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Riedell’s Got Moxi

Members of the Moxi Skate Team in Long Beach, California. Moxi’s Lolly skates and Jack boots are made in the Driftless at Riedell Skate Co. in Red Wing, Minnesota / Photo courtesy Moxi Skate Team

 

When roller skating pro Michelle Stielen founded Moxi Skates in Long Beach, California in 2008, she wanted to create a new style of roller skates – colorful, fun, and American-made, to boot. She looked to Riedell Skating Co. in Red Wing, Minnesota, to get it done. Ten years later, during a pandemic and a huge surge in skating popularity, doing so was another story.

By Erin Dorbin • Originally published in the Holiday + Winter 2020-21 Inspire(d) 

Finding joy through 2020 has been different for everyone. For some, it’s mastering the art of bread baking, or a phone call with a friend. For others – an increasing amount of others – it’s lacing up and rolling in a brand new pair of roller skates.

 “Everyone in a pair of skates, with a smile to start their day,” says Michelle Stielen. This was what she imagined in 2008 when she first founded Moxi, a lifestyle roller skating brand based in Long Beach, California…whose skates are made right here in the Driftless at Riedell Skate Co. in Red Wing, Minnesota.

Moxi’s effervescent, colorful designs stand out from the monochromatic skates of old, and in 2020, they have become one of the most desirable commodities on the market. Michelle says it’s been a transformational year for the company.

 During the nationwide stay-at-home orders in April 2020, social media worked its algorithmic magic to lure popular culture back into a pair of roller skates. The public was awestruck by the viral videos of fearless outdoor skaters in candy-colored gear effortlessly cruising city streets, or dropping in at the skate park to show off their acrobatic skills. While the rinks were closed, skaters of all abilities filmed videos at home and in the streets that inspired viewers to creatively make use of the everyday skate spaces we have: kitchens, garages, sidewalks, cul de sacs, living rooms, etc.

The Riedell-crafted Lolly skates (top photo) are “our bread and butter, our number-one seller,” says Michelle. They fit so well, she says it’s “as if our feet naturally sprouted wheels.” These retail for $350-$400. Can’t afford to invest in your skating future at that price point? Moxi can get you rolling from $99-150 with their imported vegan Beach Bunny, Panthers, Jungle, and new Rainbow Riders skates (pictured, bottom photo)  / Photos courtesy Moxi Skate Team

 The most popular of these videos and images were posted by the Moxi Skate Team. Their organizer, Michelle, is part gymnast and part stuntwoman on wheels. She even recently worked as a stunt double for Margot Robbie in the Hollywood blockbuster, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.

These skaters were inspiring even the most uncoordinated to lace up and get moving! That’s all, of course, if you could find an available pair of Moxi Skates. As of right now, Moxis are sold out from retailers across the nation.

 This is a big win for family-owned Riedell Skate Co. It’s also a big challenge during a pandemic.

It’s October 2020, National Roller Skating Month (dedicated in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan). At the Riedell headquarters, Bob is beaming. He wants to know who saw the piece on roller skating that morning on Good Morning America. By this point in the year, roller skating is everywhere, and the nationwide skate shortage is covered in Vogue, Vice, New York Times, Huffington Post, and more.

Michelle Stielen is part gymnast and part stuntwoman on wheels. / Photo courtesy Moxi Skate Team

Why the shortage?

 As the Moxi Skate Team was heating up social media with inspiring posts from Long Beach, manufacturing in Red Wing was brought to a sudden, toe-stop halt. Riedell was deemed “nonessential” manufacturing in Governor Walz’s executive shutdown order.

“We’ve been working really hard for the past 10 years to make roller skates the shoes of the future,” says Moxi Skate Team member and brand employee Marin Wendoll, a.k.a. “Legs.” “That’s why we were like, ‘Oh my gosh! Look at all of these orders! This is so exciting!’” But, the Riedell Shoe Factory would remain closed for a total of six weeks during the shutdown as the online orders simultaneously flooded into the company.

