This episode’s remarkable guest is Sarah Frey. The New York Times dubbed her the Pumpkin Queen of America because she grows more pumpkins than any other farmer in America. In 2016, she sold 5 million pumpkins. She owns approximately 15,000 acres of farmland in Illinois, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and West Virginia.
She was raised on an 80-acre farm without indoor plumbing in Southern Illinois. It is 260 miles south of Chicago, 99 miles east of St. Louis, and 127 miles Northwest of Owensboro, Kentucky. She attended high school in college while working at a tractor supply. She borrowed $10,000 at 16 to buy a truck, started a melon business at 18; she bought her parents farm and built it into the Frey Farms brand that sells fruits, vegetables, and beverages. Refusing to play by traditional rules, 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.
She has written two books, For the Love of Pumpkins: A Visual Guide to Fall Decorating with Pumpkins and very recently The Growing Season: How I Built a New Life–and Saved an American Farm.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- The lessons of bootstrapping out of rural poverty
- The combative nature of chickens
- How God talked to her via a full harvest moon
- How a snapping turtle altered her life
- Why stealing thunder is a good thing to do
- How to get into the backdoor of Walmart
If you’re a small business owner or entrepreneur trying to bootstrap your way to success, this is the episode for you.
We start with a discussion of chickens because Sarah had a traumatic run-in with a chicken when she was a kid. And I wanted an update on that.
Here’s the Pumpkin Queen of America, Sarah Frey.
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I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. This episode's remarkable guest is Sarah Frey. She is known as The Pumpkin Queen of America. That's because she grows more pumpkins than any other farmer in America.
In 2016, she sold five million pumpkins. She was raised on an eighty-acre farm without indoor plumbing in Southern Illinois. It is 260 miles south of Chicago, ninety-nine miles east of St. Louis, and 127 miles northwest of Owensboro, Kentucky.
She attended high school and college at the same time while working at Tractor Supply. She borrowed $10,000 at sixteen to start a melon business. At eighteen, she bought her parents' farm and built it into The Frey Farm brand that today sells fruits, vegetables, and beverages.
She has written two books, For the Love of Pumpkins: A Visual Guide to Fall Decorating with Pumpkins and Ornamentals, and very recently, The Growing Season: How I Saved an American Farm and Built a New Life. In this episode, you'll learn about the lessons of bootstrapping out of rural property, the combative nature of chickens, how God talked to her via a full Harvest Moon, how a snapping turtle altered her life, why stealing thunder is a good thing to do, and how to get into the back door of Walmart.
If you're a small business owner who is trying to bootstrap your way to success, this is the episode for you, but we start with a discussion of chickens because Sarah had a traumatic run-in with a chicken when she was a kid, and I wanted an update on that.
This episode of Remarkable People is brought to you by reMarkable - the paper tablet company. Yes, you got that right, Remarkable is sponsored by reMarkable. I have version two in my hot little hands and it's so good. A very impressive upgrade.
Here's how I use it. One: taking notes while I'm interviewing a podcast guest. Two: taking notes while being briefed about a speaking gig. Three: drafting the structure of keynote speeches. Four: storing manuals for all of the gizmos that I buy. Five: roughing out drawings for things like surfboards, surfboard shits. Six: wrapping my head around complex ideas with diagrams and flow charts.
This is a remarkably well-thought-out product. It doesn't try to be all things to all people, but it takes notes better than anything I've used. Check out the recent reviews of the latest version.
I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People, and now, here is The Pumpkin Queen of America, Sarah Frey.
Now that you run the farm, do you have any chickens?
I don't currently have chickens, but I have had chickens in my adult life with my children. When my kids were seven and nine, they wanted to get chickens, so I took them to this fantastic little Amish market where they trade and swap all of these different little animals.
They found these really interesting chickens that they liked and I let them bring the chickens home and my brother John and I actually devoted probably a week to building like this chicken penthouse. We made this hen house out of really solid two-by-fours on this really awesome trailer. It was a mobile chicken coop that we could pull around the farm. I'm telling you, it was like a really high-end RV for the chickens.
This was the Airstream of-
... chicken coops?
Yes. We had a chicken coop Airstream. There's no question. I mean, once we got into building it, we just couldn't stock. You know what I mean? Then we wanted like really awesome hinges on the little hen boxes. Then it was like, "Oh, okay. Well, you don't want to have to reach your hand into this dark chicken box so you want to be able to access it from the outside and the inside and let the light go through."
It was just... We went a little crazy on the chicken coop, but anyway, we still have the chicken coop but not the chickens.
I would have thought the eggs just drop out the bottom and go right into the carton and bada bing, bada bang.
Yeah. It wasn't quite that fancy. I actually saw the last chicken on this farm. This raccoon was coming down the hill and he was like loping along and he had a chicken under his little arm.
When he saw me in the car - I couldn't believe what I was seeing - so I stopped the car and I looked at this raccoon. He's like carrying this chicken and he like stands up and looks at me like, "Yeah, I got the last chicken. See you, lady." I felt so bad, and then so we haven't chickens since, but...
People may be wondering, "What the hell is Guy talking about? Why did he ask her about chickens?" As a moment of explanation, in your book, you had this great story about how chickens used to terrorize you, so I take it you got over that trauma.
I still don't just love things with feathers. I like to look at birds. I don't like to touch things like that, but yes, growing up on this small family farm in Southern Illinois, that was one of my most dreaded jobs was having to collect the eggs. Our hens, they weren't like tame, really sweet hens. They were big, fat, mean hens that didn't want to give up their eggs that easily, and one had pecked my hand. That's why I was so worried, and when I talk about when I was pretending as a little girl to hunt, all of my brothers were older. I had four older brothers and they went off to school, so I had this BB gun and I'm running around the farm and I'm trying to entertain myself with this big imagination. I'm like, "Ooh, I'm a big game hunter. I'm stalking my prey."
Then, I see the chicken that had pecked my hand, the big, black-speckled hen, and I know that I can't actually kill the chicken. I had no desire to kill the chicken, but I'm so in character in this moment that I really do aim for the chicken but in my mind, my rational mind says, "The BB's going to drop. It'll never get anywhere near the chicken," but when I pulled the trigger, I shot and killed the chicken.
