As a child, there’s nothing quite like biting into a big slice of ice cold watermelon on a hot summer day and feeling that juice dribble down your chin. It’s sweet, juicy, satisfying and downright delightful! It’s a part of childhood.
From the ripe old age of eight, Sarah Frey-Talley of Keenes helped her mother deliver watermelon and cantaloupe during the summer, from their small 100-acre farm to about 20 local grocery stores and markets. Sarah would take the order, unload the product and take the money. Once she was old enough to drive, she bought her own truck and took over the route.
“It all started from the back of a pickup truck,” explains Sarah. We never really had a roadside stand. We never sat in one place – we were always moving.”
Her four older brothers knew the farm wasn’t big enough to provide for all of them, so they went off to college, and ambitious Sarah began marketing the melons to more stores. In fact, she ended up with 150 stores on her route and had to source some of the melons from other farms in Illinois and southern Indiana.
By the time she was 18, Sarah had developed quite an operation. When some of those small farmers in southern Indiana retired, she bought their land and expanded the business. As her brothers finished college, they returned home, one by one, to work with their younger sister who was converting the family farm’s soy and corn acreage to pumpkins and fresh produce.
Founded in 1992, Sarah Frey-Talley is now chief executive officer of Frey Farms LLC, and the farm is a Certified Woman Owned Business. Today, the business owns and operates farms in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia, covering approximately 12,000 acres. It has become the largest domestic producer of fresh market pumpkins in the country. It also produces cantaloupe, watermelon, sweet corn, green bell peppers, all varieties of winter squash, gourds, decorative corn and pinecones, which go primarily to floral and lawn and garden businesses.
The work ethic and family bond with her brothers Leonard, Harley, John and Ted, are the strength of the company. All of them have homes in Illinois, but they travel a lot handling operations at the various farms.
“Working with my older brothers by my side is a true joy,” says Sarah. “We’ve been working on a farm since we were young children. There is exactly a two-year difference in all of our ages. Together we’ve built our business quietly over the years, and we’ve built strong relationships with our retailers and other customers.”
Young family/busy life
As a mother of two young boys, Sarah has to find a balance between the demands of her family and the business. “I don’t shelter them from the business,” she says. “They are very involved with everything that I do. I handle it the same way my mother did, ‘Get in the truck, let’s go!’”
During the summer months, it’s easy for her to take the boys on the road with her. But, during the rest of the year, their school is flexible enough to allow them to travel with their mother and receive additional private instruction.
For Frey Farms, access to stable harvest workers is vital. With several thousand acres of land, including 7,000 acres of watermelons, the farm must have the necessary labor to get its crops harvested.
According to Sarah, “There are many challenges facing our industry, but for me immigration reform is priority number one. I didn’t start Frey Farms near a border state; therefore, access to a stable harvest workforce is priority number one. It is incredible to me that in this great nation, rich in fertile soil with eager young farmers willing to grow fruit and vegetable crops, the greatest barrier to entry is access to a stable and legal harvest workforce.
“At a time when 46 million Americans depend on federal nutritional assistance, farmers across the country are forced to destroy parts of, or in some cases, all of their crops simply because they can’t get harvest labor.”
The farm now employs up to 600 workers during the peak growing season.
How do you drink a watermelon?
Sarah grew up loving watermelon, and knew it was nutritious too, but was curious as to why there were so many types of fruit juices on the market but not watermelon juice. She looked everywhere for it but couldn’t find any, and as they say, “the rest is history.” Tsamma™ (pronounced “sah mah”) Juice was born.
Watermelon juice is very delicate and isn’t easy to produce. They had to develop just the right process for making it. The new beverage is 100 percent juice made from seeded watermelons with no added sugar. It is 95 percent watermelon juice with a touch of white grape and pomegranate juice and malic acid. The watermelon is cold-pressed and the juice is gently pasteurized to preserve its nutritional integrity.
The name came from the Tsamma, a hardy melon grown in the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa and believed to be the “mother” ancestral variety of all melons.
Frey Farms in Florida grows a select variety exclusively to make the juice. They also sell that seeded variety on the fresh market.