 “Who would have ever guessed COVID would have been an accelerant to outdoor roller skating?!” asks Riedell’s president and CEO, Bob Riegelman. “I certainly didn’t.”

 Bob wrote an impassioned, if not desperate, letter to the head of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to allow Riedell to resume manufacturing due to the tenfold surge in Moxi Skate orders. His local representative, Barb Haley, of District 21A, and state senator, Mike Goggin, invited Bob to testify during the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Committee hearing in late April 2020 to advocate for the reopening of manufacturing across the state before Governor Walz.

 Riedell had already been closed for four weeks at the time of the Senate hearing.

 “What’s disheartening for me,” Bob said in his statement, “is that we’ve been deemed nonessential, yet we service the fitness, health and wellness, and recreation market. More and more people, believe it or not, are buying roller skates. People are using them for transportation. And it’s becoming very, very, very difficult to continue [production]. We’re losing customers right and left.”

Riedell quickly developed a COVID plan, purchased PPE for staff, and by early May Minnesota’s governor determined they were able to resume production. Riedell’s 120 workers were back on the factory floor assembling and shipping Moxi Skates.

Moxi Skates – these are Riedell-made Lollys – come in a rainbow of colors / Photo courtesy Moxi Skates Team

Moxi & Riedell Partnership:

In 2020, Riedell Skates celebrated its 75th anniversary. Founded by Paul Riedell in 1945, today the four brothers – Scott, Dan, Paul, and Bob Riegelman – are the third generation devotedly leading the company as a team, producing the highest quality roller and ice skates in the nation.

“We’re pretty ordinary people and we’re pretty loyal,” says Bob. “Our grandparents started the business here, and one of our greatest assets is our employee base.”

Riedell entrance / Photo by Erin Dorbin

Impressively, the average length of service at Riedell is 28 years, and a number of its workers even celebrated their 44th year in 2020. (Happy 44th to Cindy, Barb, Roger, Brenda, and all!)

Roughly a decade ago, Riedell was looking for a roller skate sales representative on the West Coast. Michelle Stielen was one of the applicants for the job. “I’d never found somebody with so much passion for roller skating in my life,” recalls Bob. While she wasn’t hired for that position, they stayed in contact.

 Michelle branched out on her own to promote outdoor roller skating and open up her own skate shop in Venice, California. One day the shop’s regular UPS driver paid Michelle an extra special compliment that helped shape her brand. “You’ve got a lot of moxie!” he told her. The word “moxie” represents bravery, strength, and fortitude. These were the characteristics she believed define her roller skating brand. From that point forward, the shop and brand were known as Moxi (they dropped the “e” for the name).

 Known in the skate community as “Estro Jen” from her roller derby days, Michelle noticed an absence of colorful skates on the market. So, she decided to transform the market. Michelle reached back out to Riedell.

 “American-made is fascinating to me,” she says. “Almost 100 percent of U.S. shoes are made in another country. I found it incredible that there was one factory still around making footwear that glided on wheels. I really, really, really wanted to do whatever I could to work with them to create an American-made roller skate boot.”

 Moxi and Riedell partnered on a series of skates based on Michelle’s designs. Bob describes the Moxi skates as “more of a lifestyle skate” compared to the other ice and roller skate brands they manufacture. While it’s a little confusing to the consumer who’s behind which part of the process, he offers clarification: Riedell owns and produces the Moxi Skates. The larger Moxi brand, www.MoxiSkates.com website, and accessories are owned and managed by Michelle and her team in California – they can be thought of as the brand identity and retail business.

 Moxi Skates come in a variety of colors and styles that can be custom ordered with choices in colors of boot, wheels, linings, laces, frames, toe stops, and more. Those orders are then busily filled at Riedell. Staff have since committed to 62-hour workweeks in an attempt to catch up on the backlog of orders. The company hired 15 additional employees, and are still looking for more to get their eager customers rolling on their Moxi Skates.