It killed it! This chicken's like flapping violently in the yard and I thought, "Oh my gosh." My head swivels around. I'm like, "Did anyone see that? Where's my Mom? Where's my Dad? Did they just see me kill this chicken that gave us all of these eggs?' Then I thought, "Oh my God, I'm going to be accused of murder in the first degree. My father's going to know.
This is the same kind of chicken that pecked my hand and drew blood. They're just going to think I'm this terrible kid that murdered this chicken on purpose.
Instead of telling, Guy, in the book you remember, I hide the body. I have to go pick this heavy chicken up and run down the back road with it and throw it into a ravine, never to be seen or heard of again, and then I never spoke of it until I was twenty years old.
You could have formed a partnership with that raccoon family way back then and-
Yeah, exactly, exactly. Yeah-
So... Okay, one more off-the-wall question that I have for you is: how many people do you know got the joke about the full Harvest Moon…
... you were trying to buy the farm from the preachers?
Oh, my gosh. I don't know, but I'll tell you what, Guy, and I will share this with you before we get off of this podcast, but with you and only you because there's a photo - I knew that no one would ever believe that when I was sitting there that night at that swanky little hillbilly bar, having my dinner thinking about having spent the day with those preachers trying to buy this piece of property from them and knowing that, in their mind, they had to have God give them a sign as to whether they were going to sell me the property or not.
I'm sitting there and I'm reflecting on my own relationship with God and I thought, "I don't know. What would that be like? What would that feel like if God talked to me? What would God say to The Pumpkin Queen?"
Now, mind you, I had told these preachers from Oklahoma, I swore to them that if they sold me the property I wasn't going to develop it, I wasn't going to let cookie-cutter houses pop up all over it. I wouldn't subdivide it and I would keep it for agriculture use, in fact, I would grow pumpkins on it.
I'm thinking in my mind as I'm thinking about how God talks to people and, well, maybe he talks to me, too, and maybe I just don't listen. Then, in that moment, I'm thinking about my interaction that day with these preachers and I look to my left and this man, I swear he was 300 pounds, drops his britches in the middle of the dance floor. This whole evening couldn't have gotten any weirder.
I was in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, and there was a fifties pinup girl contest going on in this little bar/cafe where I was having dinner. Then, this big man drops his pants in the middle of the dance floor and he has a full pumpkin tattoo, jack-o'-lantern pumpkin - not just a pumpkin, I'm talking jack-o'-lantern pumpkin with the face carved in it and everything. One tattooed to each cheek, and I thought, "Oh my God, there it is. That's my sign from God. That's how God talks to me. That is how God talks to me."
I thought, "No one I knew," this story, I was in shock and I thought, "No one will ever believe the day that I've had and how it just ended. No one will ever believe me." I get my phone out and I think, "How do you ask someone if you can take a picture of their butt?" I know my face is red at this point and, I mean, all of these girls that were in this little contest, they were gasping and giggling and laughing.
I just walked over there and I gave my phone to one of the girls and I asked the man, I said, "Do you mind if I get a picture?" No, I took a picture first, so that's what happened, so I said, "Can I have a picture?" He's like, "Sure," and he's mooning me with these pumpkin tattoos. I start to walk away and then I think, "No one's going to believe me," so I turn around, I hand my phone to one of the pinup girls in the contest and I said, "You know what? I have to get in this picture," so I like point, I'm like, "There it is right there."
Do you have this picture?
I have the picture. I'm going to show you the picture, but it's not something that I can use like in promoting the book because this man's big full Harvest Moon butt, so we'll probably won’t be able to use it.
Are you sure that I can't use it in promoting the podcast because-
I don't know, I don't know. I don't know, it's a really great picture, actually, but the look on my face. It was, "This is really happening right now."
This is... You can't make this shit up.
Oh no, you can't. You totally can't make it up.
I mean, my whole life, Guy, though. Think about it. My whole life, from the time I was a little girl until sitting here today, there is so much in the book, but then there have been so many things that I really couldn't put in the book that have happened in my lifetime that are… you just cannot make it up.
Honestly, I think about my life moving forward and I think, "At some point, does my life get boring? Or at some point, when do things kind of calm down for me?" You know what I mean? Then I wonder if I'd even like it to be calm or to be normal. You know what I mean? Here, I'm going to show you the picture. I'm going to show you the picture of the Harvest Moon.
This photo is not your... It's not your desktop?
No, it's not my screensaver. No, it's not. No. Here it is. I don't know if you can see it or not.
Okay, hold that there! Hold that there. Hold that there. Oh, my God.
See? This is the difference between a Guy Kawasaki podcast and NPR because can you imagine Terry Gross putting that picture up? There's no way. There's no way at all.
Okay, so now I got my two compelling questions out of the way. We can go on to other things.
First of all, please tell the story of growing up in rural Illinois. That is an adventure in and of itself.
Most people when they think of Illinois, they think of the City of Chicago, right? It's like-
... you know, I've gotten into cabs and Ubers and, "Oh, where are you from?" People ask you where you're from when you travel and you say, "Illinois," and they say," Oh, Chicago." It's like every time. It's like they're going to say, "Chicago," and it's not that I don't love the City of Chicago. I love Chicago, that's my city, but I didn't grow up anywhere near Chicago.
I grew up in Southern Illinois, which is much closer to Kentucky than it is Chicago. It's a very rural area. Southern Illinois is little. It's like little small towns scattered out throughout the bottom half of the state.
It's very beautiful down here. It's not flat, so when most people think of Illinois, too, like the farmland in Illinois, they think of the flat prairie land, but once you get south of, say, I-70, the landscape starts to gradually change.
Where I live, there are more trees and more rolling hills. There are lakes, rivers, streams, and the landscape really starts to become very beautiful and very interesting. I like to say that we probably have some of the most beautiful sunsets in Southern Illinois that I've ever seen.
I've been to Montana. You've seen the sunsets in Montana, the crazy colors and how beautiful they are, and I would put our sunsets here in Southern Illinois up against the sunsets in Montana anytime because they're gorgeous.