“I think the nutritional value of the seeds is extremely important,” Sarah remarks. “When I was blending the juice, everyone kept asking, why are you using the seeds, you’re going to have to strain them out. We actually pick up a couple of grams of protein in our juice and it comes from the fact we blend melons that have the seeds in them. Watermelon seed oil is very good for you and very expensive. There is also a flavor difference between the seeded and non-seeded melons and when looking at the flavor profile of the juice, we thought it was important to use the seeded.”
The farm manages the entire process from field to bottle using safe, sustainable farming practices. The juice is manufactured in Lakeland, Fla., about 30 minutes away from the watermelon farm.
Watermelon is high in anti-oxidants, heart healthy, low in calories and rich in vitamins B, C and A. An added benefit is that it has less natural sugar than apples, oranges, grapes, pineapple and many other fruits.
After developing the juice, Frey Farms decided to give it out to participants of the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. this past October to help the runners hydrate, replenish and recover. It was a great hit!
Marketing the unknown
At this time, Tsamma™ Juice is only available in about 2,600 retail locations. The line was launched nationally at The Fresh Market stores. The heaviest concentration of juice can be found in the southeast in Florida where the juice is produced, and at retailers up the eastern coast.
“It feels like the coasts and southern California are the right market for us to focus on right now. People are more willing to try healthy products and there is more of a focus on health in those areas,” Sarah says. “Even though Tsamma™ originated here in the middle of the country in Illinois (where its roots are) we’re having to take it out to the coast and work our way back to the center of the country.”
Frey Farms is currently testing the Tsamma™ line in 11 Subway stores in Los Angeles and it’s going very well. Through table and window clings and a barrel cooler at the end of the food counter, Sarah is pleased with the results. Time will tell as the company expands the number of franchises and retail outlets it goes into.
At your local grocery store there are usually six to eight brands of refrigerated orange juice in which to choose. Sarah would like to see that happen with watermelon juice. She says, “Our goal is that someday watermelon juice will be its own category and Tsamma™ will be the leader – the established brand name that everyone trusts for good watermelon juice. Having said that, competition is good. We hope that other players come into the market; it will lend credibility to the category overall.
“We believe that we’ve been growing something very special that everyone loves, the watermelon, for many years,” she concludes. “No one thinks about drinking a watermelon. By putting it into a bottle, we’re able to reach more consumers who can enjoy its numerous health benefits year round. We made the watermelon more convenient.”
Hodgson Farms in rural Kilbourne is a fourth generation family farm that has been in the area for more than 80 years. Dale Hodgson, along with his wife, son and daughter, operate the business and serve an 80-mile radius of their farm.
When Dale’s great grandfather, and following generations, operated the 150-acre farm, it was to grow produce. Since Dale took over the operation, he has added 1,400 acres of corn and soybeans and downsized the produce production to 70 acres. He has also added 24,000 square feet of greenhouses where he grows a variety of flowers and bedding plants.
The work in the greenhouse means they are busy year-round. From starting plants in the greenhouses in early February, to planting the produce and crops and then harvesting both, he is always busy.
“I diversified in a lot of different ways to try to make money one way or the other,” explains Dale. “With corn and soybeans, some years you make money and others you are hoping to just break even. But, 150 acres of produce was just getting to be too much. I’m not getting any younger!”
Whether it’s a large farm or a small one, some of the challenges are the same – the weather and a good source of labor.
For Hodgson Farms, the biggest challenge is the weather. “Mother Nature has sent a huge amount of rain this year, and there is nothing we can do about it. It’s not as big a problem when it’s hot and dry because we irrigate. It adds to the cost but we can control the amount of water,” he says. “When there is too much rain we have to keep a watch for the plants becoming diseased.”
They typically hire four or five employees when it comes time for picking. According to Dale, he can usually find three or four local men, who live in the area, to help him out. He has also hired local kids but says it is harder and harder to find them.
So what does the future hold for Hodgson Farms? Dale isn’t sure. His kids are helping right now, but he doesn’t know how long they may want to do it. Only time will tell.
You’ve read about two farming operations that couldn’t be more different. But one thing is for certain; despite similar struggles, from early spring to late fall, they proudly raise nutritious produce to help feed the nation. For that, we owe them our thanks.