 For years, the production timeline for a pair of Lolly skates or Jack boots (the two Moxi lines made in Red Wing) was 4-7 weeks. In October of 2019, they managed to get to a point where Riedell could produce and ship them in 5-7 days, and keep them in stock. They proudly maintained this speedy production schedule until the March 2020 COVID shutdown.

Each skate boot receives a quick blast of heat and pressure in the bottoming process to secure the soles. From there, the heel is added and the skate bottoms are given their final shape / Photo by Erin Dorbin

Renée individually cleans each skate boot with a fine-grit sandpaper before they’re sent to a final quality control station / Photo by Erin Dorbin

Arline sews the two halves of the skate uppers together in the fitting process / Photo by Erin Dorbin

 Soon, estimated delivery times were delayed for weeks and sometimes months. And a few months later, production times were completely out the window as the companies where Riedell source their raw materials were struggling to meet the increased demand, too. Those suppliers were operating at 50 percent or less capacity. “Everything was interrupted,” Vice President Scott Riegelman says.

 “We’d love to add a 2nd shift here,” Scott admits, “but it’s hard to find workers, locally. Unemployment is low in Red Wing.” The rate is currently around 5 percent. Pre-pandemic, it held at 3.1 percent, slightly below the 3.7 percent national average.

 At a loss for enough full-time workers, Riedell partnered with a high-end footwear production plant in Arkansas to produce roughly 50 percent of the open orders for the USA-made Moxi Skates.

 Neither Moxi nor Riedell had enough customer service staff to respond to thousands of customer inquiries, either. Harsh criticisms from increasingly frustrated customers began to flood social media.

 Suddenly, this small skate team and lifestyle brand was pushed to function as a much larger and experienced corporation, all within a few months’ time…during a pandemic. It was the double-edged sword of Moxi’s sudden rising success.

 “We were used to making 300 skates a week and now we’re trying to pump out 3,000 a week,” Legs says. “It’s wonderful that Moxi has grown, and roller skating in general, but at the same time it’s uncomfortable to grow so fast in such a short amount of time. You’re learning things really, really quickly.”

 Moxi went from a staff of four to a staff of 25, including a board of directors, a shipping department, customer service and social media teams, and a Chief Operating Officer. In 2020, they also opened up a warehouse in California to help with stocking and shipping.

“It all starts with the leather from an animal.” Ben inspects the leather ahead of the initial cutting process. Sixty pairs of Lolly skates can be made from 2 three-ply yards of material. 2 & 3: Moxi roller skates go through 85 stations before completion. / Photos by Erin Dorbin

4 & 5: A foot form called a “last” is used to mold and shape the uppers into skate boots. Tom, who has 41 years with Riedell, shows off a Lolly skate boot he’s just finished up in the lasting department. 6: Kate inspects each skate boot individually at her quality control station. Then, they’re placed with their accessories in the colorful retro-inspired Moxi Skates box / Photos by Erin Dorbin

Was it possible that Moxi’s vibrant lifestyle brand was made too desirable for the masses? It had become almost painful for some customers to be without their skate orders as they scrolled and scrolled images of smiling, spinning, jumping, and jamming Moxi Skate Team members during quarantine. Customers had had enough of social isolation and wanted in on the fun!

 “On social media, it looks like a big corporate brand. Moxi has great marketing because we’re actually living that skating lifestyle. It’s easy for us to do. People expected us to have everything in place as a large-scale business,” says Legs. “With COVID and the orders, we had to hire so many people so quickly, and train them all so quickly, which causes errors because you don’t have time to train people properly. You’re throwing new staff to the lions!” she jokes, but turns serious again. “We ARE improving and trying to make things better for the customers.”

At Riedell, Bob agrees. “We’re doing everything possible to take care of our customers,” he says. “Our customers have been very, very gracious.”

