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‘It’s never too late to follow your dreams’

Turners Fresh Market continues to pay it forward with a handful of community-centric projects

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January 9, 2024

WAUPACA – For those at Turners Fresh Market, it’s always been about community.

For the past six decades, third-generation co-owner John Turner said Turners Fresh Market has not only offered farm-fresh produce but also a sense of community. 

“We are an active farm – we grow for our market, but also for local grocery stores and have a wholesale operation,” he said.

A look back

John said Turners was originally started as a dairy farm by his grandparents – John and Lulu Turner – in the Township of Belmont.

In 1949, the land was sold to the State of Wisconsin through eminent domain and is now known as the Faraway Valley Loop of the Emmons Creek Fishery of Hartman’s State Park on Stratton Lake Road in Waupaca, and includes a stretch of the Ice Age Trail.

In hindsight, John said the eminent domain sale gave his grandparents the nudge they needed to follow a dream.

“They had always dreamed of starting a fruit and vegetable farm with a market,” he said.

John said his grandparents started small.

“It initially started as a card table on the side of Highway 54,” he said. “My grandmother would also travel on the Chain of Lakes to the cottages on the lake (to sell produce).”

What makes this interesting, John said, is that his grandfather was close to 54 years old when he started Turners.

“Not a spring chicken,” he said. “I always tell people Turners is an example of it’s never too late to follow your dreams.”

From the beginning, John said his grandfather was in charge of the planting and harvesting, while his grandmother was the salesperson.

“My grandmother was the face of the farm to the public,” he said. “She was an extraordinary lady whose presence in the Waupaca community is still felt today. She was generous, thoughtful and good at seeing people. That became one of the major reasons people came to Turners – to spend time with my grandmother and be in a place that was so kind and comforting.”

John said those same values continue to be the focus of the farm, market and brand to this day.

John said his father, Ross, purchased the farm in 1976.

“He had been one of the first people to go to college and was on track to become a history professor,” he said. “But while he was studying overseas, he realized how much he was in love with the family farm and the practice of farming.”

That, John said, is when Turners saw significant growth in terms of scale of the farm.

Eventually, a small market replaced the card table, a bigger market replaced the small market and finally, the market moved into an extension of the barn, where it resides today.

“Our wholesale operation became a thing during this time, as did Turners’ sweet corn – which is still to this day, our No. 1 cash crop and is one of the reasons people come to Turners,” he said. “He was largely responsible for some of those advances. And he’s still farming today at 73.”

Ross, John and his twin sister, Tara Roberts-Turner, co-own and -operate the farm today.

Much like his father, John said he, too, had aspirations of becoming a teacher.

“I studied philosophy and was going to become a teacher, and my sister was pre-med initially and then moved into teaching, but the family farm beckoned her back from the East Coast and me from Tennessee,” he said. “Every family member has tried to leave and yet have found their way back.”

Not only is carrying on the legacy of his father and his grandfather “pretty special,” John said the generational impact Turners Fresh Market has had on the community is equally special.

“I am working at the same place my grandparents and my dad did,” he said. “We have plenty of people who have grown up with the farm who came here as a small child, who are coming back now with grandkids. The multi-generational aspect is beautiful. We get to be a part of other families’ lives because we’ve been around for a while. As we’ve passed things down throughout our family, they, too, have passed down the experience of coming to the farm.”

Supporting community producers

Over the years, as the market has grown, John said Turners began offering shelf space to local producers to sell their products.

“In the last several years, we’ve begun to think of Turners Fresh Market as a community market, and what we mean by that is we are much more active in soliciting other community/local producers – whether that be produce or value-added items,” he said. “One, because we want to continue to grow to be a one-stop shop for people in terms of not only their fresh produce needs, but their locally sourced grocery items as well.”

Collaborating with other local producers and creators, John said, also helps create and maintain a more “appealing community experience.”

“We have found the more we work with other farmers and producers, the more interesting relationships come to Turners, and the more Turners becomes a local social hub in the community,” he said. 

Year-round market

Those partnerships, John said, will continue to expand with the plans of opening Turners Fresh Market year-round.

