Early in Sarah Frey’s memoir “The Growing Season,” she lets drop that she’s the youngest of 21 children, a fact she had long been embarrassed to admit to her C-Suite peers. “Yes, you read that right: twenty-one,” she writes.
This moment reveals both the power of the memoir and one of its weaknesses. Frey is a woman with a potent sense of self and an unmatched ability for inventing and selling herself in a business world often skeptical of or hostile to women, especially those without pedigree or connections. She became head of Frey Farms, a multimillion-dollar business that provides melons, watermelons, and pumpkins to much of America, having lifted herself from a childhood filled with difficulty and deprivation.
Yet the statement also promises more than Frey delivers — it implies a household packed to bursting, although her contact with all her half-siblings is either minimal or nonexistent; her story is really about her parents and her four older brothers and it is plenty moving and inspiring, without her overselling the complications.
Her memoir is often like this, both fascinating and frustrating. You won’t soon forget the time her brother Ted shot a deer but failed to kill it; Frey stands by her brother’s side as their father makes him put the animal out of its misery with only a hammer.
But while she tells readers, twice, that Harvard Business School used one of her deals as a case study in negotiating, she never gives us details.
Frey’s early years are riveting, without a trace of poverty porn or self-pity on the author’s part. Living in a remote and rundown Illinois home, she and her brothers often had to hunt for dinner or go hungry; her father gambled and made terrible business decisions while wielding a frightening, sometimes violent temper. Yet while she lived in fear of social services breaking up the family (and thus never told anyone about the farmhand who repeatedly molested her), it seems a more loving and stable life than those in similar memoirs like Jeannette Walls’s “Glass Castle” or Tara Westover’s “Educated.”
The family is poor and socially isolated but Frey’s father insists that his children excel at school, be polite and professional when speaking to adults, carry their weight on the farm, and exhibit resilience and bravery. He raises Frey to see herself as both equal to any boy and someone special who can conquer the world. Once, when she was 7, they saw a snapping turtle on the road, a giant beast that would provide meat for dinner. Her dad insisted Sarah grab and heave the turtle into the truck. It is both dangerous and unfair to young Sarah, yet she ultimately finds it empowering.
Those scenes are intensely memorable and make up for Frey often coming at the warped family dynamics sideways — especially the emotional and financial tensions between her parents. She says at one point that to her older brothers it was obvious “our parents’ downward spiral was accelerating.” But then she doesn’t really show us what she means. This vagueness diverts attention from a powerful narrative about a father losing control of the family over which he reigned.
Frey’s gumption and savvy allow her to start her own business buying and re-selling melons while still in high school; she even moves out of the house at 15. While she’d long dreamed of escaping to life in a big city like her brothers, when the bank is about to claim her family’s farm she abruptly changes course. While still a teenager, she arranges financing to buy the farm from her father, taking command of her destiny and setting up a memorable confrontation with the parent who had given her the skills she’d need to do just that.
Unfortunately, for much of the second half of the book Frey sidelines the shifting dynamic between her and her parents. There are other gaps in the story of how she builds her business from a girl and a truck to a company making deals with farmers and stores all over the country, including major chains like Walmart and Lowes. Yet the book maintains a delightful momentum, as she gets her brothers into the new family business, while defying stereotypes and staying true to herself and never losing sight of her mission. Persistence, candor, and confidence are at the heart of all her interactions, whether it’s talking her way into a meeting with a reluctant fruit seller or confronting a bank that mistreats her Mexican seasonal workers.
When she needs a new tractor but it would cost nearly $25,000, she instead buys an old school bus for $2,000 and retrofits it into a tractor and a wagon. When her small-town neighbors question her outsize ambitions (or even root for her to fail), she writes, “people live in different-sized worlds. Sometimes their minds can only comprehend the place they live in and not what might lie beyond.”
She sees herself as “a field run crop” — the kind that may not look perfect on the outside but has the sweetest taste, adding that she always identified with the “‘ugly fruit,’ the underestimated, the neglected.” That philosophy prompts her to harvest field run pumpkins for their seeds or flesh and watermelons for their juice, creating a profit off what others see as useless. She hires single moms, and in a world that assumes Ivy League business degrees, people from diverse educational backgrounds, including people with no formal education (and then her company pays for further education).
When Frey mentors girls and women she aims to teach them to be bold and believe in themselves, even if they never have to wrestle a snapping turtle or challenge their father for control of the family farm. “Stealing thunder,” Frey writes, “is something girls need to do more often.”
THE GROWING SEASON: How I Built a New Life — and Saved an American Farm
By Sarah Frey
Ballantine, 272 pp., $27
Stuart Miller is the coauthor of “The Other Islands of New York City” and author of “The 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports.”