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Locally Laid grows beyond its home nest
Photo: Jason Amundsen and some of the “girls” of the Locally Laid egg company. Photo by Larry Fortner
Okay, let’s get the punny business out of the way first.
Lucie Amundsen calls herself the marketing chick. Jason Amundsen calls himself the head clucker. Together, they own and operate (Lucie rather reluctantly) the Locally Laid Egg Company.
Lucie says some people, one of them being her mother, don’t get the little bit of double entendre in the name. The co-owner also promises not to use the word “eggsellent” when talking about Locally Laid (also sometimes known as LoLa).
There’s more: Locally Laid says its hens are micro-brood in flocks of no more than 3,000 (that’s small in the laying-hen business) and, weather permitting, they forage and exercise in pastures. In fowl weather, they live and roam in a barn, not in cages. Lucie says “It’s not uncommon for conventional farmers to have 300,000 hens in one operation, which really makes our micro-brood really stand out. The way we do it is far more inefficient, but you get a better product.”
The owners share a wicked funny sense of humor. They’re learning how to avoid their early mistakes, and the business — which they launched in June 2012 — is already showing a modest profit. Sounds good.
But running an egg business is anything but fun and games, and if you still believe in the sweet smell of success, you have never walked into a barn that is home to 1,800 laying hens.
“This has been brutal, really humbling,” Jason Amundsen says. “I can tell you that the sustainable ag people (his early farming model) don’t know a damn thing about eggs.”
Lucie adds, “I would say that sustainable ag folks might not be aware of all our challenges this far north. It works well below the snow line where there is no polar vortex madness.”
Jason acknowledges without hesitation that he was ill prepared to become a farmer. He grew up in Edina, served in the U.S. Army for nine years, became a grant writer, moved to Duluth, got tired of struggling within the world of nonprofits and, based on the success of his hobby of growing backyard hens (a dangerous “gateway” hobby, says Lucie), decided to go into the pasture-raised egg business big time.
Lucie is a native of Maine and holds down a day job in marketing in Duluth. The family, including the two Amundsen children, lives in Duluth.
Their farm is in Wrenshall, where Jason said, “Every day has been a kick in the teeth.” He ponders the myriad problems that the new egg-raisers encountered and says, “If you think you can imagine everything that could wrong, you don’t have enough of an imagination.”
Still, the Amundsens persevered. And gained confidence. Or at least refused to quit. “This is a very complex industry,” Jason says. “There’s a lot to learn. It’s challenging, but not impossible. We’re not building jets. We’re not flying to the moon.”
The flock he tends in Wrenshall now produces about 1,300 eggs per day. They’re gathered mechanically, trucked to Duluth, processed (cleaned, weighed and packed) and moved to markets locally and regionally. Lucie explains, “We still touch every single egg multiple times. The girls lay eggs that are gravity fed into one spot, but then we pick them up by hand and, later, hand place them into our vintage 1954 Aqua Magic V egg washer.” All this is done with a staff of about eight — Jason at full time and seven at part time.
The company has established connections with Iowa and Indiana farmers (read: Amish) who practice the same farm-to-table ethic that the Amundsens use so that “local” means just that, but in multiple locations. Locally Laid also is now affiliated with producers in the Mora area, which led to notable expansion into Milwaukee, the Twin Cities and their suburbs. And, most recently, Chicago. Lucie explains, “The eggs are only sold locally. So a LoLa egg laid in say Indiana is 130 miles from Chicago and fills that market. A Mora egg is only 70 or so miles from the Cities and 90 miles from Duluth. So a Duluth egg would not go to Chicago.
“The idea is that a partner farm serves its area, and the farmer purchases feed and implements from its own area to keep money within their community.
“It’s a tenant of what’s called middle agriculture — what we are: Middle class farmers buying and selling (in their) own locality.”
The company expects to have seven different partner farms growing eggs to Locally Laid standards by the end of this year in Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota. “Some of the big-picture things are looking very good for us,” Jason says. “I think we are set for some incredible growth.”
But “incredible” does not necessarily mean easy. “I’m still working 70-hour weeks,” Jason says, “and this is stupid hard. I’ve had to learn farming. We’ve had to learn how do business.
“When you have a conventional background and training, like I have, you tend to act in a conventional manner. We had to learn to see opportunities outside the status quo.”
They’ve also had to learn how to deal with predators. “Skunks are the biggest bastards of all,” the farmer says.
The Amundsens can think outside the egg carton.
Their electric fences, which Jason moves daily, are solar-powered. Pretty soon they’ll fire up an electric generator that will burn recycled deep-fryer oil from the Duluth Grill. They grow alfalfa on 30 to 40 acres that they don’t use for their hens and sell the hay to neighboring farms.
Because the owners weren’t satisfied with the quality of commercial feed for their hens, they hatched an idea to make their own, called LoLa’s Layer Mix. The feed has non-GMO corn and a carefully selected mix of vitamins and minerals. And, no antibiotics or growth hormones. The Amundsens are so happy with the mix that they’ve developed their own line of feed for laying hens and sell it at dozens of locations.
They have a keen and savvy understanding of marketing. They captured attention all over the country with last winter’s Intuit-sponsored competition to win a free commercial that would air during the Super Bowl. (They finished second and still got a free commercial. It has aired on Fox Sports North this spring and is a hoot.) They don’t mind if you call theirs the company with the funny name. It’s funny, after all, by design.
The humor, like everything else they do, is on purpose. Lucie says it “allows me to talk about why it’s important to have hens on pasture exercising and foraging, as it makes for a healthier bird, and a healthier bird lays a healthier egg with less fat, less cholesterol, more of the good stuff like Omega 3s. It may not be rocket science, but it is science.”
Jason concludes: “We’ve built a brand that people really like.”
Larry Fortner is headquartered in West Duluth and is the sole proprietor of Fortner WordWorks.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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