Diana Martinez, director of the McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage, had just put the turkey in the oven last Thanksgiving, and she had a few minutes. She picked up the book a friend had recommended, "The Growing Season: How I Saved an American Farm -- and Built a New Life," and started reading.
Martinez had put the book aside when she first got it, not being terribly interested in farming. Now, she couldn't put it down.
Through vivid anecdotes of her childhood and young adulthood, author Sarah Frey describes the crushing poverty of her young life growing up on a farm in Orchardville in Wayne County, and how she turned around the fortunes of herself and her family -- starting a produce delivery business at age 15, saving her family's 80 acres from auction at 17, and now running a produce company with farms in seven states.
"Why isn't everybody reading this story?" Martinez wondered to herself. She contacted Frey, who agreed to do a virtual author event with Martinez and COD that would be open to everybody.
The free event will be held virtually Tuesday, April 20, and southern Illinois readers are especially invited. Visit http://atthemac.org to sign up. Martinez and Frey have already taped their conversation, which goes about an hour. That will be followed by a live Q&A session between Frey and the audience. Copies of the book are available online.
Frey, now in her early 40s, tells her story through stories -- vivid recollections of events in her life, both big and very small, that contributed both positively and negatively to her view of the world and her determination to be successful.
Counting her half-siblings, Sarah Frey is the youngest of 21 children. Her immediate family in Orchardville -- Frey's parents and their five children -- usually ate what they grew, caught, scavenged or shot, hunting season be damned.
"I do not advocate deprivation as a parenting strategy, but I can't deny that ... being disadvantaged gave me a huge head start," she writes in the introduction to "The Growing Season."
It taught her incredible self-sufficiency -- she was 15 when she and a brother left the family home to live on their own -- but also gave her a deep, abiding love of the land.
Today, Frey views her former poverty as one of the conditions that forced her to push herself.
"I don't know that you get over (being poor as a child)," she said in response to a question, "but it becomes a tool to work harder."
Frey said when she was young she wanted to become a lawyer. Instead, she fell into business when, at 15, she took over her mother's "melon runs" -- buying melons from local farmers and selling them to local stores in southern Illinois and Indiana. She made a modest profit, but as store proprietors came to understand her word was her bond, the more they relied on her to provide them produce. Her business grew and at 16 she formed her own company.
Frey discovered she was pretty good at selling herself to new customers, and then backed up her promises with reliability. She and her four brothers, now working with her, barely slept to fill the orders. A contract to supply melons to a Walmart Distribution Center in Olney for 10 local stores nearly broke them, but when they pulled it off, Frey (almost) never looked back.
Today, Frey Farms is the largest H-2A visa employer in Illinois, as well as the largest grower of pumpkins in the United States. Their produce, grown in seven states, includes watermelons, corn, pumpkins and hard winter squash that are sold all over the nation, including at Kroger's. The company has branched successfully into juices called "Sarah's Homegrown," selling agua frescas in watermelon, mango and strawberry, plus teas and lemonades. There is also a Tsamma made from pure watermelon juice. None of the juices are available yet in Illinois -- they are primarily in the Southeast states.
Replicating her unique story would be impossible, but Frey believes all people have it within themselves to be successful.
"I actually believe it exists within all of us," she says in a recent interview from south Florida, where the earliest watermelons are ripening and nearly ready for harvest.
For her, it was a process of discovering that "I can build things," and that she likes business in general. Besides keeping an eye on her multifaceted company, she has a keen eye on the markets and on federal policy toward guest workers.
And where at one time she couldn't wait to leave rural southern Illinois and tiny Orchardville, she now has a deep attachment to the region and has a desire for its economy to grow.
"I would like to see more opportunity downstate ... entertainment, business, jobs," Frey says. "The little downtowns used to be so alive.
"My hope is that so many of those little communities find a way to come back and be vibrant. It's going to take young people staying behind. Sometimes staying behind is getting ahead."
One of the things Martinez loves about Sarah Frey's story is how Frey credits her local community college -- Frontier, in Fairfield -- with giving her the education she needed, and how it worked around her manic schedule to accommodate her.
"Sarah is such as good role model for people to watch, and for people who feel left behind," Martinez said. "It's the American dream, and the pride and comfort she takes in who she is and where she's from. For her to be so honest takes courage.
"People often don't want to tell the most painful parts of their lives, but she shares it and doesn't wear it like a crutch," Martinez added. "She is such an inspirational person."