 Handcrafting even one pair of Moxi Skates at the Riedell factory is no easy feat, though. From start to finish, it requires processes at 85 individual stations. Raw material is first cut from high-quality leather and sent to fitting where the upper is sewn and begins to take shape. “This is where we put the soul in!” veteran employee Barb Peterson – one of the workers who celebrated 44 years with the company– jokes as she moves swiftly and gracefully through boot sole production.

 The next stop is Riedell’s proprietary lasting process that gives the boot its proper, consistent width, size, and shape – this takes an entire day. Then, the boot is sent to bottoming where the sole and skate bottoms are nailed and cemented. From there, it’s off to finishing, where the boots are polished, cleaned, and thoroughly inspected. Next, is attaching the plates and wheels, before packaging. Finally, they are off to shipping.

 Everyone – from staff in shipping with three years’ service to supervisors in their 44th year – confirms they’ve “never seen anything like this” level of interest in their products.

Photo courtesy Moxi Skate Team

Physical movement as social movement

 Moxi, as a lifestyle brand, is also trying to successfully navigate the social and political climate of 2020, with the goal of promoting roller skating as a truly inclusive activity.

 For three centuries, roller skating’s popularity has ebbed and flowed, punctuated by various “craze” periods throughout its history. The pastime originated in London in 1735 and in the late 19th century, the first public rink opened in the city. At the same time, roller skating in the U.S. picked up speed, and in 1866, the first public roller rink opened inside the elegant Atlantic House hotel in Newport, Rhode Island.

 Americans tend to collectively remember the height of roller skating being between the 1930s and early 1960s, and throughout the roller disco era of the 1970s.

Less frequently recalled is that roller skating was an important part of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Roller skating (as most social and public activities) was racialized and American rinks were strictly segregated. Black skaters were only allowed access to the rinks on specific nights, if at all. Outside the rinks, they experienced intimidating and violent policing. Black skaters started organizing for equal access to the roller rinks, hosting large protests and sit-ins.

Roller rink skating was a way for Black Americans to lose themselves in the joy of skating. They expressed their creativity through the wheels on their feet, developing fluid dance-skating styles like the jam skating that is currently trending.

 Roller skating has been a tool of social action in 2020 as well. Black skaters took to the streets on their skates as participants in the Black Lives Matter movement, and we started seeing the message “Black Skaters Matter,” too. The statement is a reminder to the public about the influential black skaters that were initially overlooked when white skaters began heavily trending on social media.

 As part of Moxi’s commitment to inclusivity, they’ve hosted virtual forums on diversity – or lack thereof – in representations of roller skating in popular culture. They hope they can connect with Black, Indigenous, and Skaters of Color in the skate community, and promote and advocate for body positivity as well. Their social media platform is for skaters of all types and sizes, as a place to both improve and show off skating skills. “We are tall, short, thick, and skinny,” says Michelle. “But most important of all, we’re strong”


Erin is a former rink rat who never missed a Friday night skate. She learned how to backwards skate and couples skate (!) at the Long Lake Roller Rink in Vicksburg, MI. (RIP “The Rink” 1952-2018) Erin bought her first pair of Moxis in March 2020 and turned her garage into her own private roller rink. Here, and on her motorcycle, she found joy. Erin also coordinates the Crystal Creek Citizen-Artist Residency in Houston, Minnesota:
www.CrystalCreekCitizenArtist.com


HAVE YOU CAUGHT THE SKATING BUG, BUT IT’S WINTER IN THE DRIFTLESS?

Don’t worry. The Moxi Skate Team reminds us, “Skating’s not a season, it’s a lifestyle.” Hit Moxi’s youtube channel (youtube.com/moxiskates) for beginner to advanced lessons from a diverse group of instructors. You’ll become inspired to transform any open floor space in your home into your own personal roller rink. (Kids, make sure to ask your parents first!)

