The Growing Season: How I Built a New Life — and Saved an American Farm

Published by Ballantine Books, 2019; 251 pages, $27

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

Is entrepreneurial success more luck or hard work?  I couldn’t help but wonder how Sarah Frey, the founder of the large Frey Farms, would answer such a question. In her memoir “The Growing Season,” Frey made her own luck in taking a family farmstead and building a business that today sells millions of melons and pumpkins in more than 15 states.

Early chapters of the book focus on her unique childhood growing up on a struggling family farm in southern Illinois. Frey learned skills as a child that most grown adults don’t master. She hunted, fixed engines and cared for farm animals while in grade school.

Her domineering father drilled her with challenges that made her both strong and resentful. In business, he doubled down on risky ideas that he hoped would pay off but never did. When money was tight, 15-year-old Sarah started a produce delivery business. It became a side hustle that she was good at.

As Sarah grew older she thought her future was elsewhere – away from the family farm. Her older brothers grew up and moved away, leaving her with the task of keeping the farm going. As her father aged and began to fail, the bank took ownership of the farm. Frey had almost finished moving the last horse off the property when she has an epiphany: She wanted buy the property back from the bank.

This is where the old melon delivery business begins to take off. Frey used the family farm property to scale up her production. A chance meeting with a new rep at a Walmart distribution center turned into a large order that Frey scrambled to fulfill. She then convinced her older brothers to come back to the homestead where the new version of Frey Farms set up its headquarters.

Once Frey proved herself with Walmart, the orders quickly increased. She secured additional sources for melons before acquiring more properties to increase her inventory. To expand into the fall season, Frey began planting and selling pumpkins. Today, Frey Farms is the largest supplier of pumpkins to Lowe’s and Walmart stores in the Midwest.

Frey’s stories of childhood exploits and perseverance make up the bulk of “The Growing Season.” In later chapters the book describes creative ways Frey learned to take on new customers and quickly grow into a successful company. Frey also discusses her challenges as a woman business owner when she was harassed and minimized by her male counterparts.

Frey’s success is tied to her ability to be nimble and scrappy out of necessity. When the business had orders to fulfill and couldn’t afford harvesting tractors and trailers, Frey purchased used school buses and had the seats and sides removed. Today others in the industry have retrofitted buses in a similar way.

“The Growing Season” ends up being more of a narrative memoir than a business book. Frey goes full circle when the family farmland she grew up on becomes the hub of a successful company and the place she still calls home. The book is lacking financial details that others would find useful. Yet, the honesty of Frey’s storytelling makes the book both entertaining and enjoyable. Overall, one has to appreciate the tenacity and honesty she demonstrates to overcome the obstacles and achieve remarkable business success.

Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution (CDFI) based in Marquette, Michigan. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.

 

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