I grew up on a small, struggling family farm and I write about my experience growing up in rural poverty on this small farm in Southern Illinois in my memoir, The Growing Season, and I had four older brothers. When I was a little girl, I did not realize because there was so many good things like growing up in nature, being outside, you'd think not having heat or air or running water or like the basic necessities that we all take for granted now.
You would think that would have felt like a very difficult life for me and having all of the chores and the hard work and the things that we had to do as kids, but it didn't because all of that was really offset by the freedom that we had in and around nature. I feel like I'm very blessed for those opportunities.
Now, were there some very difficult things that I talk about in the book that I had to go through and the survival? I mean, we were hunting or harvesting or gathering our food most of the time as children and, at times, that was tough.
I saw a lot of the hardships that my family members went through, my brothers, and ultimately, I learned so much at such a young age, though, because of how and where I grew up. For that, I wouldn't trade any of it, frankly.
I'm actually talking to you today... I'm at The Hill, so I spent the majority of my life trying to escape this place. When I was a little girl I had no intention, no intention whatsoever of staying here on The Hill. I didn't want to be here.
I spent my whole life working to try to get out of here, and then ultimately 2020 comes around and it's, "Bam, where is the safest place in the world to be?" I was like, "Okay, well, I guess the escape is now The Hill. You know, to say your prison that you felt like you lived in at one point in your life is now the escape." That's where I've kind of hunkered down and where I've been riding out the pandemic with my family.
Now, that's not to say that I haven't traveled lately because now we have farms in seven different states across the country, so I've still had to continue to travel and do that, but I've felt very blessed to still have this place.
It seems to me that, and I think this happens with every subsequent generation, some of the difficulties and poverty you grew up in shaped you, and in a positive sense, and enabled you to survive, to become tougher, et cetera, et cetera.
What happens to your kids and my kids? Your kids are not living off the land, right? What now?
I think about that all of the time. I think about it all of the time, and so I think all parents... we all have this desire that we want to step in. When we see our kids struggling, there's this overwhelming desire to want to step in and just fix it. There's so many things that I could just fix for my kids when things get tough for them, right?
It's your natural instinct to want to do that, and so the toughest part for me in raising my two boys, William and Luke, as a single mom has been I want to fix everything for them. The hardest thing is for me to really hold back from doing that.
I have actually had to... I think it's so important that we just don't make everything easy for our kids. I've actually had to create some hardship scenarios for them, so any hardship really that they've had to go through has been manufactured by me because I'm like, “C’mon…”
... "That's too easy. You're going to have to do it like this." Sometimes I make them... If they have a certain project and there's an easier way to do it, I don't let them take the easy path. Whether it's mowing something with a push mower versus a riding mower, so they could mow up closer to the buildings and stuff still with the riding mower, but I'm like, "No, use the push mower, I want it done like that," when I really don't care how it gets done. I just want them to actually have to work a little bit.
I've tried to teach them that... My children, they're very comfortable no matter where they are or where they go. They're going to a rural high school here in Southern Illinois, but they would be just as comfortable if they were going to a public school. They would be just as comfortable in a private school or just as comfortable walking onto a nice, big beautiful boat in the Bahamas as they are a jon boat here in Southern Illinois.
They treat all people the same and they're very kind humans. I feel like I've raised really good, kind humans who have a really good understanding of the world.
When I was a little girl, they've been given a gift that I had to read about the world in a set of encyclopedias. I got to get out some. I remember staying up until like 2:00 in the morning waiting, knowing that my Dad was going to leave and go on this trip to Chicago to deliver hay or oats or whatever to the race track, and I would wait up for him and sometimes he would take me, let me get in the truck with him and go.
I remember that feeling of wanting to get out, but my children now are being raised under completely different circumstances. They've been to more countries now than I had been to by the time I was twenty-five, and they were ten years old and they had already been to other countries and almost all fifty states now. I've been taking them with me on business since they were very little.
One of the things that I would do, because I knew they did love to travel and they did love to go with me, I didn't really take them until they were old enough to understand, “You have to learn to pack your own bag. If you forget something, it's too bad. You forgot it. I'm not going to carry your bag. You have to be in charge of that, and if you cry on the airplane, you don't get to fly for two years,” so yeah, I was really kind of hard on them, but they were tiny, like dragging their suitcase to the airport and they're like…
I remember one time - I felt really bad one time. I remember Luke, my youngest, his ears hurt really bad and I could see him, his eyes were getting a little glassy, but he was looking at me like, "Oh gosh, don't let her see, don't let her see." I don't know, I think I've done a pretty good job with my boys.
There's a very illustrative story about your youth versus what you just described. You have got to tell us the snapping turtle story and your father.
Okay, so about three weeks ago, I actually just saw for the first time since that moment that I write about in The Growing Season, I saw a turtle that came close to being the size of that turtle and it was crossing the highway between here and where my children go to school. I was just like, "Oh my gosh, there it is. That's the turtle." The turtle represents my first adrenaline rush, my first high.
What happened was, we grew up... we lived off the land, right? So my brothers, they would go hunting or they'd go frog gigging and we pretty much hunted, harvested, killed, gathered, whatever, all of the food that we would consume.
I was on the way home with my father. I was riding in the pickup truck with my father down this dusty gravel road. There was this turtle in the middle of the road and it was the biggest, nastiest looking creature that I had ever seen.
I stood up and I remember standing up, I was very small, but I stood up, pressed my face against the glass, and I'm looking out over the hood of the truck at this beast. I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is the biggest turtle ever!" My father pulls around the turtle, he pulls up in front of it, but then he stops the truck. He looks at me and he says, "Get out and go put that turtle on the truck." I look back at him and I'm like, "Yeah, okay. All right, that's really funny." He's like, "No, get out of the truck and go put the turtle in the truck."
This is a snapping turtle. This is a snapping turtle the size of a garbage can lid. It's big. Okay, it's big, it's twice my size and the head's this big around, the mouth's wide open like that. I'm like, "There's no way!"
