KEENES, Ill. — Sarah Frey is the undisputed pumpkin queen of America.
She grows more jacks (field shorthand for the basic big orange Halloween model) than anyone else in the country. This fall, she shipped more than 5 million. If it hadn’t been so hot and humid, she would have shipped more.
So it’s a little awkward when she throws shade on a crop that helped her buy the black Cadillac Escalade she drives along rural roads here in the state that grows more pumpkins than any other.
“I was over orange pumpkins 15 years ago,” she said. “That’s a terrible thing to say, because our biggest percentage of acreage is jacks. But it’s just not where I’m at with pumpkins.”
Frey, 40, crushes any image you may have of a pumpkin farmer. She has a taste for fedoras and an impressive collection of Frye boots in her closet. She also has farmland in seven states and millions of dollars in produce contracts in her desk drawer.
And she thinks America is ready to cook, not carve.
To that end, she has been planting fields with rough-skinned peanut pumpkins and beautiful slate-green Jarrahdales from Australia. She’s growing boxy speckled hounds and blue-green marina di Chioggias, blistered specimens with a sexy Italian name.
(Technically, they and the jacks are squash, which are part of the huge Cucurbit family, which also includes gourds, melons and cucumbers. Calling them pumpkins is more a matter of convenience than botany.)
That the pumpkin queen wants people to think beyond the jack-o’-lantern means that it is likely to happen, if only because of the volume of pumpkins she moves through a deep and wide slice of Middle America’s retail haunts. If you’ve bought a pumpkin at Wal-Mart or Lowe’s, the odds are good that it came from Frey Farms.
Edible pumpkins make up about a third of her harvest. Some go to processors to be canned, and some are sold as decorative elements. A new line she developed, Pumpkins of the World, is aimed in part at cooks; she’s pushing retailers like Target, Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart to market it that way.
“People who shop at Wal-Mart are just as educated about food as anyone, and they probably cook more than anyone, and they all know how good squash is for you,” she said with the kind of conviction that makes you glad you are not negotiating with her. “I don’t think this is a trend that’s going away.”
The pumpkin spice latte aside, squash isn’t exactly an American cultural barometer. Still, there have been some significant recent developments. In the mid-aughts, a handful of varieties popular mostly with heirloom-seed geeks rose up as stars of the home décor set. With their curves and bumps and unusual coloring, they became Pinterest princesses, finding champions in high-end urban designers and Martha Stewart devotees.
Frey, who got her start helping her mother sell melons from the back of a truck when she was still in elementary school, knows a good produce opportunity when she sees one.
So she branched out from jacks, planting unusual varieties, and convincing her biggest retail partners that they should sell the unusual-looking mix of pumpkins to aspirational shoppers looking to change up their fall decorating.
She called her new line Autumn Couleur, trademarked the name and shipped them out in branded cardboard bins ready to be plopped down onto the store floor.
At some point, people began asking if they could eat them.
“I always knew you could eat them, but I was like, why would you?” she said during a drive to an enormous packing plant and farm she owns in southern Indiana from the southeastern Illinois farm where she grew up. “Then I thought, ‘Jeez, what a waste to throw them away when they are done making your house look good.’”
She knew that only the most dedicated cook would want to crack open a 12-pound pumpkin and process it for food, so she pored through seed catalogs and selected a group of smaller pumpkins from around the world that would grow well, look good on a porch and perform in the kitchen.
At this point, every heirloom-seed saver and farmers’ market denizen may be muttering, “So what?” People have been growing and eating hard winter squash for ages, in North America and beyond. Pumpkin shows up in Indian curries, in Mexican moles and in stews across Africa.
Frey’s father farmed and tried to make money raising racing thoroughbreds. Her mother sold cantaloupes and watermelons to local grocery stores. Eventually, her brothers all left for college, or other pursuits. She stayed behind, doing whatever she could to make a buck.
By the 1990s, she had taken over her mother’s melon routes, selling fruit from their farm and what she could buy from others in the area. She was still a teenager when she got her foot in the door at Wal-Mart, back in the days before the company had central distribution centers and you could still cut a deal with a store manager.
“It was the wild, Wild West then,” she said.
The skills she developed negotiating with Wal-Mart became a case study at the Harvard Business School. Frey, who holds an associate degree in science, said her real education came from the many mistakes she has made.
“If I went on to a nice Ivy League school, I could have saved myself a lot of money,” she said.
Frey figures she has sold close to $1 billion’s worth of produce in her lifetime. Watermelons were the moneymaker, and still are. Pumpkins make up less than a quarter of her take, but she calls them her “pet crop.”
They came from desperation: Her father got sick, and the farmhouse was in foreclosure. So she bought it from the bank, along with the 80 acres she grew up on. The land sloped and was mostly clay. Perfect, she thought, for pumpkins. They would extend the growing season into the early fall, and wouldn’t take much tending.
“Everybody in the county thought the Frey girl had lost her mind,” she said. She kept buying farmland and growing more pumpkins and melons, sometimes contracting with older farmers whose children had left. She and her family now own about 15,000 acres.
“Some women buy shoes,” she said. “I buy farms.”