Fresh over frozen: The early bird get a free-range turkey

John Peterson, of Ferndale Market, is pictured among his farm's free-range turkeys Monday, October 8, 2012 in Cannon Falls.

It's time to talk turkey. What will it be on your holiday table this year — a fresh, free-range bird or a frozen one from the supermarket?

Better decide soon if it is going to be a free-range. They go fast. A loyal coterie prefers fresh over frozen and is willing to pay a premium, since it is Thanksgiving, after all.

Advocates of free-range birds say they taste better and are more nutritious since they haven't been pumped up with antibiotics and hormones, flavorings, water and saline.              

Minnesota is the nation's largest producer of turkeys, with 46 million going to market last year. Suppliers include Ferndale Market, in Cannon Falls, undoubtedly the largest independent turkey grower in our area, if not the state.

It is a unique operation. Family owned, it was started in 1939 by Dale Peterson and his wife, Fern, hence the name.


"They combined their first names," said John Peterson, the third generation to be involved and the grandson of the founders.

Interestingly, the Petersons have not changed the way they raise turkeys in all these years. "The birds are roaming around much the same way and on the same land as they did 73 years ago," John said.

What, exactly, is a free-range turkey?

Just what it sounds like — the turkeys are pretty much on their own, John said.

"During the spring and fall, when the weather can be iffy, they can still be outside, but there is a heated house where they go," he said. "If it is a warmer day, they'll come back out. Their indoor-outdoor environment is excellent and they have a lot of space to roam and run.They are smart enough to figure it out.

"From April to mid-September they go to 15 acres of pasture, where we have shelters and water and they can forage," John said. "We keep 7,000 in a smaller pasture and 14,000 on a larger one."

Predators are kept at bay: "There are quite a few coyotes around, but we do have a perimeter fence with barbed wire on top," John said. "That does a good job of keeping them out."

This time of year, the Petersons are busy  filling turkey orders — they expect to sell well more than 1,000. In addition to fresh birds, they also have frozen turkeys as well as frozen turkey parts and ground turkey year-round.


Ferndale's fresh turkeys are available at People's Food Coop and Just Rite Supermarket in Rochester. The farm also supplies turkeys to several local colleges and the Rochester public schools.

This weekend, Ferndale Market will hold its annual Turkey Fest celebration — 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. The celebration includes live music and samplings of the more than 60 local vendors whose products are carried at the market.

A highlight will be at 3 p.m. Saturday, when Donald Selmer, executive chef at Bon Appetit Food Service in Minneapolis, will demonstrate roasting a turkey. The market is about 1/8-mile west of U.S. 52 on County Road 24.

A turkey farmer has got to have a favorite way to prepare the bird. What's John's?

"On the grill," he said. "I love the flavor it gets and that frees up room for all the 'sides' in the oven."

Free-range turkeys are also found at Summer Hill Family Farm, in Lanesboro, though on a smaller scale.

This year, owner Sarah Fendry has 200 birds ready to sell. More than half of them already have been spoken for.

Fendry's turkeys have been raised on an acre with a shelter where they are locked in at night to keep out of harm's way. The birds are fed an all-organic certified feed, which the family mixes themselves. Fendry has been taking orders at the Rochester Farmer's Market, but can also be reached by phone. Ordered birds are available for pickup at Miracle Mile Shopping Center the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.


Callister Farms, in West Concord, also offers free-range turkeys. Longtime turkey and chicken producer Lori Callister's poultry is very much in demand, and she often sells out this time of year. It's still worth checking to see if she has some available.

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