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 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.”
Some local producers were obvious choices for Ferndale Market, including Eichten’s Hidden Acres, Faribault Dairy, Lorentz Meats, and the aforementioned Thousand Hills Cattle Company. Additional producers are researched and held to Ferndale Market’s two-pronged standard — “local in spirit and local in proximity” — before they are stocked. Exceptions to this standard, like consumer-requested Stonyfield Farm yogurt and Amy’s Organics frozen dinners, are few.
“It [is] fun getting to go out and meet our producers and get onto their farm to see what they’re doing. We take that role seriously, trying to do some of the homework for our customers.”
Not only does Peterson get out to meet the farmers, but he also says that most farmers and producers deliver to the market and are able to meet the customers. “We had an event going on and the guy who raises hens and brings in our eggs for us walked in during the middle of it,” he recalls. “He knows where to go; he walked right back to the cooler and put the eggs in there. I think that people were really surprised to see a farmer walk in with the eggs doing a delivery. That’s the kind of reconnection that doesn’t happen in a mainline grocer.”
Ferndale Market is located at 31659 County 24 Blvd, Cannon Falls, MN. A list of their products can be found here. Ferndale Market poultry products are processed in a local USDA-certified independent processor and are available retail throughout Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. A list of restaurants and retailers can be found here.