 As for warmer months in the Driftless, if you can’t find an open rink in your neighborhood, make sure you have some outdoor wheels and try parking lots, your driveway, skate parks, basketball courts, and our scenic Driftless trail systems.

“On skates you see things in your city you’ve never seen before.” Michelle Stielen

Q&A with Dr. Michael Osterholm

By Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Holiday + Winter 2020-21 Inspire(d)

Dr. Michael Osterholm / Photo courtesy Stuart Isett

Perhaps you’ve seen his name in the news: Dr. Michael Osterholm. The nationally renowned epidemiologist has been quoted or published in media outlets across the nation – from New York Times to Oprah – in regards to COVID-19 and other epidemics and disease-related news. He’s one of the many scientists who have been busy studying, researching, reporting facts, and trying to help the world deal with this outbreak.

And he happens to be from Northeast Iowa.

Dr. Osterholm is a Waukon native. He graduated from Waukon High School in 1971, and got a degree in biology – and a second in political science – from Luther College in Decorah in 1975. He then went on to earn two master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota and, finally, a doctorate in environmental health in 1980. After working at the Minnesota Department of Health as a graduate student, then as Minnesota’s state epidemiologist for 15 years, he eventually founded the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in 2001, which he continues to lead.

But how does one follow that path from Northeast Iowa? Epidemiology isn’t a profession you see on a regular basis around here.

According to Dr. Osterholm, epidemiology is basically “medical detective work,” and it’s something that has intrigued him ever since junior high (you’ll hear more about that below). Despite his fame in the field, and now, in the nation, he’s maintained his Midwestern accent and mannerisms – he even thanked me for my time, when he was clearly the one with a tighter schedule. He only had 15 minutes to spare for this interview before Zooming in on at least three more talks that day.

Read on to see all the topics we crammed in to that quarter of an hour – Dr. Osterholm’s background, Zoom sessions, thoughts on COVID-19, and how he likes to keep in touch, even through a pandemic.

Q&A with Dr. Michael Osterholm:

Why did you decide to get into epidemiology?

What happened was I had a close relationship with the woman married to the owner of the Waukon Newspaper, Laverne Hull. She was a real renaissance of a woman. She worked at the newspaper – really, she was part owner too – was multi-lingual – spoke French and English – had a masters in journalism, and subscribed to the New Yorker. She was someone who had a major influence on my life. She would give me these New Yorkers when she was done reading. There was a series of articles in there called the “Annals of Medicine” by Berton Roueché. And Berton Roueché was someone who was a constant storyteller. He would take these outbreak investigations and write them up as kind of “who done it” stories. I loved reading these, even when I was in seventh and eighth grade. Whenever she would get done with a copy, I would quick run and get it. So I even knew back in junior high that I wanted to be a medical detective. So that’s what I pursued.

Has it been as exciting as you thought it would be in seventh and eighth grade?

I had no idea – it was one of those things. It’s like me asking you what your life’s going to be like when you’re 60. It’s just one turn after another. The thing that was most remarkable is that Berton Roueché actually wrote up an outbreak investigation that I led in Southwestern Minnesota back in the 1980s. A thing called thyrotoxicosis, and it was his very last story he wrote before he died. I was able to tell him how he influenced my life, and say “thank you” for all he did for me.

And now we have COVID-19, a type of virus you predicted would happen in our lifetime in your 2017 book, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs. Realistically, how long do you think we’ve got to go before we can be together again, COVID-19 carefree?

We just don’t know yet – clearly it’s going to be challenging in the coming months because we don’t really understand yet how well vaccines will work, we don’t know when people will actually get a vaccine, and how durable the immunity is, meaning will it last for a certain period of time. We just don’t know yet.

What are some things we can all do in order to get there faster?

So, it’s all about distancing, which is a very hard thing to get across to people. You know, it’s basically sharing the air with someone, someone who could be putting the virus out into that air. When you’re indoors, it’s very difficult to distance. Outdoors is easier, but it’s still a challenge.

