Locally Laid Egg Company is a family-run farm in Wrenshall, Minnesota that is hoping to redefine farm-to-table eggs, championing the agriculture of the middle, and finding ways to strengthen rural economies. Food Tank had the opportunity to interview with Lucie Amundsen, co-owner and “Marketing Chick” of Locally Laid Egg Company.
Food Tank (FT): Please share how Locally Laid was started and how it has grown.
Lucie Amundsen (LA): I have to give all the credit for the start of Locally Laid to my husband, Jason Amundsen. He saw a niche in the market for pasture-raised eggs, and he was going to fill it. People simply needed this good food option. We moved ahead, taking a year to plan. Jason took some farm and business classes while I was in graduate school for my MFA in Nonfiction Writing. What we found was that it is incredibly difficult to procure chickens on the mid-size scale. While one can easily go grab five chicks out from under a heat lamp at the local feed store and it’s equally as easy for Big Egg to call up the hatchery they likely own a stake in and order up 30,000 or 300,000 birds, getting 900 was incredibly difficult.
Finally, we found a chicken farmer in Iowa who was willing to raise our pullets; he was uncommunicative and raised those birds the way industry does: in a warehouse. Those poor birds were bereft of natural instincts. Then, as it is written in our book, Locally Laid: How We Started a Plucky Industry-Changing Egg Farm — From Scratch, this happened:
“At dusk, hens seek their coop. So reliable is this, there’s even a saying, an adage: Chickens come home to roost. It’s for warmth. It’s for protection. It’s hardwired. But our first shipment of nine hundred mature birds just purchased from a commercial operation, stands on the field staring. They tilt and turn their heads to better align us with their side-placed eyes, as though awaiting instructions.
Then, as darkness quiets the pasture, I get it.
My hand on my lips, I mumble, Oh, God.
These hens are out of sync with sunset because until today, they have NEVER SEEN THE SUN. While I’ve worried about many things going wrong with our unlikely egg startup, CHICKENS not knowing HOW TO BE CHICKENS was not one of them.”In addition to having to put them in at night, they also needed to be roost trained— meaning Jason would wait until they were asleep and hand place them on roosts one-by-one-by-one. That went on for about three weeks. When our second flock arrived a few weeks later, it was the same story.”
We’re too big to sell everything at a farmer’s market and too small to play with the big boys of commodities – so we have to build our own distribution. To break into stores, you have to have a brand and marketing. So we built one around a sassy name and didn’t try to speak to the general public, rather to folks who care about the environment, local food, local business, animal welfare, foodie-grade food. We also leveraged lots of earned media around our venture and created demand. Then, something we didn’t expect happened. Other farmers came to us and wanted to contract produce. At first, I was opposed, but then Jason pointed out something obvious. We could write good, fair contracts and in addition to producing eggs ourselves, we could also share our marketing efforts with other mid-size farmers really struggling to break into dairy cases. So, that’s what we did. We have seven partner farms now and are in a few hundred stores and many restaurants.
Food Tank (FT): How do you see Locally Laid impacting the local food system in Minnesota?
Lucie Amundsen (LA): Our biggest impact would be the partner farms – because we use value chains over vertical integration good things are happening. Unlike many contract production models, we do not force our inputs and feed on our partner farms. Instead, we say, go have your neighbors grow non-GMO corn, have your local mill grind, mix and store it for you, use your local farm store for all your needs and build an egg-washing facility and hire locals to work it. And, honestly, we can see a material difference in these rural communities. One of our farm partners had always rented his land but on the strength of his Locally Laid contract he bought it! That gives me goose bumps.
Food Tank (FT): What is a recent accomplishment or project that Locally Laid is proud of?
Lucie Amundsen (LA): I’m incredibly proud of the book: Locally Laid: How We Started a Plucky Industry-Changing Egg Farm — From Scratch. It was just released this March from Penguin. My aim was to tell a narrative that engaged readers, made them care about this family and these chickens they’re reading about, so that when I get to the drier agriculture policy and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census data that is vital to the farm, the readers care also.
People tell me they weren’t really into the food movement, or they didn’t understand it, but when I showed what the food system is doing to a real farm family, they got it. They cared. They’re making different food choices and asking questions. That’s huge. I spent years working on it, getting up at four AM writing to seven AM when I got the children up for school, then I went to my off-farm job. And to have it be so well received—it’s a Midwest Bestseller, a B&N Nature Pick and #1 new release in Amazon’s Food Science category – and also the animal husbandry category! Last night I received an email from a librarian who ordered 60 copies for the six high school libraries she runs in California, and she plans to do study groups around the book to have conversations about the food system. Honestly, I got choked up.
Also, last year I wrote an open letter to a gentleman offended by our name. It outlined everything behind that name. It was really wonky and yet was seen nearly half a million times and is now taught in some food politic classes.
Food Tank (FT): Please share a recent challenge that you have had to overcome?
Lucie Amundsen (LA): We are still feeling the effects of last year’s H5N2 Avian Influenza outbreak. Although our barns didn’t contract the virus, we’re as stymied as though we had. There are approximately 45-million hens that need to be replaced in our industry, and one can guess whose orders are filled first (hint: not the little guy). We’ve even had pullets (young chickens) sold out from under us and ended up with what I playfully called a “scratch and dent” flock of elder states chickens. So, this has made all our farms examine their goals and commit to long-term contracts with pullet suppliers. This is not a casual agreement to enter into, so it shows that that Locally Laid means real business.
Food Tank (FT): What is your vision for Locally Laid, this year and beyond?
Lucie Amundsen (LA): This year, we’ve been growing our reach so we can take on other farmers. We have interest from folks who want to produce eggs, but we have to be in a position to have stores, and consumers lined up to buy them. That takes months of work to make happen. We also don’t want to get too big, as we’re generally a Mom, Pop & Bro operation. Conversely, we want to be sure we’re meeting demand, too. With a pullet shortage last winter, we had weeks of not fulfilling all our orders and lost some accounts. I suppose our vision is to get good systems in place, and we’ll be able to think beyond just the next day.