It was a damp, cold day in southern Illinois, where Sarah Frey was working several years ago, when warm Gulf breezes drifted into her consciousness. That sensation piqued her interest, so she pulled out a map. Frey, found- er and CEO of Frey Farms, a multi-state fresh produce and beverage company, is in the farm business, and has always liked looking at land. She receives a fair number of overtures via email, but this one property in Naples caught her eye. Frey already knew Naples and South Florida well, with produce operations nearby and having snuck in a couple mini vacations at the beach resorts.
“When I saw the listing for the house and land, about two acres at that point, I realized it was close to Fifth Avenue and the beach, which was great,” she says. “It was in the middle of nowhere, another plus. I also liked that it was an auction situation. I like auctions. The next day, I flew down to check it out. After two hours of walking around the grounds, the property agent finally said to me, ‘Don’t you want to see the house?’”
After that initial purchase, Frey, a single mother of two teenage sons, spent several years acquiring adjoining lots, and she now has slightly more than 10 acres. Much of the property is filled with fun, family-centric elements. Lovely garden paths, a swimming pool, a guesthouse, ponds, an outdoor kitchen, and a fire pit are thoughtfully placed throughout the abundantly shaded property. As you walk along, you can feast your eyes on specimen plantings and blooming flowers. It’s an ideal retreat for when she steps off the tractor and out of her boots into her flip-flops. “We have farms in south central and north Florida, in Hendry County, Newberry, Parrish, and LaBelle,” she notes.
“There’s a lot to this project and it’s still a work in progress,” Frey adds. “I wanted to keep everything in a natural environment and bring the outside in. I also wanted to be creative and reuse what was here already. But mostly, I wanted this to be a new home for my family, for Luke, Will, and me.”
It’s been a long and winding road from pulling herself out of rural poverty by selling melons to becoming a successful business owner and mother, among the many other roles she has played along the way. The youngest child of a very large brood, Frey took over the small family farm in southern Illinois at the age of 17 and grew it into a business in which her four older brothers, Leonard, John, Harley, and Ted, were able to come back from college, one by one, and join her in the growing enterprise.
Woman of Reinvention
Repurpose, repurpose, repurpose is a central theme in Frey’s life and work, and is part of the plan for her Naples house. “Pulling this Naples property together is like what we do on the farms. I’ve taken that knowledge and applied it to my Naples home,” she says. Unbeknownst to Frey, a farm she previously bought at auction on Sears Farm Road in LaBelle, had been a manufacturing site for the famous Sears Kit homes, popular from about 1910 to 1940. When the mill shut down, the workers deconstructed their own kit homes, loaded them up, and moved away, leaving behind the house footings.
“When we were clearing Sears Farm Road to plant a melon crop, we found all these stones and pieces of the mill. It almost felt like a ghost town. But, rather than throwing them out, we gradually brought the large keystones to the new property in Naples, where they are now the walls of two retaining ponds. I love that we were able to reuse these amazing pieces of Florida history in a different way, still serving as foundational stones, still looking gorgeous all stacked together. I love that.”
Back in Naples, architect Robert Herscoe, of Herscoe Hajjar Architects, worked closely with Frey to modify the elegant, Spanish-style structure. “Robert redesigned the house so that it would work for my family, so that we could live inside and outside the home,” Frey reports. Landscape architect Mike Behrndt of Environmental Designs pointed Frey in the right direction. “Mike clearly saw my vision for this property and helped me keep things true to Florida, using natural, native hardscapes,” she says.
Rey Doria Landscaping handled the sourcing of the bigger trees, including Canary palms, corkscrew pines, poincianas with large orange flowers, and many others. “We bought several large trees and then pulled some from other locations, adding to the already mature grove of oak trees,” Frey explains. “Rey’s team did a great job placing everything.”
Tom Riley, his son, Ben, and designer Amanda Hanes of Artisans’ Guild, also have been pivotal. “Tom and Ben set me straight on just what to include,” says Frey. “Amanda understood my goal of creating a space that is conducive to the way my family lives. I’m accustomed to the freedom and space that nature allows. I like lots of natural light and air. We’re incorporating large doors that can be pushed out of sight, and, in the addition, many floor-to- ceiling windows that let tons of light in.”
On top of all the work on the home front, Frey has spent the last seven years focusing on her business, developing new and innovative products. She created Tsamma Watermelon Juice, which has become a popular Floridian drink. Another product, Sarah’s Home-Grown Agua Frescas, is a low-sugar, award-winning juice. “One of our goals is to find uses for the fruit that’s not pretty enough to sell. Turns out that ugly fruit is ripe for repurposing, in this case, by making healthy, delicious juices.”
Frey’s successful autobiography, The Growing Season: How I Built a New Life and Saved an American Farm (Ballantine Books, 2020), has been picked up by Disney-owned ABC for an adapted television series. Hollywood Producer Danny Strong, of the hit series Empire, bought the rights to the story. Colette Burson, co-creator of Hung, is writing the scripts. Frey is an executive producer on the project.
Even with all this hard work and success, Frey’s greatest joys in life are her two sons. The pandemic gave her a chance to be home more than usual, which she loved, and it also gave her an opportunity to work with them, just as her parents had worked alongside her.
“Last winter, the boys overheard my calls about what to do with the unused produce,” she says. “They wanted to help. They set up a COVID-friendly fresh produce drive-through business at the farm in Illinois. They arranged for our trucks to bring up the unused Florida crop, selling it wholesale every Saturday right out of the truck, recruiting their cousins, friends, and the local high school girls’ volleyball team to help. With a social media campaign, they had cars lined up to the county line, teaching me about the power of direct-to-consumer marketing. Seeing their willingness to serve others made me an extraordinarily proud mom.”
Frey, often referred to as the nation’s Pumpkin Queen, is excited about creating a small, heirloom varietal patch in Naples. “I’m planning a u-pick-it heirloom pumpkin patch on the property once the house and grounds are ready, giving me a chance to share my passion with the Naples community. It’s all part of looking ahead, which is very exciting.”
Frey, in some ways, is a modern version of Martha Stewart. “All of my life and work is driven by my love of gardening and entertaining. I love hosting big parties. I love music. I love making cocktails, especially with my agua frescas.”
She does everything either dressed in her blue jeans and work shirt or in full-on glam. “One minute I’m in a backhoe, the next min- ute I’m dressed up in designer outfits,” she quips, then moves on to her home decor. “My style at home is not super-fussy. It’s eclectic. I mix in pieces that are old, like my ginger-jar collection, with newer elements. I’m a country girl at heart.”
Hair and makeup: Julianne Lofendo, J.A. Styling