In one of the final days before our world came to a virus-induced halt, I attended the funeral for Marlene Willis. Marlene was our very first retail clerk at Ferndale Market, hired right before we opened our on-farm store in the fall of 2008. Her hiring was purely a matter of dumb luck and good timing, as my mom happened to bump into Marlene and she expressed an interested in our store-to-be. I called her up and offered her a job – no application or interview needed. That’s how the best things work in a small community. We’d known Marlene and her history in local retail, owning the Hallmark store and working the front desk at the Cannon Falls Beacon newspaper.
From the start, she was our biggest fan, even when we probably didn’t deserve the cheerleading. We were total retail novices, but she encouraged us forward, making signage and teaching us how to better merchandise. She told me never to worry too much about slow days (we had plenty), and that retail was an impossible science to figure out (also true). In the early days, our wholesale customers would call their orders into the store directly and Marlene would often give me a high five when a big turkey order came in.
She liked good food but loved retail work even more, taking pride in her salesmanship. I once had her give samples of our local apples paired with St. Pete’s Blue Cheese from Caves of Faribault (a combo I love). She sold the duo with gusto, only later telling me that she didn’t like the smell of blue cheese. She always wanted to try new things and keep the store fresh, so I know she’d be amazed at our quick launch of curbside pickup and local delivery, and the breadth of new products we’ve discovered.
Most of the employees we’ve hired since have felt invested in the way we farm: independently, outdoors, and without growth promotants. It’s the foundation of who we are, so we typically incorporate a farm tour into all staff training. Marlene, on the other hand, preferred to steer clear of the turkeys but seemed amazed by the many visitors eager to see the farm and learn more. She’d grown up on a farm in the 1940s, so none of our practices seemed novel to her, although she did like to call herself the “Old Turkey” at Ferndale Market.
During these challenging times in our world, it’s a joy to think of Marlene and reflect on our early days here. Now more than ever, we can all use some of Marlene’s wisdom. I think she’d say to enjoy good food, take care of those around you, and always remember to have a good time. I’d second that.
Our farm’s work and story is fueled by our human flock – our long time employees, supporters, and partners. Thanks for your support throughout our journey at Ferndale Market.