Senior Connections Senior Connections Mar 2019 - Page 2

Photo by Kim Herzog Jean Peterson and Al Sterner high-five after taking the sweet corn emblem from its post on the Peterson Produce sign. Produce stand deconstruction marks the end of an era GABE LICHT Delano Herald Journal Editor The husband-and-wife team of Al Sterner and Jean Peterson high-fived as they took the sweet corn emblem down from its post on the Peter- son Produce sign along Highway 12 in Indepen- dence, marking the end of the sweet corn season in 2014. After selling flowers in 2015 and renting out the stand in 2016 and 2017, they deconstructed it in August 2018. The greenhouse came down three months later so it could be sold to someone new. For the first time since 1982, the space is bare. Now, only the Peterson Produce sign bearing the slogan “Goodness Grows!” remains. That, and the memories. Al remembers an elderly woman from Buf- falo who always told him she could get produce cheaper elsewhere. When he finally asked her why she didn’t do so, she told him it was because his produce was the best. Jean remembers their teenaged employees shouting their motto, “We do good work!” in an effort to stay positive while toiling in the heat. “The kids were like a crop,” she said of the esti- mated 130 young people who helped on the farm. “They grew up here.” A young father once approached Al with a youngster in tow and said, “When I was 4 years old, my parents brought me here. Now, I bring my 4-year-old.” “Over 30 years, we saw our customers’ kids 2 Senior and grandkids come out,” Al said. On the other side of the age spectrum, Jean re- calls June Sutton insisting on picking asparagus despite being more than 80 years old. She worked next to Jean’s father, Gordy, as well as much younger home-schooled students. The couple also remembers how difficult it was when they started Peterson Produce with Rob and Maria Peterson in the 1981. Jean had been a teacher and Al had operated a crating business before both making a career change that was any- thing but lucrative at first. “It was not an easy job,” Jean said. “The first year, each of us got $750. It was a minor miracle that we kept going. It got better. People asked us, ‘Are you in it for the long haul?’ We’d say, ‘Yes,’ and they’d say, ‘OK, we won’t plant a garden.’” Rob and Maria were involved with Peterson Produce for two years. The operation started small, with just a few acres, including onions, peppers, green beans, and a few hundred tomato plans. They peaked at about 75 acres, including 25-plus acres of sweet corn, 10 to 12 acres of pumpkins, four acres of asparagus, and about 5,000 tomato plants. They served as an anchor vendor at the Mound Farmers Market and had a satellite farm stand at Meyer Bros. Dairy in Wayzata. At one point, they toyed with growing larger and selling wholesale produce, but decided against it. “We didn’t want to keep expanding,” Al said. “We wanted to keep it a mom-and-pop produce Connections March 2019 stand. We focused on the asset we had: Highway 12. We focused on having people come here.” They settled into their natural positions, with Jean working in the garden and Al manning the produce stand. “Al likes to talk, so he did most of the selling,” Jean said. “ . . . The parts of the farm I liked, Al didn’t prefer that as much.” Al said they balance each other out, comparing Jean to twin 300-horsepower engines on the back of a boat and himself as the boat anchor. Jean agreed, saying, “We worked together and still got along.” They focused on sustainability as charter mem- bers of the Crow River Chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota. “We did not have weed-free fields, but we did well,” Jean said. “We were proud of the ability to be productive with a high-quality product,” Al said. Some years that was more difficult than others. “1988 was the worst year,” Al said. “We still made money, but we harvested very little com- pared to what we should have.” They believe what made Peterson Produce suc- cessful was the never-ending support from the community, both their customers and the young people who helped them on the farm. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” Jean said. In a way, that support made it more difficult to step away, as it took three years to make the final decision. “We finally both said, ‘Let’s give it a whirl,’” Jean said. “We knew we could start up again if we missed it terribly. I’ve settled into this like a champion. I feel good about what we did, and that’s good for me.” Submitted photo Jean Peterson and Al Sterner are pictured in front of a partially-deconstructed produce stand in August 2018. Senior Connections HJ.COM