And masking?

Masking is something everyone should do. I think anything we can do right now to minimize the risk of transmission, we should consider. We still don’t know how well it works; it’s likely just a thing that’s another layer, in effect. Distancing is still by far the most important thing you can do, but also just being aware of being in crowds – in the sense that it’s not just how far away you are from someone, but if I go and spend three hours indoors and I’m more than six feet away from someone, that doesn’t mean that I’ll be safe there. We have many outbreaks right now – bars and restaurants, funerals, weddings, family reunions, school-based activities that are indoors. All of these have led to big outbreaks, right here in the Midwest.

Do you think any number is safe? Less than 25? Less than 10?

There’s nothing magical about 10. It’s more about who your bubble’s with. For example, my partner and I are very bubbled together. So, you know, we can do whatever we want. People who are living together in one building – they can get together pretty routinely if they don’t have outside contact.

You’ve said numerous times you prefer to say physical distancing instead of social distancing – because we still must remain social through COVID-19. We love that. What are your favorite physical distancing activities that still allow you to be social?

 I don’t think there’s been a time in my adult life when social closeness has been more important. So I make sure I see my kids on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and be with them outdoors. I’ll give them each a 30-second hug, then back away at that point, and maintain at least a 10-foot distance outdoors. I go out for walks with my partner frequently in a park near where I live, and feel very comfortable holding her hand as we walk around the park and just staying, you know, at least 10 feet away from everybody outside and I don’t have any concerns at all.

Along those lines, how do you keep in touch with your relatives who are far away? Do you Zoom with them?

I Zoom with them a lot. And for work, too. I work with more than 30 people with our center, and we have our routine Zoom calls. I will often spend eight to 10 hours a day on Zoom.

Whoa, that’s got to be exhausting.

Yeah, it is. I mean, I’m giving a talk here in just a few minutes, and this will be my third talk of the day. And I’ve got three more to go yet before I’m done.

Yeah, you are highly sought after, I imagine.

Well, I can’t say that (laughs). Everything is virtual for me now. I haven’t left Minneapolis since March, which is a big change for me. I’m usually a 200,000-mile-a-year flier, but I haven’t been on a plane since March.

Do you miss it?

Ah, you know… I don’t. I miss the contact with all my friends and family that I once had, but I think travel is something you realize – once you’re not doing it – what it feels like to get off the gerbil wheel.

The theme of this issue of Inspire(d) is “Look for the Bright Spots”. Have you found some bright spots to these past months? Any you could share?

You know, I do a weekly podcast, The Osterholm Update: COVID-19. And with that, we have many thousands of people who download it and listen to it each week. The response we’ve gotten from this podcast… the feedback has been nothing short of remarkable. And it’s been a really positive thing to see all the acts of kindness that people do and follow up on. So I have to say that has probably been one of the really special things. There have been so many people that have done so many kind things. I think that we must not forget that despite what’s going on with this virus right now, there’s a tremendous amount of good in the world.

Find the Osterholm Update: COVID-19 podcast at www.cidrap.umn.edu/covid-19/podcasts-webinars or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or on YouTube.

John Peterson – Ferndale Market

John with his dad, Dick Peterson (and a whole bunch of turkeys) / Photo courtesy Ferndale Market

Introduction by Benji Nichols

A cozy, warm home, filled with the smells of a slow cooked meal can make the magic of a holiday (or any cold day!) come to life.

At the center of many of those meals is often the classic roast turkey. With the hustle and bustle of life, it can seem daunting to take on the loving preparation and time a festive meal may require. But one might argue that there’s never been a better time than right now to revel in the kitchen – it can really bring you back to the present. Turkeys are not all the same though, so before you run out to grab the cheapest grocery-chain bird you can find, consider not just the investment of time you are making, but the investment in quality local food as well.