I remember in that moment like... I would never challenge my father's authority. I was sort of his chief of staff. He would say what needed to be done on the farm that day. I would go communicate those plans to all of my brothers, that it was like you fell in line. Whatever Dad said, that was it. That was the first time I had ever challenged his authority because I thought, "Are you crazy? I'm going to die. This thing's going to take off my hand."
When it dawned on me that he was serious, I got out of the truck and I remember looking at this thing and being just terrified, absolutely terrified. Gripped in fear. I looked up at my Dad and he was looking down at me and I did notice, I noticed there was a moment where he thought, "This probably wasn't a good test. This was probably a bad idea to make her do this," but he had already dug in and told me and we'd already kind of had this back-and-forth.
Instead of sort of leaning into that where I saw like one of the many lines on his face move where he was reconsidering that making me put the turtle in the truck, the turtle started to pick up speed and go towards these weeds. I didn't want to take the chance and think, "Okay, if I push back again, he's going to tell me again to go get the turtle, and then I'm going to have to dig it out of the weeds. Right now, it's still on the road."
I closed my eyes as tight as I could. I took a deep breath and I literally... Well, I closed my eyes after I grabbed the tail. I literally swooped down, I grabbed this turtle.
As soon my hand hit the end of that spiny tail and I gripped my little hand around it, I closed my eyes and I just remember it was like all of the adrenaline in my body to pick up... and it was like I hurled into the air. It was only in my hand for maybe three to four seconds. I mean, it happened so quickly and I threw it like up in the air. It could have landed on the back of my head. You know what I mean? I hurled it toward the back of the truck, but the turtle could have gone anywhere.
I closed my eyes and I didn't open them until I heard this big thud in the back of the truck, and then my eyes popped open and I thought, "Oh my God, the turtle landed in the bed of the pickup truck." Then, my heart was just like pounding, you know? I just couldn't believe that I did it. Then, my eyes are big and I'm looking at this. I'm like, "Oh my God, I put the turtle in the truck." I'm like, "That's going to be dinner tonight," and then the first thing I thought was, "Oh, I can't wait to tell my brothers! My brothers, I have a witness, my father saw me do this. They know that I grabbed that mean, nasty beast and threw it in the back of the truck.”
I didn't want my father to see the satisfaction on my face after I got back in the truck, and I was careful to look out the side of the window away from him as we drove off. We never said a word to each other as we drove off after I put that turtle in the truck, but I'll tell you, that experience for me, I think I was, I don't know, I was like seven or eight years old, that experience, that was the first I time I felt like a high, like an adrenaline rush. Then, it was like, "Oh, I could be a junkie for this feeling." It was a feeling that you had after the fear, after you've faced your fear.
I actually think that moment, having gone through that turtle experience as a little girl, probably is what helped me get through times later on and even in my adult life where I've had to face my fear. When I feel the fear and when I feel gripped by fear, I knew what that feeling was on the other side of fear if I could just get there, if I could just do it, if I could just grab the turtle by the tail and know how good this high is on the other side of overcoming fear.
I'm going to go look for turtles for my kids to pick up now, so okay.
Speaking of overcoming fear, so at fifteen you moved out of the main house, and at sixteen you took over the farm? Walk me through that.
Yeah, so I was able to move out when I was fifteen. My parents, their relationship was kind of unraveling and it was just really unfortunate.
My four older brothers had really all left the farm by that time except for my brother Ted, so where there's the five of us and we're all exactly two years apart and I'm the youngest. Ted and I were really the last kids left on The Hill, and there was a really small, less than a thousand-square-foot little home that was on a twenty-acre piece of property that we owned within like a mile, mile and a half of The Hill. It was just better for me to get away from everything. I wanted off of that Hill so badly and I wanted to get on with my life.
I was clearly a very mature fifteen-year-old and so I moved into that house. Then, when I turned sixteen, I was attending high school and college simultaneously. I was going to a little junior college and I would go to high school in the morning and then I had a job that I was working at a little store called Tractor Supply.
Then, on top of that, I had the melon route that I had accompanied my mother on in the summers when I was a little girl that I had such incredible memories of and having to go into grocery stores as a child, this tiny little person, and go find a manager and make a deal on how many cantaloupes or watermelons he wanted to buy that day.
It's like I had to overcome my fear of talking to grownups when I was a little girl and say, "Hey, let's make a deal. How many cantaloupes do you want to buy today?" Then, collecting the money for that, writing out the ticket, collecting the money, so I had a lot of sort of confidence built into me, not just from the exercises that my brothers or my father put me through growing up on this farm, but then also being able to get out in the summers on this melon route.
Then, my Mom just saying, "Hey, get out of the car and go in and find out how many melons they want." She didn't bat an eye or think twice about asking this little girl to go do this leg work. "I'll be out back. Meet me out back with the shopping cart so we can put the melons in the car and we can go."
It's not like I was just an exceptional... I was a good student when I was in grade school, but it wasn't like I was just this exceptionally bright student who just loved school, which is why I went to school and college simultaneously. It had nothing to do with that. Everything that I was doing at an early age was meant to get me out of rural poverty and off this Hill as fast as I could. That's why I moved out at fifteen. That's why I attended high school and college simultaneously. That's why I negotiated with the teachers at my high school to allow me to do that.
That's why I leveraged the relationships that I had built when I was in grade school with the teacher, the really great, sweet teacher who I write about in the book who basically covered for me when I was supposed to be in her classroom as a teacher's aide helping with the kindergarten students when she knew that I was actually not going to be there. I was going to be at my third job.
I had a lot of people along the way that they knew that I was a good kid and they knew the insurmountable odds that I was up against. A lot of people turned their head to let me be able to do things that probably normal fifteen-year-olds would have never had the opportunity to do.
How is it that you are now The Pumpkin Queen of America?
Well, when I took over the farm, so everything that I was doing up until like age seventeen, really, was meant to get me out of here and off of the farm for good, but then I had this moment where it was my responsibility to help sell off the rest of the assets on the farm because we were losing the farm to the bank. I was the last kid left at home and I was the youngest and the only girl.
