Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls, MN

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

When John Peterson left Cannon Falls, MN, to attend college in South Dakota, he was sure his future held no room for the family turkey farm. Fast forward several years and we find Peterson and his wife Erica back in Minnesota, partners in running their family farm and living their dream to raise free-range turkeys and sell them direct to their customers through their farm store — Ferndale Market.

Farm life for the Peterson family began in 1939 with John’s grandfather, Dale. After finishing college, John’s father returned to the farm to carry on the business. Since the farm’s founding, the Petersons have raised their turkeys outdoors. The Peterson farm continues to allow their turkeys free range access in the summer.

Prior to 2008, however, the Petersons sold their turkeys to a large processor. “We were completely detached from sales and marketing at that point. The differences in the way our turkeys were being raised weren’t being recognized in any way,” says John. Recognizing this disconnect, Peterson and his wife discussed the opportunity before them and decided to return home to the family farm.

“[We had] started to explore our food system and educate ourselves about where our food was coming from,” he says. “It was in those years that we realized that we had the opportunity to do something unique by coming back to the family farm and [selling] our turkey products directly to the public, which we’d never done in the past. We were raising all our turkeys free range in the summertime, which is pretty uncommon these days and we were, and still are, an independent family farm. So much of the poultry world is so integrated today. We were in a spot to be non-integrated and independent.”

Peterson Family courtesy John Peterson
Courtesy of Ferndale Market

Peterson began to envision a farm market where they would sell direct to consumers as well as to restaurants, retailers, and food service accounts. The idea soon expanded to include other local products that were not currently available in the Cannon Falls area. The intention was to carry convenience items like milk and eggs, but also carry a variety of products so that someone could stop in on the way home to create a local, healthy dinner.

To name the store, they turned to their family roots and combined the names of his grandmother Fern and grandfather Dale. Ferndale Market opened in the fall of 2008.

In researching the local food market prior to opening his store, Peterson describes a failed local system where consumers were deprived the opportunity to purchase products that were produced so close by. “An example is Thousand Hills beef. It’s all produced and processed here, and yet you had to drive to the south metro to purchase it. That was the system we were trying to break with our turkeys, too. We were growing turkeys in Cannon Falls, we had been for 70 years, and yet if you walked into our local grocery store the turkeys had been undoubtedly shipped from the East Coast. The system just made no sense. We were trying to bring a little logic back to the system and help local people eat those foods that had been produced here for so many years.”

September 30 Tweet Rodeo

October 1 is National Sake Day in Japan, as well as @MotoI2Go’s first anniversary — to celebrate, they’re offering buy-one-get-one-free sake all day and premium sake, @MplsFarmMarket reviews Eichten’s “Zesty” cheese curds, @CookingWithKARE offers a whole host of recipes, including how-tos for Saffron’s asparagus salad and @DakotaJazzClub’s carrot cake, @HotDishBlog announces the Strib “Taste” section’s 7:30pm showing of “Mildred Pierce” tomorrow night at the Heights, and @Peace_Coffee and @HigherGroundsTC face off about baseball and Michigan’s brewing talent.

Justin Grecco of Grecco’s on the Saint Croix

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

This feature article is sponsored by Grecco’s on the Saint Croix.

In St. Croix Falls, WI, an hour’s drive from Minneapolis, there lives an improbable chef who is accomplishing some improbable things. On the menu of Chef Justin Grecco’s little riverside restaurant are dishes such as fennel seasoned walleye with rainbow Swiss chard and wild rice pilaf with roasted tomato butter sauce; garam masala-crusted quail breasts, lentil, bacon and fava bean ragout, sauteed spinach, and mango lime puree; and blackened venison NY strip steak, potato puree, broiled blue cheese, and black cherry sauce with farmers’ vegetables.

The blunt and irrepressible Grecco is not a guy who does things simply, easily or quietly. His restaurant mixes a no holds barred selection of local produce, meat, and game with world travelers such as kangaroo and lobster, and appeals to a restless, cosmopolitan palate.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

It’s therefore a little surprising to know that twelve years ago, Grecco wasn’t a chef. “I couldn’t boil water,” he says. A trip to Italy — and a visit to one particular restaurant in Florence — changed things radically.

“I’m having dinner, and this gal who’s with me — well, I’d started breaking down, crying,” he recalls. “And she said: ‘Oh, what’s wrong with you? You’ve had too much wine!’ And I said: ‘Yeah, I’ve had too much wine, but I know what I want to do. I’ve found my calling.’ It’s this completely emotional, crazy thing. All of a sudden, something clicked.”

Grecco returned to the states, quit his job and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College in Minneapolis, where he discovered that his impulsive leap toward a career in cooking had a great deal of substance behind it.

“I got Cs and Ds and high school — [at LCB] I got a 4.0,” he says. “And I was like… ‘Uh-oh, I figured it out.’ It just completely engulfed my world. I progressed really fast and graduated at the top of my class.”

Grecco’s passion for cooking has led him from restaurant to restaurant in search of the opportunity to break out and do his own thing; he’s worked as a sous chef for OddFellow’s, an intern at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco, the executive chef at Mississippi Dunes, and also at the Afton House Inn, Bellanotte, McCormick & Schmick’s, and Visos.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

As of October 2008, he’s the chef/owner of Grecco’s on the Saint Croix in St. Croix Falls, WI, a town that’s nestled amid the lakes, national parks, and dramatic river gorges that give the area its scenic character.

Grecco’s ambition and imagination have breathed life into a restaurant concept unique to the area, and arguably the region as a whole.