That is exactly what is at the heart of the third generation, family-run Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. They call it “turkey without shortcuts,” which is an accurate description of how this iconic Minnesota producer raises their table-treasured turkeys.

It all started with Dale, and his wife Fern (get it? Fern-Dale!), Peterson in the late 1930s. The sight of a flock of turkeys, with the run of the range, can be a funny scene to those unfamiliar – with a curious flock staring you down from under a giant oak tree – but Ferndale has always believed in allowing their birds outdoor access through the temperate growing months, and they believe you can taste the difference. And while market preferences and trends have certainly changed, Ferndale continues growing their free-range, raised without antibiotics, delicious turkeys the same way.

2020 and the pandemic have thrown wrenches into every agriculture and food-related business, prompting new ways of selling and delivering product. We have seen losses of larger restaurant and retail partners, while some local and regional food markets have boomed. As winter settles in and the holidays come and go, consider supporting as many local and regional growers and food producers as you can, and enjoying their products as you make your home cozy and delicious-smelling.

Ferndale turkeys, and other tasty products like smoked turkey breast and snack sticks, can be found in our region at the Oneota Food Co-op in Decorah, People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse and Rochester, Bluff Country Co-op in Winona, the Viroqua Food Co-op, Free Range Exchange in Hokah, Parkway Market in Lanesboro, New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, and on the farm in Cannon Falls at Ferndale Market (along with an amazing variety of regional products!). Find more locations across the Midwest and beyond at ferndalemarket.com.

Q&A with John Peterson of Ferndale Market

Name: John Peterson
Age: 40
Business: Ferndale Market – Cannon Falls, Minnesota
Years in Business: Our farm was started in 1939, and we opened Ferndale Market in 2008.

1. Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

Our story might be a little less “leap” and a little more “journey.” I grew up on my family’s turkey farm, and I always enjoyed working outside and with our turkeys.  As a kid collecting turkey eggs and moving ranges, I just didn’t have any idea I would turn it into my career! I studied Business and Communication in college, and in the years after graduating, I worked in admission for my alma mater, Augustana University. It was in these early adult years that my wife, Erica, and I became more engaged with our food system, and realized we had a unique opportunity to return to my family’s farm and begin direct-marketing our turkeys. Prior to that point, my family had sold our turkeys more conventionally to a processor, despite the fact that we continued to grow our turkeys outdoors.

We returned to my family’s farm in 2008, and launched Ferndale Market, named for my grandparents – Fern & Dale – who founded our farm in 1939.  We remodeled our former hatchery into an on-farm local foods market, began developing new turkey products, and connected with restaurants and retailers to carry our turkey.  Thankfully, consumers, chefs, and butchers have seen the difference in our Ferndale Market turkey, so we’re still here today!

When John and his wife, Erica, returned to the family farm in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, in 2008, they remodeled their former hatchery into Ferndale Market, an on-farm local foods market / Photo courtesy Ferndale Market

2. What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

Without a doubt, I most value the diversity in my work.  I can start my day in a flock of turkeys, spend time at our warehouse packing our truck for delivery, talk about a new local product for our on-farm market, and visit with a restaurant chef by day’s end. I love the diversity and connections to both people and our turkeys it allows.

As we’ve grown, we’ve also been able to add partner farms, who follow our same practices and protocols to grow turkeys with us. Connecting with these fellow farmers regularly adds to the diversity of my work too. We have a couple who happen to be in the Driftless region, so I really enjoy getting out to those farms too!

3. How about the worst?

In our type of farming, the most challenging days are typically related to weather or the health of our flocks. With turkeys outdoors, weather impacts everything we do, particularly during the heat of summer or when weather is changing quickly. As a part of our Raised Without Antibiotics program, we work proactively to keep our flocks happy and healthy, so when weather or a health challenge disrupts our best laid plans, it’s always a tough day.

