Q: Do eggs play a big role in your diet?
A: Because there’s more demand than product right now, we get about a dozen eggs a week. But there have been times when we had hundreds and hundreds of them, and there were many a quiche made in our house, and egg sandwiches, and this thing where you mix frozen spinach and eggs and you bake it, but then the kids started to protest. Besides, you work with chickens, and you wash eggs, and your life gets very eggy, and fast. It’s not what you’re craving. We probably eat eggs almost every morning – Jason makes them for the kids -- but we’re done with it on a three-meals-per-day basis.
Q: What’s your writing process? Do you have a routine?
A: Because I was doing a lot of things — I had a four-day-a-week job, I was going to graduate school, there was Locally Laid — I did my best writing from 4 to 7 in the morning. I didn’t even have to set an alarm. I just enjoyed that time. Seven a.m. would come and I’d go, “Awe, the rest of my day has to start now.” The upswing of that is that, I’m not a huge believer in the muse. You just have to sit down and do it, and it doesn’t have to be in this beautiful studio, with the sun streaming through the window and the perfect cup of tea on the desk. You just have to sit down, and write.
Q: There’s a scene in the book that I read with a sense of dread. You’re inside a coop, collecting eggs, for the first time. Should I have read that with the soundtrack to “Psycho” playing in the background?
A: It wasn’t meant to be that tense, but I’m glad to know that I can create that kind of reaction. It can be kind of scary to gather eggs. Birds are protective of their eggs. I wear eye protection and big leather gloves. The guys, they just walk in and get eggs.
Q: How long did it take you to come up with poultry-related wordplay along the lines of egg-pire and henopause?
A: It feels as if Facebook was engineered entirely for people to tell me their poultry puns, and they have so much fun with them. In the early days, before we had any help, there was so much drudgery, which means you have time to come up with those awful plays on words. For most people, these puns are new. I love henopause, because you know exactly what it’s telling you. It’s illustrative. You read it and think, “Oh, I get that.”
Q: I had no idea that expressions such as “picked on” and “pin money” are rooted in poultry. Is chicken farming one giant ah-ha moment?
A: I was so ignorant. Ninety percent of us are so far away from our agricultural roots, so there’s this natural sense of discovery. We started with this little back yard flock, and the first time they went inside together, I thought, “They really do come in to roost. I get it!”
I give these talks and I tell people that, by the time we’re done, they’ll have 18 things you can talk about at your next cocktail party. It’s all the things you never wanted to know about eggs. Chickens lay eggs every 26 hours, and you don’t need a rooster to create an egg. You can leave an unwashed egg out on your counter – I was about to say ‘sideboard,’ because that’s such a Maine thing to say [Amundsen grew up in Maine] – for something like six weeks, which is amazing. That’s the way people with chickens have done it for hundreds of years. But we’re so far away from our food. People don’t want to see any evidence of farm life on the shells of those eggs. I get that. I just had to untrain myself to accept food in its more natural state.
Q: What’s your guess, are your kids going into farming? (The Amundsens, pictured above, in a provided photo).
A: Milo my little guy is 12, and he’s definitely not going to go into farming. He opens little side businesses to ensure that he’s not going into farming. Our daughter Abbie is 15, and she has done a lot on the farm, but she’s drawn to other things. She sees how much hard work it all is. I hope they take away that everything worth doing is hard, and that it takes a lot of tenacity. (The Amundsens, above, in a provided photo).
Q: I’ve been buying Locally Laid eggs at the co-op. I didn’t realize that you were also selling at Cub Foods. How difficult it is to get your eggs into mainstream supermarkets?
A: The competition is so steep, and it’s controlled by Big Ag interests. You’re just this little guy and there’s no shelf space for you. Academics feel that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for mid-sized producers like us is creating a brand and creating distribution chains.
We have a wonderful relationship with Cub, and I love getting this product to Cub shoppers. They’re every day, middle class, hard-working people, and having our eggs at Cub is like giving Cub shoppers access to a farmers market, except in the supermarket dairy case. A lot of those folks care about how their food is produced, but they don’t have time for another stop in their day. They have children, and jobs. I have a lot of empathy, because I’m that woman, too. I go to the co-op, I have a CSA share, I shop at the farmers market, but doing that all becomes this giant part of your life, and sometimes it’s easier just to go “up the hill,” as we say in Duluth, and go to the supermarket.
