By returning to traditional practices and incorporating 21st-century marketing, a first-time chicken farmer answers the question, “Are all eggs the same?”
Oh, the glamorous world of the chicken farmer.
The calf-deep mud. The subzero-to-sweltering temperatures. The endless, backbreaking work. The, um, fragrance.
Here’s a revealing yardstick: When it came time to clear out winter’s 8 ½ tons of accumulated manure from the plastic solar-fueled “hoop coops” at Locally Laid Egg Co. in Wrenshall, Minn., about a half-hour southwest of Duluth, co-owner Jason Amundsen recruited six local high schoolers for the task. Only one returned the second day. Guess who ended up finishing?
“Not one of the more pleasant jobs,” Amundsen said with a laugh. “But that’s the first thing that I learned about farming,” he said. “There are no controlled conditions. You nod and smile every time Mother Nature kicks you in the teeth.”
Dealing with predatory skunks is no picnic, either. Still, the payoff is significant, certainly for the growing clientele of the two-year-old farm. An early devotee was John Hanson, co-owner of the Duluth Grill in Duluth.
During its peak summer tourist season, the restaurant consumes about 500 dozen eggs per week. Forty percent come from Locally Laid, and Hanson quickly noticed that his kitchen staff was reserving the farm’s brown, bespeckled eggs for the finicky demands of short-order frying and poaching, while steering the cooler’s remaining egg inventory into scrambles, pancakes, baking and other, far less flashy uses.
“Without any direction from me, they quickly discovered that the Locally Laid eggs were so much easier to use,” said Hanson. “The yolks are firm — and they’re so yellow that they’re almost orange — and the whites are durable. Nothing breaks when they hit the grill.”
Proof is in the pan
Judge for yourself and crack one into a hot skillet; the yolk stands tall and proud. Swirled in simmering water, the egg whites hang together like a cumulus cloud floating across a summer sky. Under the force of a whisk, the egg whites whip into near-Himalayan peaks of remarkable volume and durability; add sugar, and they’re transformed into the most lustrous, satiny meringue imaginable.
“They’re hard to keep on the shelf because people recognize the outstanding flavor and freshness of the eggs,” said Shannon Szymkowiak, promotions and education manager of Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth, another Locally Laid customer. “But that’s what happens when chickens are eating well and running around, being happy.”
Exactly. Through plenty of research and trial and error, Amundsen and his wife, Lucie, a writer, have created a quality-obsessed operation based on the simple yet nearly forgotten principle of letting chickens be, well, chickens.
“Rather than treat them as a commodity, we allow our ladies to express their natural chicken instincts,” said Amundsen. “It’s all the things that confinement doesn’t allow them to do.”
Under an open northern Minnesota sky year-round, in pens the size of a baseball infield, enclosed by easily movable plastic mesh fences, the chickens engage in all the activities they can’t do confined in a large factory farm: Move as a flock, dust-bathe and soak up the fresh air and sunshine (“They’re the best disinfectants in the world, and they’re free,” said Amundsen).
They also get plenty of exercise, since the birds’ water and their twice-daily feed — a custom mix of alfalfa, soybean meal and corn — are kept on opposite sides of the pen.
But most important, the chickens supplement their daily diet through foraging. “Cage-free,” “free-range” and other egg-carton catchphrases are not part of the Locally Laid lexicon. At this 10-acre operation, the passwords are “pasture-raised.”
Kept in groups of about 500, the highly vocal choruses of Gold Stars, Production Reds, California Whites and central casting’s idea of a chicken, Barred Rocks, feed their omnivore appetites by nibbling on insects (“They love mosquitoes,” said Amundsen) as well as clover, timothy and other grasses until they’ve mowed down everything in the enclosure. That’s the signal for Amundsen to move the fence to greener pastures and restart the process.
“All that nutrition goes right into the egg,” he said. “No factory can replicate that.”
New to the land
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
Poll: Which 2013 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest entry do you most want to try?