently, Sarah recalls, she took sweet corn on the cob to a group of children at a church camp and was shocked by the baffled responses she received. “They’re looking at you like, What am I supposed to do with this?” Sarah said. “Once you showed them, Hey, you pick it up and eat it like this, these kids — you would have thought that you brought in a truck full of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.”