[In the Twin Cities, Locally Laid eggs are available at Linden Hills Co-op, Eastside Food Co-op, Seward Co-op, Wedge Co-op, Lakewinds Food Co-op, select Cub Foods and Kowalski’s Markets, and independent grocers such as Oxendale's Market, Brine's Market, Tim & Tom's Speedy Market, Jerry's Foods, Victoria's Market, and Fresh & Natural Foods.]
Q: Having the early support of several Duluth customers played a critical role in the early days of the farm, didn’t it?
A: The food community here is amazing. Right away, the co-op wanted to be supportive, and they continue to be supportive. The Duluth Grill, too. They both do a lot of educating, every day. Here’s a story. The owner of the Duluth Grill, Tom Hanson, was giving a talk one day and he didn’t know that I was in the audience. He was telling them that this guy – Jason – went into the restaurant and said he was opening a farm, and would the Duluth Grill sign a letter of intent to purchase from the farm? Tom signed it, wished him luck and thought he’d never see him again, because there are many people who go into farming with great intentions but run into the same kind of obstacles that we ran into. What he didn’t now is that Jason has enormous amounts of tenacity.
Q: I was surprised to read that the biggest costs on the farm are tied to labor. Why is that?
A: There are just a lot of people costs at the farm. Cage-free operations have these huge automated feeding and watering systems. But you can’t automate paddocks, we have to do all of that by hand. We use a vintage egg washer – it’s not because we’re into vintage, it’s because it’s what we can afford – and it takes four people, minimum, every other day, to operate it. We touch a lot of things – eggs, chickens, fences -- and every time you touch something, there’s a cost.
Q: What’s going on at the farm right now? The section in the book that’s devoted to the farm’s first winter is harrowing stuff.
A: Our farm in Wrenshall [Minn., about 30 minutes southwest of Duluth] has no chickens this winter. We did not contract the bird flu.
However, 45 million chickens need to be replaced by my industry. Imagine being a midsized player like us. It’s very difficult to procure birds. We had them bought, and then someone bought them out from under us.
Last summer, we got some older birds, they had been culled by another farmers. I started calling them our scratch-and-dent flock. But the numbers just didn’t make sense to over-winter them, they’re all old enough that they were starting to slack, and we started thinking about the propane we’d need to heat up the barns.
Q: What happened to them?
A: The scarcity of poultry is so great that another farmer bought them and is wintering them. We’re birdless right now, and that’s not where I want to be. That’s a real sadness for me, because people always ask about them. But we also have seven partner farms. They’re also having trouble procuring birds. We’ve got more demand than product, and it’s an awful feeling, not being able to give people what they want. We’ll be getting chickens sometime in March, it will be good to get them back.
Q: In the book, you’re surprisingly candid about the not-always-positive impact the farm had on your marriage. Was that a difficult subject to tackle?
A: People who’ve read the book tell me that they’re surprised that I’m so transparent in it. It must be the way that I’m built, because I didn’t think of it as being so overtly honest, it just felt like part of the story. Writing this book was helpful to me. I didn’t have to look directly at my life, because I had this wonderful lens to see it through. This is going to sound like I need to be medicated, but I saw us as characters, and saw what was happening to us as happening to my characters. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of small business. On Tuesday, things are great, and by Thursday, things are in a shambles. You think “Downton Abbey” has plot twists?
Makes 1 to 2 dozen.
Note: Here's an excellent (and easy-to-prepare) egg-dependent recipe (from Michelle Gayer of the Salty Tart), particularly for Locally Laid eggs, which whip into a spectacular meringue. For chocolate chips, Gayer uses leftover chocolate pieces, in any combination: bittersweet, semi-sweet, unsweetened and white chocolate. If using a convection oven, bake at 300 degrees for 15 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking time. Granulated sugar can be substituted for superfine sugar, but the latter produces a more supple meringue. Make your own by pulsing granulated sugar in a food processor fitted with a metal blade.
1/2 c. egg whites (from about 4 eggs)
1 c. superfine sugar
2 1/2 tbsp. sifted unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 c. chopped chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. In a double boiler over gently boiling water, combine egg whites and sugar and simmer, whisking occasionally, until sugar is dissolved, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Pour mixture into bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Whip egg white mixture on medium speed for 5 minutes, then increase to medium-high speed for 5 to 10 minutes, until mixture is stiff but not dry.
Using a rubber spatula, fold cocoa into egg white mixture until well incorporated, then fold in chocolate chips. Place heaping tablespoons of batter onto prepared baking sheets. Bake 18 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking time. Remove from oven and cool cookies on baking sheets until ready to serve. Store in a single layer in an airtight container for up to 1 day.