Free-range and 'fiercely local,' Ferndale Market is unique among Minnesota turkey farms
Ferndale raises its turkeys free range and with no antibiotics, a rarity in the nation’s No. 1 turkey producing state. Birds will be outdoors from some time in April right up the big rush of processing right before the Thanksgiving holiday.
CANNON FALLS, Minn. — Ferndale Market is different from most of Minnesota's turkey farms in a few different ways.
Located at Cannon Falls in southeast Minnesota, it is away from the state's main turkey belt in west-central Minnesota.
Ferndale also raises its turkeys free range and with no antibiotics, a rarity in the nation’s No. 1 turkey producing state. Birds will be outdoors from some time in April right up the big rush of processing right before the Thanksgiving holiday.
Raising turkeys outdoors is a “very significant point of difference for us,” said John Peterson, owner and general manager of Ferndale Market.
Peterson said there would be only a handful of free-range turkey farms on a national level that produce the same kind of volume as Ferndale, which markets 150,000 turkeys a year from its farm.
And Ferndale markets its turkeys under its own label, including from a retail store right on the farm.
“Our model is also really unique because we self-distribute our finished turkey products,” Peterson said.
Ferndale distributes to about 75 stores with markets as far away as Fargo, North Dakota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Des Moines, Iowa; and Chicago.
The Ferndale name comes from Peterson’s grandparents, Dale and Fern Peterson. Dale moved from Lamoure, North Dakota, and studied poultry science at North Dakota Agricultural College, now North Dakota State University. He started the farm at Cannon Falls in 1939, choosing the 120-acre spot along the Little Cannon River in part because of its sandy soil.
“Grandpa picked a farm that drains really well,” John said, which is a benefit to free-range turkeys.
The farm was founded when outdoor turkeys were the norm, before the days of large barns filled with thousands of turkeys that has pushed turkey production in Minnesota to 45 million birds per year.
John grew up helping to collect eggs on the farm with his grandfather.
“My grandpa’s first love was breeding and hatching,” John said, with most of the business being selling poults to other turkey growers.
When John’s father, Dick, became more involved in the farm in the mid-1970s, Ferndale expanded the turkey growing part of the operation.
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In 2007, Ferndale got out of the breeding and hatching business to focus on growing turkeys.
“It was so labor intensive,” John said of the hatching business.
John and his wife Erica moved to the farm in 2008, with the mission to create a direct marketing business.
The onsite retail market opened the same year, but most of the turkeys are sold through other grocery stores, and through restaurants and cafeterias at colleges and other institutions.
John and Erica wanted to sell turkey right at the farm and help consumers see where their food comes from.
“You can literally see how turkeys are being grown right from the store,” John said.
John's sister, Katie Peterson, is the marketing and communications directors for Ferndale Market, which also sells beef, chicken and dairy products and seasonal produce from the area.
“There’s a lot of other good things happening in local food and we tried to connect the dots here with being a local food market,” John said.
He said in the early days, they spent a lot of time with the Minnesota Grown directory and getting feedback from customers about what they wanted.
He said their goal was to be “fiercely local.”
“There’s not enough independence left,” he said.
But Ferndale also has plenty of partnerships to make the business work.
Whole turkeys are processed at Turkey Valley Farms in Marshall, Minnesota, but Ferndale also uses three different secondary processors for its various retail products.
One of the secondary processors is Lawrence Meats in Cannon Falls. Ferndale also works with Steve’s Meats in Ellendale in southern Minnesota and Big Steer Meats in St. Paul.
The partnerships also include other growers.
Oakdale Farms in west-central Minnesota is one of a dozen farms to help supply Ferndale.
“They’ve been very welcoming,” said Erica Sawatzke, who operates Oakdale Farms near Kensington.
She called John Peterson “a great leader in the industry.”
Sawatze said her turkeys are not free range and are not labeled as such.
With her farm being in Minnesota lake country, she said Ferndale “agreed that it would be too risky” to have free range birds.
The primary risk is exposure to avian influenza, which has the poultry industry on high alert this year, and can mean the deaths of whole flocks of birds.
Bird flu risks
While having turkeys outside the barns and without antibiotics may seem risky, Peterson is hopeful that being away from other turkey producers and out of the main migratory bird flyway will help keep the bird flu at bay. The farm was able to escape the massive flu outbreak in 2015.
Being away from other turkey and poultry farms “does just take some of that baseline pressure off” but he also admits there is “plenty of risk.”
For now, like most poultry operations, Ferndale has restricted access to its farm because of the bird flu.
He is unsure if they will be able to host the farm tour days as usual this summer. They didn’t offer tours in 2015.
But that transparency is an important part of the business, Peterson says: “We know we have to go out of our way to pull back the curtain and let our customers see how we grow our turkeys and what makes them unique.”