“We’re proud to be the dinosaurs, holding onto the practices we’ve used for 80 years. For us, the equation is simple: having turkeys outdoors makes for a good life for our birds, it’s good for our land, and it makes a good tasting turkey.  It’s a win-win-win, and that makes me proud to carry these practices forward.” – John Peterson / Photo courtesy Ferndale Market

4. Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?

You know, we’ve had plenty of challenges, but I’ve never considered giving up. We believe really strongly in the ways we’re doing things differently on our farm and at Ferndale Market, as well as the different path we are trying to carve in the food and ag space. In a world where the typical distance between farm and plate is long and complicated, we’re passionate about having a closer tie to our food system.

I’m also buoyed by the interactions with our customers, both in our on-farm market and the chefs and butchers we sell to. Most farmers don’t get to know their consumers or have this routine validation for their work, so that’s a big wind in our sails.

5. Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?

 I feel fortunate that others helped to blaze a trail for local foods by the time we launched in 2008, and I consider many of those folks to be mentors and friends.  They created the models for farms like ours to learn from.

In terms of turkey-specific inspiration, I continue to learn a lot of “turkey smarts” from my dad, and view both my dad and grandpa as role models. They maintained our independence and continued growing free-range turkeys long after much of the industry had shifted directions. We’re here today because they had the vision to keep us on this path.

(Left to right) Jane and Dick Peterson, and Erica and John Peterson with their son, Finn / Photo courtesy Ferndale Market

6. What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

I don’t think I can limit it to just one thing! Ignorance is bliss when starting a business, and I’m thankful I was a bit naive to all the things I’d need to know someday. I never took an ag or poultry science class in college, never studied product development, operations, or meat science. I’ve been fortunate to learn a lot along the way, and I know my education is far from complete!

7. How do you manage your life/work balance?

Well, it remains a work in progress. There’s a blessing and a curse to living and working on the same farm, so I try to savor the benefits it provides, since it’s easy for work and home to meld together. I am, however, incredibly fortunate that we have a great and loyal team on our farm and in the market, and that’s a tremendous support to a healthy work life balance. 

8. What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?

This may sound a little corny, but I’m sincerely motivated by the notion that local and sustainable foods can positively shape the world in a meaningful way. This is true both on our farm, and the many other local farmers and food makers we partner with in our on-farm market. When so much of our food and ag economy has been consolidated by global companies, I believe we are doing something inherently different in the way we grow our turkeys, support our rural communities, care for our land and employees, and provide good clean food.  It’s obviously not a new model, but it’s not the standard in agriculture today. The idea that we can make a difference while preserving our way of farming, is incredibly motivating to me. I must still be full of idealism, but that belief keeps me inspired to keep going each day.


Holidays at Home

One of the bonuses about winter is that there are a bunch of fun holidays to celebrate. From Thanksgiving to Christmas to Hanukkah to Lunar New Year to Valentine’s – or Galentine’s – Day and more.

Often, this season means getting together with friends and family or hosting big parties at your house. This year might look a little different, though. But that’s okay! In fact, we encourage celebrating as many holidays as possible through this winter season – think of it like lots of mini-holidays. We all need more reasons to find and create joy.

So how can you make it special without all the extra crew?

Throw a string of twinkly lights across your dining room or kitchen, get out candles, and folk napkins. Plan an “official menu” and write it in fancy writing on a chalkboard or big piece of paper. Set up a cheese board or appetizers and play board games while the main course is in the oven, or have your family make a holiday-themed craft together. And go ahead and go big: roast a whole bird – leftovers are great (you can even freeze some for future soup or sandwiches)!

Still want to see your extended family’s faces? Set up a Zoom party! Create an account and send the Zoom party invite to your group – it’s probably best to keep it to less than 10 people for ease of conversation. Get a computer or device set up on your table so everyone can see and join in. You can even email your menu and recipes in advance, and have others make or buy the same thing, so you’re all enjoying the same food!

Happy holidays, friends. We hope you find joy and peace through this season.