“Up to this point, we’ve been a market that’s open for half a year,” he said. “It’s been an outdoor market, and it’s not set up for the cold winters. But we are in the process (of making upgrades), and this year we will be open in the wintertime.”

Much of these first few months of 2024, John said, is being spent looking at what being open year-round will look like.

“Typically, we start with our greenhouse season, which is spearheaded by my sister – that’s the initial kick-off – and includes everything from fruits and vegetables to annuals and perennials,” he said. “We are adding native plants this year. And then we move into asparagus season and strawberry season. Sweet corn season starts a little bit before the Fourth of July. Eventually, we move into the fall season, which begins with tomatoes and then goes into all of the fall activities – pumpkins, hay rides and winter squash.”

With the introduction of a winter season this year, John said Turners is looking at how it can grow more in its hoop houses to extend the season into the colder winter months, as well as professionally freezing crops for sale in the winter.

“We will provide customers with the option of buying Turners’ sweet corn, where everything is already processed and frozen and ready to pick up,” he said. “We’ve seen a huge dedication by our community at large to buy local. So, if we can extend that experience into the winter, we feel like we’ll continue to see people show up for it.”

During the peak of the season, John said Turners employs about 30 people, which can come with some difficulties.

“It’s always tricky being a seasonal employer,” he said.

By expanding the farm’s growing season and keeping the market open year-round, John said he hopes to bring on more year-round employees.

“We have so many people who would love to work year-round, but Halloween would come and that would be the last workday for (our employees) for the most part until we got back into the greenhouse in March,” he said. “That’s a big interruption in people’s work life. That is one of the many hoped results that will come out of opening year-round – that we’ll be able to retain people year-round as well.”

Butterfly habitat

The farm’s proximity to the Ice Age Trail, John said, has allowed Turners to create a unique gathering place.

“We’re fortunate enough to have the Ice Age trail run through our farmland,” he said. “And we have an area of land that is right between our two fields that won’t be farmed but will be turned into a butterfly habitat and hiking trails. We’re also hoping to have a meditative labyrinth and maybe have an amphitheater for community events.”

John said the project is in progress but will take a couple of years to complete.

“Whether people are coming to the market and they happen upon the trail, or they’re on the trail and they happen upon the market – the butterfly habitat and some of the other things that will be on this land, we hope will allow Turners to become more of a family destination,” he said.

A community ketchup

Last fall, for the first time in its history, Turners Fresh Market produced its own line of gourmet ketchup. 

“Tomatoes are a high-yielding crop, and there’s always more than we can get rid of in a year,” he said. “This is an opportunity to work with some of the extra tomatoes we have and give it a go on having our first gourmet item.”

John said Turners spent an entire year working on the recipe, which included collaborating with local chefs to get things right.

“We partnered with (the Central Rivers Farmshed) in Stevens Point, which provided a commercial kitchen, as well as a lot of experience and know-how in terms of taking the steps in producing, canning and making sure it was legitimate with state approval,” he said.

John said the plan is to make more ketchup this coming season, with aspirations of creating even more gourmet products in the future.

“We are hoping that within the next three years, the ketchup can grow to be more of a regional brand, where you would see it in places like Green Bay and Milwaukee and Eau Claire and maybe downtown Chicago even,” he said. “We plan to expand our gourmet line this year. We’ll work our ever-popular sweet corn into a corn salsa, and then with our pumpkins – our No. 2 cash crop – we’ll be adding pumpkin butter this year as well.”

Paying it forward

Describing the ketchup launching process as a “community endeavor,” John said Turners plans to do what it can to help others in similar situations.

“We are also hoping to build a commercial kitchen to not only create our gourmet products but also expand the opportunities for the community,” he said. “If someone makes great tamales, they can come into Turners to make them in a commercial kitchen, and then we can help them package them so they can be sold at stores.”

From the commercial kitchen to the butterfly habitat to selling locally made products at its soon-to-be year-round market, John said Turners plans to continue its community-centric focus.

“When folks come to Turners, they can do everything from local grocery shopping to educational family fun outdoors,” he said.

For more information on Turners Fresh Market, visit or check out the farm’s Facebook page.

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