When I thought about the finality of leaving The Hill and how there was this moment and I was walking the last horse off of the farm, I was selling the last horse that we had and putting it in a trailer, and it was at sunset on The Hill. I walked with a very heavy tread and I was looking around. I was breathing the air.
I was taking in the view, the scenery, and it was almost like everything turned golden in this moment, Guy, and I looked at the horse, the horse looked at me, I looked at the setting sun, I looked at the rolling hills and it was like the light, it was just make this whole farm turn golden. In that moment, I started to reflect on all of the childhood memories, all of the blood, all of the sweat, all of the tears that we had poured into that place that, ultimately, we were at risk of losing.
I felt like if I knew that if I left, there would never be anything for us to come home to and that some day when we were all forty, so I'm a teenage girl and I'm thinking about forty and I'm like, "Oh my gosh, some day when we're all forty years old, which is really old," I was thinking, "All right, it's ancient," we will not be able to come back to this place and share memories and look at the pond and say, "Oh, that was the pond. I grew up swimming in that pond, and that's the back road and that's the woods that we used to go play in and hunt in."
The finality of all of it devastated me in that moment, and then I realized this place that I had spent my entire childhood in youth, preparing and planning to escape, which is why I did everything early, why I moved out, why I went to college, everything that I was doing in my life was moving me out and moving off of The Hill. Then, in that moment in about the course of thirty seconds after I had the epiphany, “I know I'm going to stay and I’m making this decision.”
It was the timing, it was the moment, it was the lighting, it was the horse, it was the floods of memory. It was like a scene out of a movie, and I was a teenage girl and trust me, I was kind of a lot. When you're a teenager, you kind of think you're the smartest person in the world anyway, right? I was very headstrong and I had my mind made up, but there was this one moment where I was this really enlightened human being for being a teenager. That's when I made the decision that I was going to stay.
When I took over the farm, like most entrepreneurs have to do, you have to figure out how to do more with less. Because it was a small farm, I knew that I would fail immediately had I decided to grow traditional row crops. I didn't have enough acreage to support hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, combines and tractors and the things that you would need, so I knew that I had to do more with less. The way to do that on this particular farm was to grow fruits and vegetables because you could have higher yields.
Your yields per acre would be much higher. It's a higher value crop and you could grow more dollar-wise on less acres. No one was growing fruits and vegetables in Southern Illinois at the time.
Everyone thought I lost my mind. They were like, "Okay, the Frey girl completely lost it." I think the first year that I planted pumpkins, everybody made fun of me and they're like," Look at all of those! What's she going to do with all of those pumpkins?" They had no idea, though, that my life out of this rural community like when I left in my truck, they didn't know that I had a market for everything that I was growing.
I had confidence. I already knew that I could sell. I'm like, "I can sell anything. I need stuff to sell, though, so now I have to figure out how to actually grow it, too." Pumpkins were the first crop that I grew on the family farm. They weren't the first crop that I sold because I started selling melons well before pumpkins, but they were really the crop that was the salvation for the family farm and my future, and so that's why I have such a special place in my heart. I've earned the nickname American's Pumpkin Queen because now we sell more pumpkins than anyone else in the country, or maybe even the world.
I grow hundreds of different varieties of pumpkins, and most of the pumpkins that I'm actually the fondest of are pumpkins that don't even look like the traditional orange jack-o'-lanterns. We sell millions of these traditional orange jack-o'-lanterns, but I want people to know pumpkin is so good for you and we're the only country in the world that doesn't incorporate pumpkin into our diet nearly daily. If you go to Australia, they're eating pumpkin as common and as often as we eat the potato here, and it's so much better for you.
When I started learning about all of these different Italian pumpkins, French pumpkins, Australian pumpkins, Japanese pumpkins, and pumpkins grown in the islands, it's like I went pumpkin crazy and started growing all of these different varieties. I'm like, "No, no, eat your pumpkin. Why are we just carving them up? We need to eat them, too. They're so good."
I started growing hundreds of different varieties of pumpkins and that's just really was the crop. As I built my business, now we farm fruit and vegetables, watermelons, cantaloupes, sweet corn and peppers, tomatoes. We farm lots of different commodities, but pumpkins are really like my pet crop.
Even though it's actually we're the biggest, but it's actually a small part of what we do. We actually sell more watermelons than we even do pumpkins. That's the crop that we became known for because it was the crop that I was the most passionate about and my very first fruit and vegetable crop that I grew on my own.
Just to anchor the listener here, about how many pumpkins do you sell a year? How many watermelons?
Oh, my gosh, we sell millions now, tens of millions. It's like if we include all of the different kinds of little pumpkins, I mean, thousands of semi-loads of watermelons and thousands of semi-loads of pumpkins.
Tens of millions?
Yes, go out every year. Thousands of semis leave our farm every year and, you know what's really interesting? Most of our business, all of our business, really, is direct-to-retail, so you would find our products at a Whole Foods, at a Walmart, at a Target, at a Kroger or an Aldi or even a HomeGoods store. Even now, it's funny.
I used to be a cashier at Tractor Supply when I was sixteen years old. That was one of the... It was like my first and only real job was being a cashier. It's the only time I've worked for anyone else in my whole entire life, I worked at Tractor Supply, and this year, it was the greatest thing. Someone from Colorado sent me a picture of a bin that we ship. It's a cardboard container that we ship our pumpkins in and it had my face on the side. It said, "Sarah's Homegrown."
They took this photo and it was a bin of my pumpkins and I didn't even know that we had started doing business with Tractor Supply yet, so my sales team was selling to TSC and it's my face. It says, "Sarah's Homegrown," and then there's the Tractor Supply store sign and logo in the background.
I got so excited. It made my heart fill up and Guy was like, "Oh my gosh, it so just came full circle having been that cashier and that kid." That was the only job that I had ever had, and then I showed up in their parking lot so twenty-five, thirty years later. My face is on a pumpkin, then, so I'm like, "Yeah, I did that."
There is a God.
There is a God! There is totally a God.
Just to show you my total ignorance, now, my perception is that the pumpkin business lasts about a month.
