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Farming was not part of Amundsen’s career trajectory. “But I got laid off a lot,” he said with a laugh. One Great Recession pink slip too many had him connecting the dots between self-employment and the small back-yard flock of chickens that the couple and their two children had started keeping at their Duluth home.
“We were really feeling disconnected from where our food was coming from,” Amundsen said.
Amundsen grew up in Edina, a fine enough launchpad for his former career as a grant writer but not exactly prime training ground for live poultry.
“To be a farmer, you have to be good at problem solving, and you have to fix things,” he said. “The learning curve was really steep. It has been an extremely humbling process.”
Perhaps out of necessity, Locally Laid is a relatively low-tech operation. Aside from several impressively large vehicles, there are few machines. Most of the never-ending labor — carrying feed, hauling water, collecting eggs — is done by hand, a workload shared by Amundsen and his brother Brian, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Off the farm, in leased quarters in the back of a Duluth supermarket, the eggs are washed, rinsed, bleached and dried, then routed into the Egomatic, a 1950s-era device for sorting, inspecting and grading. (“We found it in a pole barn, and it hadn’t been used for 40 years, but it works just fine, so why not?” said Amundsen.) A pair of food wholesalers handle the shipping duties.
Change, one egg at a time
During peak warm-weather periods, the farm’s output hovers somewhere around 200 dozen eggs a day, which represents less than a drop in the ocean that is Minnesota’s overall egg output. With roughly 10.4 million egg-laying hens producing nearly 2.9 billion eggs each year, the state ranks 11th in production nationally (by comparison, No. 1 Iowa produces more than five times that amount) and account for roughly 3 percent of all eggs produced annually in the United States.
Due to the company’s cheeky name, strong social media presence (that’s Lucie’s handiwork) and eye-catching logo (the result of a contest, won by Duluth graphic designer Matthew Olin), the farm’s T-shirts are a hot item, with sales accounting for several percentage points of Locally Laid’s revenues. Another boost to the balance sheet is a soon-to-be-launched chicken feed line, targeted at back-yard enthusiasts.
But major growth is projected to come via agreements with other small family farms adapting Locally Laid practices. Starting in a few weeks, an arrangement with an Iowa farmer will help supply a handful of Twin Cities natural food co-ops and several restaurants; a second Midwestern farm should come under the Locally Laid umbrella by year’s end.
Pay for the difference
Locally Laid’s hands-on approach comes at a price, and there’s some sticker shock involved: It’s roughly twice the amount associated with conventionally raised eggs. Locally Laid’s first — and currently only — Twin Cities outlet, Linden Hills Co-op, sells them for $4.49 per dozen. The price hasn’t been a stumbling block, at least not yet.
“We have heard nothing but rave reviews from customers, many of whom are willing to pay more for a higher-quality egg and from a place they trust,” said Jane Jefferson, the co-op’s dairy buyer. “I often tell people Locally Laid eggs are the best ones we carry.”
You don’t have to look across the chicken pen at Locally Laid to realize that all eggs aren’t the same, and that cheapest isn’t necessarily better. After all, eggs are one of nature’s most highly efficient nutrition delivery systems.
“There’s a saying in the sustainable farming industry,” said Amundsen. “You can pay the farmer, or you can pay the doctor.”
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib