Long before he ever thought about starting a chicken farm, Jason Amundsen’s nickname for his wife, Lucie, was “Bird.”
In the literary world, that’s what’s known as foreshadowing.
The couple’s four-year-old northern Minnesota farm, cheekily called Locally Laid, is based upon the radical notion that allowing chickens to behave like chickens — roaming in the sunshine and fresh air, finding nourishment in grass and insects — will yield better tasting, better-for-you eggs.
Lucie vividly chronicles the farm’s well-earned highs — alongside its backbreaking lows — in her enlightening and entertaining new memoir, “Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm — From Scratch” (Avery/Penguin Random House, $26), which hits bookstores this week.
Q: Cage-free seems to be the egg world’s buzzword du jour. Yet Locally Laid’s eggs are pasture-raised. What’s the difference?
A: Pasture-raised has no federal definition, or a state one. But for us, it means getting the chickens outside, and when it’s the right season, they’re rotated through fenced-in paddocks, so they’re always eating fresh grass.
Cage-free is indeed better than an egg from a confined chicken, and everyone has seen sad photos of hapless poultry in crates smaller than a piece of printer paper.
But cage-free is thousands of birds in a warehouse. The chickens never go outside. It’s a bit like they live in a casino. They never know what time it is — based on the sun — and they don’t know what season it is, so they don’t go into natural molt.
And it’s typically 30,000 chickens, although 300,000 is not out of the question.
Q: While you keep yours — all named LoLa, surely the egg world’s pluckiest portmanteau — in flocks of about 2500. Why don’t we encounter more pasture-raised chicken farms?
A: Because pasture-raised is so darned hard to do. I’m the first to say that the conditions in Minnesota aren’t perfect, but on warm days, our birds can go out and get exercise, and get wind in the wing.
Q: I paid $5.19 for a dozen Locally Laid eggs last week, considerably more than conventionally raised eggs. How do you get price-conscious consumers to make that leap?
A: I’m teaching marketing at [the College of] St. Scholastica, and what I tell my students is that what we’re doing is relying upon differentials.
I don’t think of the $2.99 carton of eggs and our eggs as the same product. Our eggs aren’t for everyone. They’re for people who care about flavor in their food, people who want to live in a world where their food is raised differently, and people who want to break out of America’s food system as it’s presented to us.
When you can get that story out, it can make consumers think differently about their food, and empower them to vote with their dollars for the kind of food system they want. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that they will do exactly that, and make informed choices.
Q: At what point in the Locally Laid adventure did “Locally Laid” and its narrative nonfiction start to germinate in your laptop?
A: It snuck up on me. I was writing my thesis for my MFA program at Hamline [University]. I kept hacking out stuff that didn’t sound or feel like me. I couldn’t get the voice right.
But what I did enjoy doing was writing blog posts for Locally Laid. I wasn’t thinking “book” at the time, and the voice in those blog posts is kind of overcaffeinated. But I started to see that they were forming an arc, and I thought, “Wow, this might be my thesis.” This was back in 2013.
Q: What are some of the epiphanies that came to you as a neophyte farmer?
A: You realize how soft a society we have become. We’re so conditioned to picking up the phone and getting something fixed. We’ve had so many humbling moments, not knowing how to fix things.
Jason has started an MBA, but he’s taking a semester off and learning to weld, at a technical college. Our liberal arts educations really have helped us with communications, and finding and making connections. But at the end of the day, Jason wants to know how to weld. So maybe there’s room for both, and maybe we shouldn’t be getting rid of shop class in our schools’ curriculum.
Q: I was really moved by the way the people of Duluth got behind your campaign to earn a free Super Bowl TV commercial. What was that like?
A: To have been a part of that is probably one of the singular defining experiences of my life. We are not native-born Duluthians. Jason is from the Twin Cities; I’m from the East Coast. These people did the most amazing things for us, from changing signs on their businesses to changing their Facebook profiles to a “Vote LoLa” image.
Everyone doing something small added up to something huge, and it’s hard to describe how wonderful that is, and what a sense of indebtedness I still have.
I wrote a giant love letter to the city of Duluth, and the Duluth News Tribune graciously printed it. I’m so happy they did that, because we couldn’t afford the full-page ad that I wanted to take out.
Q: What’s an example of the physical cost of farming?
A: At one point, Jason went down probably six pants sizes. He lost his wedding ring. It just slipped off, and that was a tightfitting wedding ring before we started the farm. He doesn’t wear one now. But he smells like chickens, so I figure that he’s mine.
It’s not just a physical toll, but a mental one, too. Not only did we have to learn to farm, we had to learn how to run a business.
Those skills don’t necessarily come naturally to people who want to farm. Farming is its own art and science, and to ask people to turn around and take on this whole other art and science — creating brands, getting your product in the door — is a lot to ask of a family.
Q: How did you manage to make a book about a chicken farm, well, funny?
A: It’s my writing style, and my coping mechanism for life. If things are going really poorly, I laugh at it, and that empowers me.
The nicest thing that someone has said about the book is that this isn’t so much a farmer writing as it is a writer farming. I really appreciate that distinction. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a jerk.
Q: Trust me, it doesn’t. The book’s most sobering moment — for me, anyway — was learning that it took 29 exhausting months for the farm to generate a paycheck. How scary was that?
A: Farming isn’t for the faint of heart. But while Jason was at the farm, I was very fortunate to have a four-day-a-week job, and I was doing freelance work. We made it work, but it certainly wasn’t pretty.
Jason wants to do different business ventures, and I’m not necessarily signing up for them. I would like to be those boring Amundsens for a while.
For more with “Locally Laid” author Lucie Amundsen, go to startribune.com/tabletalk.