Oh no. It's an extended season. We'll ship pumpkins... There's a condensed time period of about six weeks where it's really hot and heavy, but we actually start harvesting a lot of our stuff the end of August, so we grow those really cute little gourds and the miniature pumpkins and a lot of these ornamental-type things that are used as ornamental and used as decoration, but everything that we grow is edible.
We'll start harvesting in the end of August, and so the way it sort of works is we'll shipping those products to the Northeast because of the cooler temperatures, and then we usually end up down in the Southeast, and in Florida with grocery chains like Publix, which by the way is one of my all-time favorite grocery stores. They'll start building up a little because it's Florida, so it's warmer, so they can get their products shipped to them a little closer to the holiday.
Every year, pumpkin sales are extended well beyond Halloween and it's the pumpkin sales for not the orange jack-o'-lanterns and usually Halloween, it's over and nobody really wants that anymore, but those really beautiful heirloom varieties that we grow from seed sourced from around the world that people are actually starting to do more with. I tell you, 2020 has really been the year that people have connected with their food, and most people, you don't think about the food supply until it's threatened and it was threatened.
Our food supply was threatened this year and when you start to see things, empty grocery shelves and things missing from your favorite retailer, then you start to think about the who, the where, and the why. Who grew it? Where is it grown? Why isn't it on the shelf?
We have connected, and I think American farms and American farmers across the country have, and rightly so, had a light shined on them whereas their importance to the food supply is concerned. Most people don't realize that over fifty percent of our fresh produce that we consume in America, and that is sold, is imported. Over fifty percent of fresh produce, and I think that's been one of the things that we need to be more mindful of as well in understanding not everything has a season, so there are things that we can't grow in our country in the winter, so naturally we're going to import some things.
When consumers have a choice and when retailers have a choice between importing, because the cost of labor is so much cheaper, or supporting American farmers, who are held to a higher labor wage standards, I think that because of what we've seen this year and the consumer's newfound knowledge of where food comes from and who's growing it and how it's growing, I think that we're going to see a shift. I think we're going to see more retailers supporting U.S.-grown when there's an option and when they have the choice to support grown in America because it became very obvious this year how important the American farmer was and hopefully we'll see farmers driving a lot of those retail decisions as well with their buying choices.
I have to admit that you are literally the only farmer I know or have ever spoken to, so can you give me the-
Oh, come on. You live in Hawaii. You guys grow stuff. You have to know somebody-
... who grows pineapples.
... okay, but not on the scale that you do, so just for all of the people who are living on both coasts who have no idea how American farming works, can you just fill in the blanks here? Is it conglomerates that own tens of thousands of acres? Or is it family plots? I literally have no idea how farming works.
Depends on what kind of farming you're in. In traditional row crops, which would be like corn and soybeans, you need a minimum of about 2500 to 3,000 acres. A family of four would need to farm that much just to make a decent living. That's just maybe even above the poverty line, really. That's how much you need to be able to produce enough income to support a family of four.
When you think of terms of these really small-acre farms like what I grew up on, it's whole reason I got into producing fresh fruits and vegetables. I needed to be able to do more with less, so we have grown into a national supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables and we've purchased farms and farmlands in multiple states. We always reinvest back into the land.
Our business is still family farm-centric and we are partnered with growers that operate on their own land and then we market their crops for them, or we partner with growers to grow on land that we own and then buy that product back in a partnership with them. There are a lot of different ways that our business works.
Now, we have thousands of acres, but that's not just one producer. That's sort of a multiple team effort and I have four older brothers involved in that as well.
Just basic agriculture - there's grain production, then there's fresh fruit and vegetable production, which like what I'm in, the industry that I'm in. There are different types of agribusinesses, but for the most part, it's a very difficult industry to be in because it's so high-risk, and I talk about this sort of the mentality of the farmer in The Growing Season and it's like it's all day, long day, every day.
We're putting money out there. We're taking risks. We're investing time, money, emotions, energies, and all of these things into these crops that, frankly, can get wiped out in any moment by a weather event.
I talk about the optimism of a farmer and how farmers have to have a very optimistic outlook and they need to be able to walk away from a field that's been completely destroyed and be okay with watching all of your labor being lost, all of your money being lost, and to know that there will be another growing season. There will be a brighter season to come and to keep that hope.
There really is this... You have to have a passion, obviously, for the land and for doing it and for, ultimately, being a farmer because no one really in their right mind would want to sign up for that, like, "Yeah, sign me up for that. I want to watch my work get destroyed every five minutes."
It's not an industry... People think of it like factory farming. There are still small farms in America and I think it's important - the preservation of these small family farms is key. It's very important. I've seen a lot of situations where people have lost their farms and it's very sad when that happens, but it's also the biggest part of what we do is managing risks and the risks that we take.
What's the average size of one of your pumpkin farmers' farms?
The average-sized pumpkin field because they don't all grow... It's not continuous, right? They-
... grow in different patches literally, so a patch is usually anywhere between forty and 200 acres in a patch, and that's usually of one certain variety.
Another mystery to me about farming is, why are some crops subsidized? Why isn't there a pumpkin subsidy? There's a soybean…
I don't know. I think that's a good idea, Guy. I'm going to get on that. I need to get on that.
What was the history of that? Why do we have some things that there's subsidies from the government?
Well, there are market fluctuations and then pricing and a lot of it had to do with imports and exports, and then there are a lot of safety nets, too, built in for farmers, protections for growers in the event of weather disasters and such. The fruit and vegetable industry doesn't really have anything like that, so when I talk about high risk and high reward and doing more with less, that's why there is more of a barrier of entry into... Even though you don't have a lot of the really sophisticated or the really expensive machinery that you would need to start out with, the combines and such, there is more input risk because they don't have the same protections that many of the row crops have.
There a big lobby with row crop production. There is private insurance in that industry that's heavily subsidized, and I think we will probably get fruits and vegetables slowly transitioned to being a little bit safer, but they're always going to be a crop that's... The crops that I'm growing, they're always going to be the kind of crops that require more and a higher input cost up front.
The risk is higher, but so is the reward. The potential for the reward is higher, especially if you have a market, but if you're going to lose a high-dollar crop like melons or pumpkins or sweet corn or peppers or anything like that, you have to make sure you're in a pretty good frame of mind to do that because it's a lot different losing that than it is a crop of corn or soybeans.
Okay. I'm learning more about farming today than in my entire life.
How the hell did you cut a deal with Walmart? I have gone to Bentonville and I have gone into that building and I saw the sign that says, "One through sixty here," and "sixty through 120 there." You're in room ninety-three and you go in that room and bada bing, bada bang. You're trying to get Walmart, so how did you pull that off? Because-
Well, you see, Guy, you went through the front door. I went through the back door, so I don't always go through the front door. You walk through the front door.
Okay, so what…
I went through the back door.
... was the back door?
Well, the back door was I was very young. I was a teenager and I was actually doing business at their store level with their store associates selling melons directly to their stores before I ever started selling to their distribution centers or on a national scale. I was able to learn their culture and these people at Walmart, these were incredible people, but also ordinary, like ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
As that company was really building, taking off, and they were converting their Division One stores to Supercenters, so I had this unique opportunity because I was at a different level and I wasn't working with the corporate team, I was working with regular store associates, people just like me, and I was learning their culture. By the time I had that opportunity and had the courage to literally show up without an appointment, open the door to that distribution center and start walking around like, "Hey, take me to your leader. Who's in charge here? It'd really be a lot easier if I could just bring my melons here to one place instead of having to stop at twelve of your stores. I am only one woman, you know?" I had to have courage to be able to do that, and that courage came from many of the life experiences I had that led me up into that point where I had to not be afraid to talk to people and not be afraid to ask for what I wanted.
Then, there was a little bit of luck and magic in that as well because one of the great things about Walmart is they're such a diverse company and diversity's nothing new for them. They didn't judge the woman that I worked with who wasn't really even that... I mean, she was older than me, but maybe in her early thirties. They didn't think about age, race, gender, none of that. It was, "Do you have the product? Can you deliver?" Just very simple, straightforward. The most straightforward company to ever do business with, and I've loved it. I'm like this Midwestern girl full of all of this Midwestern moxie and I'm just straightforward, "Let's make a deal," and I liked that way of doing business.
For me, I think the advantage was I had the courage. I had already learned their culture. They were already sort of a customer – well, they were a customer of mine, and I had no fear.
I read in your book that you largely support seasonal workers and you need seasonal workers, but we're hearing from politicians that these people are coming and taking our jobs from our farmers and ruining the farm business.
Of course I support seasonal farmworkers. I support a legal way for farmers to be able to access seasonal workers. There's this misconception and I don't like it when people say, "Well, Americans, they just won't do these jobs," because that's not true.
Okay, so here's the deal. Think about where these crops are being grown. They're being grown... I'm not growing a field of pumpkins in a suburb outside of Chicago. I'm not in Lake Forest with a great big patch of pumpkins where there's a population to support the harvest needs.
I'm growing melons in Southern Illinois in probably the largest voting district in Illinois with the least amount of population. Okay, so that's where these things are taking place, or they're taking place in Florida down in Hendry County or down near Labelle, where you don't have a huge population to support your labor needs for a short, seasonal time window.
It's not that Americans won't do these jobs, it's that there simply aren't enough Americans in these very rural areas for very condensed periods of time to be able to adequately supply enough labor to harvest a crop in a short period of time. Then it wouldn't make sense for someone to move to a rural area, like maybe 200 people decide to pack up their families and it's like, "Hey, I have a job," so they would come to the rural area. Okay, well, yeah, you have a job, you have a job for six weeks. That's why these jobs are seasonal in nature.
There is much work that needs to be done on allowing growers to access a legal guest workforce where... and there are solutions for, I think, all farmworkers, whether they come on a guest program or whether they're here and maybe they're undocumented and working in agriculture. There's a really easy solution to all of this, and if people would just do what I tell them in Washington, we could fix all of this immigration stuff, at least for ag. I don't pretend to know everything, but we could definitely fix it for agriculture and everybody would be happy, but getting them to listen, that's another thing.
There is a solution and agriculture needs a better solution because the solution that we have now to access a legal workforce is through the H-2A program, which is laden with bureaucratic inefficiencies. The program's been around for decades and that's the program that we work within, but we absolutely need farmworkers in this country. We should absolutely respect the harvesters as much as we respect the farmers that grow our food.
We should raise awareness around the job that they do and the hard work that they provide because I tell you what, I mean, you walk in the grocery store, it's like someone picked that food for the most part by hand, and those hands were the hands of hard-working either guest workers or immigrants that came here to do those jobs.
Like I said, it's not that Americans won't do the jobs, there just aren't enough Americans in these areas in where these crops are grown for such short periods of time. I think that any reasonable American can understand that and understand the need. Really, honestly, the fact that we're even having a conversation right now about fixing ag labor is so frustrating to me because it should have been done years ago. We can all agree on food.
Is this because I have the fortune of talking to Sarah Frey, but if I were talking to other farmers they would be telling, "Oh no, erect the wall, keep those people out, they're taking jobs from Americans?"
It has nothing to do with the wall. It has nothing to do with the wall, and here's the thing. Agriculture is one of the most nonpartisan industries that we have in our countries. It's really like when you think about, "Whoa, I was asked recently does it matter if it's a Democrat or a Republican that wins? How does this affect you?" You know, it doesn't really affect us that much, honestly.
I mean, I have found that in my life and dealing with people on both sides of the aisle that they treat each other differently in agriculture. Now, when you get to immigration and then you start talking about the things with immigration, Republicans seem to have one view on how they'd like to see things handled and Democrats have another view, but let me tell you this - Republicans are very guilty, but so are Democrats.
One of the arguments that I made when I was arguing for comprehensive immigration reform and then arguing... I testified in front of Congress on the guest worker program, my analogy, I had met with members from both sides of the aisle, both Democrats and Republicans, and I had Democrat members say, "You know what, everything that you said made absolutely sense, but if we reach a conclusion on this issue with ag, then we lose the issue." That's a problem for me, and I'm like, "Okay, well, you lose the issue. How do you lose the issue?" "Well, if we don't have ag, then we won't get these other five things on immigration that we want," so they hold ag hostage because they want a bigger plan.
