Members in Focus: Peterson family, Goodhue County
The tornadoes that swept through Minnesota this past September left their mark on many farms. Ferndale Market, a turkey farm and local foods store in Cannon Falls, was one of those.
“We were without power for a couple days,” said farmer John Peterson, the third generation to raise pastured turkeys on the Ferndale land. “It was a challenge trying to keep our turkeys fed and watered and to keep all of our inventory refrigerated.”
The Peterson family, like most farm families, knows what it’s like to face the myriad unpredictabilities of agriculture. But they’ve also experienced the best of their community.
“As soon as the tornado hit, (my wife) Erica and I came up from our basement to see if there was any damage, and within ten minutes, all of our farm employees were here,” John said. “Nobody called them. They just showed up.”
This supportive atmosphere has been part of the Peterson farm since it began in 1937. Family bonds and dedicated employees have made Ferndale Market the local food destination it is today.
The farm’s founder, Dale Peterson, grew up on a farm in North Dakota, though not a turkey farm. He studied poultry science at North Dakota State University. This was before Minnesota had become the turkey-producing powerhouse it is today.
“He knew he wanted to grow turkeys, which was at the very beginning of when people thought they could make a living growing turkeys as a commercial venture, rather than just a small part of their farm,” said Dick Peterson, Dale’s son and John’s father. “I never got to ask him why that was his passion, whether it was before he went to school or developed it while in school.”
Dale started out his farm venture in nearby Northfield with a friend of his, who later married the sister of the woman Dale married. Two years later, Dale began farming on his own on the land Ferndale resides on today. According to Dick, he had a good sense of what land would work best for turkeys.
“The reason he chose this land is that it’s terrible crop land,” Dick said. “It’s sandy. But it’s well-drained to grow turkeys outside. The water doesn’t stand, a lot of turkey disease bacteria grows in moisture and heat.”
Ever since then, the Petersons have raised their turkeys outdoors on range land and chosen not to use antibiotics. Dale started the farm out as a hatchery, with his and his wife Fern’s first house being part house, part hatchery. He sold day-old poults to other farmers.
The Petersons saw the hatchery business change greatly during their time running one.
“I remember in the early 1960’s reading that there were 60 turkey hatcheries in Minnesota,” Dick said.
But now there are only a few. The Petersons ran theirs until 2007. Their business model had changed over time to where they were hatching turkeys they would raise for market themselves. Then, when John got involved, they started direct-marketing their turkeys. Peterson’s Turkey Hatchery became Ferndale Market.
Community over consolidation
The Petersons witnessed consolidation in not only the hatching business, but the poultry processing business. They decided to make themselves stand out.
“We saw an opportunity to be able to brand our own turkeys because we were using different practices (than a lot of the turkey business was),” John said.
John and Erica moved to the farm in 2008 and built the direct-marketing business alongside Dick and his wife, John’s mother Jane. It’s named Ferndale after the original farmers: Fern and Dale.
Today you can buy Ferndale turkey at the market or pre-order it online to pick up there. You can also find Ferndale turkeys at food cooperatives, meat shops and grocery stores across the Upper Midwest, as well as at restaurants and food service accounts at local colleges, including nearby St. Olaf College and Carleton College. They were featured in the 2015 Minnesota Cooks calendar at the 2014 Minnesota Cooks Day program at the State Fair. And they work with school districts to get nutritious turkey to K-12 students.
“I know MFU has been a real advocate for (farm to school programs), working at the Legislature to help schools get the resources they need to get a farm to school program,” John said.
Ferndale products such as turkey burgers and turkey hot dogs have found their way onto lunch trays in Cannon Falls, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Eden Prairie, Orono, Northfield, Owatonna, Faribault and Rochester, to name a few.
“I get a text every couple of months from friends of ours somewhere of a picture of the school menu when it has Ferndale products,” Erica said. “It’s fun for parents to see that schools value nutritious choices.”
It’s not just through selling turkey that the Petersons connect with the local community. They’ve built a store on the spot where a hatchery once stood that sells products from all sorts of local farmers, from cheese to cookies to jam. With the launch of the store came new challenges for the four Petersons, who managed the store themselves with just a few part-time employees, until John and Erica’s son Finn was born in 2011. Then they hired more and now have about 20 employees, a mix of part-time and full-time working in the farm and the store.
“One of the joys of being in a small business is that we all get to do a little bit of everything,” John said. “Some of our farm employees are also truck drivers, one day working out with turkeys and the next day at a co-op in the Twin Cities.”
Ferndale’s reputation has given them many loyal customers. They’re rewarded with several events at the farm each year, most recently an open house for the market’s tenth anniversary.
“The big one is coming up, Turkey Fest,” Jane said. “It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving. It’s a celebration of fresh turkey, live music, some of our vendors are here with samples of holiday items.”
Jane, a piano teacher, is responsible for the market’s social media accounts, making sure their events are well-shared. Erica teaches English at Dakota County Technical College and contributes to farm life as much as she can.
As the Petersons are gearing up for another Thanksgiving turkey rush, they remind us that family and community bonds make all the difference in agriculture.
“I don’t know how we would do any of this without such a good team around us,” John said. “The hard times are still hard, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to be really alone.”
Look for Ferndale Market turkey at the 77th Annual MFU Convention, Nov. 16-18.