Sarah Frey is thinking about running for Congress. Only one thing is stopping her.
“What if I win?” she said.
Frey, 43, lives in the 15th Congressional District of Illinois. It is the largest district in the state by size, and the smallest by population. Most of the district is farmland, and Frey wants to give farmers a voice in Congress.
Frey is herself a farmer. In fact, if you have a jack-o’-lantern this Halloween, there is a good chance she grew it. Her company, Frey Farms, raises more pumpkins than any other farm in the country.
A New York Times article called her the Pumpkin Queen of America, and the name has stuck. Her family-run company owns 15,000 acres in seven states, from the Bootheel of Missouri to Florida.
Hers is an amazing success story.
She grew up in a large family on a small, failing farm in unincorporated Orchardville, Ill., about 20 minutes outside of Mount Vernon. The family was poor; they ate only what they could grow or hunt, and had no money left over for anything other than the barest essentials.
She hated it.
Her mother had a delivery route, buying melons from farms in southern Indiana and delivering them to eight grocery stores in Illinois. When she was just 8 years old, she began accompanying her mother on her route.
“For me it would be a chance to get off the farm,” Frey said.
When Frey was 16, her mother got a job at a radio station. Frey took over the melon route, worked hard at the job and increased the number of stores she was selling to.
She was still in her teens when she drove past a sign announcing the construction of a new Walmart distribution center in Olney, Ill. She was already delivering to a few scattered Walmart stores, and she thought it would be easier if she could just bring them all to this one location.
She went inside, where she was introduced to the center’s new produce buyer, who was just setting up her office. That woman asked if Frey could deliver, say, three loads of one kind of melon and two loads of another every week. Frey agreed to the deliveries, and it was only as she was walking out the door that she had a stunning realization.
The woman was talking about semi-trailer loads. Frey’s idea of a load had been her relatively small three-quarter-ton pickup truck.
“I had to figure out how to make it happen. That first year was so challenging, running around to all of those farms. Sometimes we had to go to six or eight different farms just to get enough produce to fill a semitruck. Sometimes it was a hair-on-fire experience. We were scraping and scrapping, we would go to any farm just to fill our truck,” she said.
She never could have survived without the help of her brothers, who left college when she asked them to come help save the family business. She gave up her own dream of going to college, too.
“I had to fight like crazy just to save this little tiny farm, 80 acres of dirt in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
Frey still lives on that original farm, though she also has a house in Florida. Today, the company not only grows and processes produce, it also sells several different types of juice. Next year, the Sarah’s Homegrown line will start selling a pumpkin pie.
“I was actually inspired while on a trip to France. I had this pumpkin pie from a street vendor that was so delicious I was decoding the ingredients that went into it,” she said.
She realized as she was eating it that it used an heirloom pumpkin her company already sells. It’s one of more than 100 varieties they grow.
She may make more money from watermelon, but pumpkins are Frey’s passion.
“Pumpkins in other parts of the world are as common as potatoes are in America. Pumpkins in Australia are consumed almost daily,” she said.
“When I started traveling more, I realized we are just about the only country in the world that only carves up pumpkins.”
Frey is determined to change that. Pumpkins, a member of the squash family, have a great deal of nutritional value. And then there’s the taste.
“My preference is to use the pumpkin in savory dishes. I like soups and stews, I like to cut up the pumpkin to use it like potato,” she said.
Next up is making a pumpkin beverage similar to a pumpkin cider for retail stores. Unlike a lot of pumpkin-spice products, it will have real pumpkin in it. And they are also working on frozen pumpkin to be sold in grocery store freezers along with other frozen vegetables.
“When I was a little girl, I didn’t have access to those packaged goods. We were growing our own foods,” she said.
That explains her interest in packaged goods today. But she also wants these items to reflect the simpler times and simpler food that she grew up with — “I wanted to make food that was clean and delicious and as close to the farm as you can get,” she said.
If you think Frey’s life story would make a good book, she has already beat you to it. Her memoir, “The Growing Season,” will be published by Random House next June.