Then, on the Republican side of that, they're like, "Oh no, we get it because these are our constituents in these rural areas that need this, so we want to fix that." There's a natural desire on the side of the Republican Party to fix it, but then there's also a natural desire on the side of the Democratic Party of like, "No, no, no, don't give them an inch because if we fix that for them, that's all they really care about, and then we have all of these other people that we have to deal with," so ag gets caught in the middle.
Agriculture gets caught in the middle of this fight, and the way that I have explained it, it's like, "Okay, if there's a school bus and its half over the cliff and you got all of these kids on there and it's like teetering over the cliff, do you stand back and say, 'I don't really know if it would be fair if I would... I know that I can't save all of the kids on the bus. I could probably save half of them or seventy percent of them. I could get them off, but is that really going to be fair to the other kids? No. You know what? I can't take any kids off the bus.'"
That's how I feel this challenge has been approached and it's that everyone can really agree on the solution in my opinion. It's not that hard. There's really some common sense ways to fix this for both the undocumented workers who are here in our country and creating a viable guest worker program that possibly people could enroll in and then have the option to return to their home country legally and then come back. I mean, think about some of these people who are here. Wouldn't it be nice if they could become documented as a guest worker and be able to go back to their home country, see their family, and feel free and freely travel back in with the proper documentation and not have to look over their shoulder every five minutes?
The solution is not that difficult, but it just becomes this issue, in agriculture specifically, where the issue is the hostage issue and nobody wants to save only like a part of this population. My argument is that it's a very big important part of the population and I'd rather save as many kids as I could possibly save.
Let's suppose that the next President calls you up and says, "Sarah, I want you to be Secretary of Agriculture." Would you do it? If you would do it, what would you do first?
I would do it. I would do it and I would use my platform to fix labor and agriculture because that's one of the biggest issues that I have, that I'm the most passionate about.
I've been a farmworker. I've done those jobs. I do everything and, matter of fact, I still go out there and I still work and I still get my hands dirty. I don't do it because I have to anymore, I do it because I still have a love of it.
Do I get to do it every day? No. Do I do it like three or four times every summer just to go out there and sweat and feel it and be like, "Yeah!" Those are some of the best night's sleep that I ever get. I don't know that it would matter who the President would be.
I would serve in that. I would serve because I would do it for my industry and I would champion and I would advocate and I think that I would do a good job.
I would feel better with you as Secretary of Agriculture than, let's say, like the current occupants, but anyway…
Well, I may not last long, either, Guy. You never know. I mean, I kind of got a mouth on me, so I don't...
I would make the case that at that level, you should have that attitude that, "I'm just going to do the best job I can, and if I don't get reelected or I don't get reappointed or I don't get whatever, so be it." It's not like you're a management trainee at Goldman Sachs and you're worried about your first job. This is you have something to fall back on at this point.
All right, quickly, so you have had a very interesting life. I think you have a lot of business lessons that you've figured out and I would just like to tap on some of that business wisdom. From rescuing your farm to becoming The Pumpkin Queen, to facing these kinds of seasonal worker issues. In particular, if a young girl is listening to this and says, "I learned so much from Sarah," what would you like her to learn?
That's really actually quite simple. Don't be afraid to steal thunder.
One of the biggest gifts that I was given as a little girl, I had the support of my four older brothers. They taught me so much and I had to keep up. I was the youngest, I was the girl, but they cheered me on. They never made things easy for me, but they did go to great lengths to help build my confidence and they pushed me out front to steal thunder and they didn't care.
When I caught that fish for the first time, I didn't know that I didn't actually catch the catfish. I didn't know that they put it on my line and the thing nearly drowned me and took me down under the water when I was like pulling it out.
I thought I caught that fish, but no, they set that moment up for me where when they handed me the pole, they knew they had the fish tied to the end of the string and it was going to be my win. Then, when I finally got the fish onto the bank, I was like, "See, I'm the greatest fisherman ever. You can never leave me at the house again. You have to take me fishing with you every time you go, and I'm the best there ever was." They had to sit there and listen to me run my mouth and clearly know that they set it up for this little kid, it's their little sister's, "I'm the best there ever was. See, I'm so great."
They let me steal thunder, and then that confidence bred competence later on in life. I think one of the hardest things for women to do is to talk about their accomplishments and to feel competent and courage.
When a man says sometimes, "Oh, I did this and I did that," and people are like, "Oh yeah, he did, he did, but when a woman says, "I can do this," or, "I can do that and I did do that," it's kind of like, "Oh, well, she's kind of full of herself." I think we sort of need to get over that, and especially, really, women judging other women at times, too.
Women need to be able to go out and talk about their accomplishments and talk about the things that they can do and the things that they will do without apology. They need to accept, but don't be afraid to step on somebody's toes and don't be afraid to be right.
So many times, they're kind of like, "Oh, well, you know what? That's really my idea, but I want to make it their idea, I spend so much of my time making my ideas other people's ideas," but sometimes you just have to get to it and just steal the thunder and say, "Hey, this is how it is." That's why I dedicated the book, The Growing Season, to the girls that steal thunder and the boys that help them do it.
If there's any lesson that I really want young women to take away is if they can find their courage even in the darkest of times and they can be anything that they want to be. They just have to believe and they have to work hard, and no matter how hard things get, look for the good and know that there's a brighter growing season to come and never give up.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Sarah Frey, Pumpkin Queen of America. I learned more about farming in this interview than the previous sixty-six years of my life. Sarah has a very interesting story or bootstrapping her way out of poverty to become a very successful farmer. I hope that you will take her lessons to heart and you will see that there is always hope and there is always a way to succeed.
Speaking of success, my thanks to Peg Fitzpatrick and Jeff Sieh who have helped me make this podcast a success.
Remember, wash your hands, stay away from crowds, wear a mask, and listen to Tony Fauci and Vivek Murthy. Aloha and mahalo.
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