Organic Broadcaster

Catchy name, good planning contribute to success of Locally Laid eggs

By Kelli Boylen

A sassy name, thoughtful business plan and strict adherence to sustainable practices has propelled an egg company in the northlands of Minnesota to success.

Jason Amundsen feeds the flock at his farm in Minnesota. Locally Laid eggs has about 2,500 pastured hens there and on partner farms in Iowa and Indiana. Photo submitted

What started as a backyard flock has turned into 2,500 pasture-raised hens for Lucie and Jason Amundsen of Wrenshall, Minn. They launched “Locally Laid” eggs just over three years ago following a year of education and research after Jason lost his full-time job.

Lucie was reluctant about the venture, especially after attending conferences where she left feeling LoLa (“short for Locally, short for Laid” and the name of each and every one of their chickens) didn’t fit in. “We were either too small or too big to truly make sense anywhere we went.” She said this to University of Minnesota Duluth professor Randy Hansen.

“He told me I wasn’t stuck in the middle, but rather I was the middle—and he pointed me to academic reading about this stressed ag segment. It was like a light was switched on.”

What Lucie read was that, without this middle ag segment where not-too-big, but not-too-small farms fill the role of small businesses in rural locales, these communities were simply going away.

“According to USDA Census data, we’ve lost some 130,000 of these farms over a 10- year period. And that impacts the farmhands, of course, but also the feed mill, the farm store, the raw food processor, the packers and, ultimately, things like the town tax base and schools.” That’s when Lucie said she truly understood the power behind sourcing and selling locally.

The Amundsens had noticed that the local food co-op in nearby Duluth sold eggs that were produced outside the region. “Truly, there was a need for a closer-to-home producer,” Lucie said. “But, it wasn’t until Jason lost his job that the idea started to seem do-able.”

To learn how to expand beyond their backyard flock, Jason took a MOSES Organic University course on pastured poultry in 2012. He also was mentored through the Lake Superior Sustainable Farming Association, University of Minnesota Duluth Center for Economic Development and Springfield Farm in Maryland.

Lucie has a background in marketing (she refers to herself as the “marketing chick”) and was able to apply those skills to give their business a good start. She understood the value of a name that was descriptive to the product, the need to spend precious start-up money on a strong logo and the power of story.

“Actually during these early years of farming, I finished my master’s in nonfiction writing. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one of my classmates who uses the degree to ghostwrite for a chicken,” she added.

But, Lucie contends all the marketing wouldn’t have made this happen without Jason’s entrepreneurial vision. “I don’t see the world the way he does. Jason sees opportunity and understands how a product could fit into a supply chain and how a multitude of people could benefit.”

They have faced many challenges. An early one was getting the rules and regulations for the processing facility, building it to spec and then learning that the state had accidentally not sent the last two pages – which included important items that essentially make the workspace into a commercial kitchen.

“I cried,” said Lucie. “Our chickens were dropping eggs that we legally couldn’t sell. It was an incredible low, but Jason popped right back up and immediately starting looking for a place to rent.”

Lucie and Jason Amundsen (pictured with their kids, Abbie and Milo) own the Locally Laid egg company, based in northern Minnesota. Photo submitted

They started selling eggs under the Locally Laid label in August of 2012.

The idea of partner farms came when Jason was approached by a group of farmers. Originally Lucie was very leery, thinking that historically contract production has consistently turned out so poorly for the farmer.

“But Jason pointed out an important piece – we could write open, fair, honest contracts that would not suck for the producers.” Lucie said she had another light-bulb moment, “Hey, the contracts don’t have to suck! Also, when I saw the difference that using value-chains (rather than vertical supply chains where one company owns a stake in everything) – and having these producers buy all their raw supplies from local vendors – when I saw what that could do for these farmers and their communities, I was in.”

Over the three years of working with contract producers they have seen changes. In one community, they saw a visible rise in the standard of living—one farmer actually bought the land he’d been renting on the strength of his contract. “That gives me goosebumps. I mean, we still have so much to learn—but that was just, wow,” she said.

The Amundsens did a lot of research when deciding how to set up their operation. They decided not to pursue organic certification, mostly because of the fluctuating price of organic feed.

“Half of all organic feed comes from either India or China,” Lucie said. American farmers and rural feed mills are not benefitting from this practice.” The Amundsens want to continue heading in the right direction in regards to organic standards. In the meantime, they feed locally sourced non-GMO corn. Corn is sixty percent of the hens’ ration.

“We feel like it’s a solid compromise,” Lucie said. “It’s been one of the things that has helped keep money in the regions where there are LoLa farms. The egg farmers purchase corn from their neighbors, get it ground at their local mill, buy supplies from their local feed store, process the eggs at a washing facility right there – well, you can see what a difference that is to a vertically integrated model where everything is trucked in.”

“We are constantly seeking to add sustainable producers to our suppliers and are proud to have secured a non-GMO corn grower in our region. However, we want to continue heading in the right direction in regards to organic standards,” Lucie said.

The hens also receive soybean meal, alfalfa meal and calcium for shell building. In the winter, they are given an alfalfa blend to help keep them busy. To help the hens cope with being cooped, the Amundsens fill up kiddie pools with sand for taking dust baths and give them sprouted wheat grass for a taste of the green. They heat the barn with a diesel generator that’s being converted to French fry oil.

They believe the way they are tending to their flock is better than “free range.” Lucie explained, “The term free-range is nutty confusing. In the U.S., it means only that an animal is allowed some access to the outside. There are no regulations that specify the size of the outside space, if it is grass, dirt or cement, or the duration of the chicken’s respite from the barn. Pasture-raised eggs are from hens that forage and exercise on green fields. Our hens are outside every day, weather permitting. They’re salad-eating poultry athletes who get to run, feel the wind in their wings and forage for grasses, clover and tasty bugs.” In the U.S., 91 percent of all birds are caged and housed in warehouses with 300,000 chickens or more.

Jason is in the process of getting their farmland certified organic as they diversify their farm with raspberries, strawberries and a new product called honeyberries. “They’re from Siberia, which has the same growing climate as the Duluth region. We try not to over-think that,” Lucie added.

Locally Laid only sells within 400 miles of the egg’s origin, usually far less, Lucie explained. To further reduce their carbon footprint they plant a tree with every delivery. “Locally Laid supports the work of the Nature Conservancy’s tree planting in public lands. Since inception to Dec. 31, 2015, we’ve planted over 5,200 trees,” she added.

Other sustainable practices they use include using solar-powered electric fencing, creating a carton return program, and helping a partner farm in Indiana install solar panels on their barn.

Lucie has written a book about their experiences thus far, titled Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm—from Scratch. The book, published this month by Penguin/Random House, is available through the MOSES Bookstore.

Kelli Boylen is a writer and frequent contributor to farm publications. She lives on a homestead in Iowa.

From the March | April 2016 Issue

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