Ferndale Market's John Peterson on why free-range turkey just tastes better

Ferndale Market's John Peterson on why free-range turkey just tastes better
Courtesy of Ferndale Farms

One of the benefits of the increased public awareness about the horrors of factory farming is that even Grandma is starting to realize that not all Thanksgiving turkeys are created equal. While tasteless, steroid-juiced birds may rule your local supermarket, the good news is that there are plenty of family-owned businesses with a strong tradition of treating their flock ethically -- and they are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve.

Ferndale Market is one such farm, located on the same plot of land in Cannon Falls, Minnesota since 1939. We talked to John Peterson, the farm's current steward, to discuss the benefits of the free-range lifestyle, and even persuaded him to share some tips to get the most out of your bird this Thanksgiving.

See also: Compassion Over Killing undercover video alleges abuse at MN turkey farm

The Hot Dish: Your business is a three-generation family operation, correct?

John Peterson: Absolutely, yes. My grandfather got us started, his name was Dale Peterson, and shortly after he got the farm off of the ground he met my grandmother-to-be. Her name was Fern, so that's where our name comes from, and there's a lot of pride for us in having their names on every package of turkey that goes out our door. They got us started 74 years ago, and we still grow our turkeys very much the way that they did.

HD:"Tradition" is another big word we think about around this time of year. What's the Ferndale Farms legacy?

Our tradition is so often felt in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, with all of the preparation to make other families' traditions work smoothly. So actually, our tradition on Thanksgiving is to do as little as possible, because we stuff the days leading up with packing and preparing turkeys, and helping folks pick out just the right bird in our on-farm store. We'll sell about 50 percent of our whole-body turkeys in the month of November.

Dick (Left) and Dale Peterson, during the Farm's earlier days.
Dick (Left) and Dale Peterson, during the Farm's earlier days.
Courtesy of Ferndale Farms

HD:The food, exercise, and health of your turkeys is very important to your company. Could you describe what makes your practices unique?

Our turkeys are grown free-range. That means that during the summer time, they're completely outdoors. We move them rotationally onto fresh grass each and every week, and we believe that that has real benefits, not only from an eating standpoint, but we also think that it's a great lifestyle for those turkeys. They have lots of room to roam, it's a very low-density environment, and obviously they have access to sunshine, fresh grass, insects, and we also think it's better for the land. Because of that rotational system, we're not overusing any one part of our farm. It's sort of a closed cycle where one flock of birds fertilizes it for the next batch that comes through.

HD:While your business predates the use of the term "free-range," do you think the fact that people are becoming more aware of the concept is helpful to Ferndale?

It's really funny that you bring that up, because I was actually just thinking about that over the past week or so. Because, 30 years ago, and certainly 40 years ago, what we're doing would have been considered fairly conventional. The term is relatively new, but it's probably only widely used today because it was the assumption, 40 or 50 years ago. Frankly, this is how everyone used to grow turkeys and we were just sort of the holdout that didn't change when most people went to confinement setups.

The same is true of antibiotics. We don't use any on our farm, we have USDA approval to make the "Raised Without Antibiotics" label claim, and that's another area where 50 years ago, we wouldn't have been doing anything unconventional. Now we know they're routinely fed to a lot of livestock and poultry to speed up the rate of growth, and obviously we're not using growth-promoting antibiotics, but there's a lot of pride in our family that we're not having to use treatment-level antibiotics either. That tells us that our husbandry practices are working and that we're able to keep birds healthy, working with nature and keeping a really close pulse on what's happening with the flock.

HD:Is there a discernible taste difference to turkeys that have been raised with such love and care?

There are a few reasons that I think our turkeys do taste different. One of them is certainly that lifestyle. I think that it only stands to reason that when birds are out on pasture and they're moving so much more, and those muscles are getting so much more exercise, the flavor is, I believe, much more rich. You can even see it in a dressed bird, side by side. That dark meat is a little richer in color.

But I would actually argue that the greater taste difference with our birds comes from the fact that ours are all naturally processed. We don't add any water, we don't add any saline or basting solution of any kind, so we often have our customers tell us that our turkeys taste like turkey used to taste. Just tasting real turkey, without anything that's masking or altering that flavor does give our bird a pretty unique taste.

The Peterson clan today.
The Peterson clan today.
Courtesy of Ferndale Farms

HD:You've become extremely popular with local restaurateurs. Who have you worked with?

We actually have a great lineup of restaurants that will be serving our turkey. Primarily the restaurants that are really chef-driven, independently minded, and focused on local sourcing. A couple that come to mind initially are Lucia's, Butter Bakery & Café, Bewitched Deli....that's us!

HD:I'm sure you keep the family's Thanksgiving recipe a closely guarded secret, but I'd love to get a couple of tips for folks cooking at home. What's one common mistake you see people make when preparing your turkeys? I think the most common mistake is that people tend to over-cook turkeys. We've all heard the stories about dry turkeys, and really that all comes from overdoing the bird. Really, turkey should be a nice juicy, flavorful meat, so my perennial thanksgiving tip is "Get a good meat thermometer." No matter how you cook that bird, whether you're doing it on a grill, in an oven, whether you brine it or baste it or whatever, watch your temperature. When that bird gets to 165, pull it out of the oven, let it rest for about 20 minutes, let those natural juices re-absorb into the meat, and you'll end up with a good, juicy turkey!

HD:What's one ingredient you can't live without when it comes to prepping your bird for the family table?

I'm a huge fan of dressing. It's not Thanksgiving without turkey, but it's not Thanksgiving without dressing either!

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