A Q&A with John Peterson, General Manager and Farmer
How long have you been in operation, and how did you get started?
My family has been raising turkeys on our farm in Cannon Falls since 1939. Our farm was founded by my grandparents, Fern & Dale Peterson, so we’re very proud to continue to have their name — Ferndale — on all our products. My grandfather picked our farm near the Little Cannon River for its sandy soil, which makes it very well suited for growing turkeys outdoors. He chose a farm that continues to serve us and our turkeys well after 80 years.
What makes your farming operation stand out?
Ironically, our biggest point of difference is how little has changed on our farm over the past 80 years. We continue to grow our turkeys outdoors (free range) throughout the warmer months, and without antibiotics or growth promotants. All of our turkey products are naturally processed, without any of the added water and salt found in conventional poultry. It’s a source of great pride that we continue to grow our turkeys in the same way my grandfather did in 1939, and we’re fortunate to have the land, space, equipment and experience to continue doing it this way.
How has the partnership with the co-op supported you during this challenging time?
Our co-op partners have provided us with tremendous support and stability through this time. Typically, our demand is balanced between retail and foodservice channels, with a good portion of the foodservice product going to colleges, schools and restaurants. Of course, all of that business has been severely impacted by the pandemic, so the continued support from the co-ops has been invaluable. We’ve been able to shift some of our foodservice products to the co-ops, which has helped us regain a portion of the sales we’ve lost. The co-ops are true partners, and we appreciate the genuinely collaborative spirit to try to find ways to support farmers through this disruptive time.
What impact has COVID-19 had on your farm?
Thankfully, our turkeys don’t know there’s a pandemic, so our daily rhythms on the farm remain the same, which provides a good sense of normalcy during this time. When I’m out on range in a flock of turkeys, I can temporarily forget the crisis we’re all experiencing these days. That said, the impact has been felt strongly in the demand shifts mentioned above, and in the tremendous sense of empathy we’ve felt for our foodservice partners and our fellow farmers. We work closely with a lot of chefs and restaurant owners, and we know the challenge for them is immediate.
What is the biggest challenge facing local farmers right now?
I’d say the biggest challenge is the uncertainty. While the business world is talking about “pivoting” and “new normals,” we’re not able to make quick shifts in farming. It takes months to grow a flock of turkeys, and we depend on the seasonal patterns and cycles to plan our year. Every decision made on a farm tends to have a very long tail. The same is true for most others in agriculture, so the uncertainty of the coming months and years makes it extremely difficult to plan.
How can co-op shoppers support you right now?
I think the most important thing consumers can do is shop with their values. At the outset of the pandemic, we saw tremendous disruption in the world’s largest meat-packing companies, and the liability of the massive consolidation in our food economy. Now more than ever, consumers have a chance to support the farms, models and practices that they value, to ensure that they’re able to sustain themselves through the pandemic. We have a chance now to shape what food and farming will look like on the other side of the pandemic.
What is your favorite way to prepare turkey?
I actually love turkey in almost any form! These days, I’ve been eating a lot of our Birchwood Café turkey burgers, and quick-and-simple smoked turkey breast sandwiches as I try to keep running fast during our busy season heading toward Thanksgiving!