Frey Farms’ Sarah Frey encourages participants to find their next opportunity and look for that entrepreneurial drive.

Doing more with less was the credo of a young Sarah Frey, who at 16 years old took over her family’s melon delivery business with the goal of purchasing and preserving the family farm.

Little did she realize at the time that her unmatched drive, determination and growth approach would launch Frey Farms into a nationwide operation of farms, facilities and distribution centers spanning from California to Florida and Texas to Minnesota and New York.

It’s a tale of unwavering perseverance and grit after the teenage Frey made the decision one evening while catching an amazing southern Illinois sunset from the hill on their 80 acres, that was days from being lost to the bank, to fight for the farm rather than see it become somebody’s else’s dream.

It was a defining moment for Frey, who had aspired to attend college and work in corporate America in Chicago. 

“It was my job to organize all of the old equipment and the last of the horses and sell them off,” Frey explained. “The bank was going to take the farm. So I sold (what little equipment remained) and was walking the last horse to the trailer one evening on the hill, and it was the golden hour … you know when the sky turns all kinds of beautiful shades of colors … you look out there and you’re like, yeah, this is why I do it.

“I looked over our land … and it all hit me at one time. I knew at that moment that everything that I had done up until that point was unnecessary because I made up my mind that I was going to stay.”

Frey was the keynote speaker at Iowa Farm Bureau’s Acres of Opportunity Conference in Ottumwa March 16, which brought a group of enthusiastic, prospective growers and producers to the third annual event hosted by Iowa Farm Bureau. 

Frey shared her entrepreneurial adventure and advice for farm growth that, for her, started in high school after that striking sunset moment on the farm.

“I made the decision then to buy our 80-acre farm,” Frey said.

Amanda Van Steenwyk, Iowa Farm Bureau’s farm business development manager, said the conference drew 202 Iowa attendees to the Bridge View Center in Ottumwa. 

She said the program was again well attended and popular, providing beginning farmers and others interested in diversifying their crop or livestock operations with guidance from experts and farmer peers.

Walmart distribution

Frey’s overarching message at the conference emphasized seizing opportunities, maintaining an unparalleled work ethic and adopting proper perspective.

“There are so many acres of opportunity, and we have to challenge ourselves to find (them) because they exist,” Frey said. “I mean, who would have thought we’d become Walmart’s largest national melon supplier? When I was a kid, shipping to all their stores nationally … out of the Wabash River Valley … ultimately a melon business that would grow and be bigger on a percentage basis than anyone else in the country?”

Frey’s connection with Walmart began shortly after that sunset experience. Her mother had a fresh fruit and vegetable delivery route, and she’d tag along as early as 6 years old. “It was always my job to help mom put them in the grocery cart, push the grocery cart inside and go get the money,” Frey said.

Fast forward to 16-year-old Sarah when her mother went to work for a radio station. She took the old family pickup truck and continued the delivery business, hoping to make enough money to pay for school and family needs. Eventually, she could afford new tires for the truck and cattle racks for the bed for more melon storage, which led to growing 15 grocery store stops to approximately 150.

“I was on a mission to grow the business … I thought with the land, what could I grow that will produce more on this little amount of acreage,” Frey said. “I had to think differently … I was always thinking about how do I lengthen the season … how to do more with less.”

This expansion included venturing into pumpkins, harvested and sold in the fall, and forming an alliance with regional Walmart stores who offered to purchase Frey’s fresh produce at a time when Walmart superstores were just an idea. The route grew to include multiple Division I Walmart stores, which afforded Frey the ability to purchase their farm.

“And one day my trailer was empty, and I was on my way home from my route and I stopped in a Walmart (distribution center) that was under construction,” Frey said. “I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be easier if I could just drive in here with my pickup truck and trailer, leave everything here, and then they could distribute for me?”

That chance meeting with the distribution manager forged a relationship that brought Frey’s three older brothers back home to the farm to assist in providing semi-loads of product to the Walmart distribution center.

“We were able to expand our farms and grow,” Frey said. “And we continue to ask ourselves throughout the expansion of Frey, how do we do more with less?”

Challenge yourselves

Frey encouraged farm entrepreneurs to diversify their offerings as a means to weather challenges. Frey Farms has since added peanuts and grain farming to the mix, designing its operation to diversify the portfolio in case one commodity has a rough year.

“Start out to diversify, reduce your risk and ultimately diversify your portfolio. Think of it as an insurance plan,” she said.

Iowa Farm Bureau President Brent Johnson commended Frey’s message and attendees for embracing business development opportunities. “I’m excited for the future and for you to step forward ... engage with like-minded individuals across the state,” Johnson said, emphasizing the importance of networking and connectivity.