“Locally Laid – How We Built A Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm—From Scratch”
Lucie B. Amundsen
March 1, 2016
Lucie B. Amundsen
March 1, 2016
Lucie Amundsen and her husband Jason are out for out for a romantic dinner date at a local Mexican restaurant on a warm summer evening: ‘”I want to talk to you about something,” he said, clearing his throat. “Commercial egg farming.”
“If this were a sitcom, a record needle would scratch across vinyl and someone would cue the laugh track. But this was just my life. I blinked and kept shoveling salsa into my mouth between gulps of beer….Poultry wasn’t exactly the foreplay talk I was hoping for, so instead I just enjoyed the rhythm and cadence of his voice. I heard something about pastured hens foraging on fresh grasses producing healthier, delicious eggs with less fat and cholesterol, something about the local food movement and its ability to remake America’s food system.”
My fellow Minnesotan, Lucie B. Amundsen, is a wonderful writer. Her book is an autobiographical account of how the Amundsens created a unique, commercially viable egg farm. She writes warmly, humorously, and honestly as she tells what is really a very personal story about her family and herself. And in the process, she explains how modern farming practices have gone off the rails and how people like the Amundsens have rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work in an attempt to set things right. I have nothing but high praise for this book.
For the Amundsens as novice chicken farmers, ummm...well, I have less praise. I will give them oodles of kudos for their willingness to take risks, for their spontaneity, and for their creative imaginations. But I have mostly jaw-to-the-floor bewilderment for their lack of foresight and their irresponsibility in risking their own mental and physical health and the health and lives of a couple thousand chickens. They get lots of points from me for having the courage to live their dream. But maybe they should have found a plaque with the Girl Scout motto, “Be prepared,” and hung it prominently on a wall.
I grew up on a farm and I spent my childhood in a close personal relationship with chickens. We maintained a flock of a couple hundred hens. They free ranged during the day and roosted in the chicken house at night. It was my mom’s job to collect the daily basketsful of eggs from the wooden nest boxes, haul them to the basement, wash them, and pack them into boxes. As the chickens aged and their egg production waned, some became stew. The rest were put in crates and hauled to the local Campbell’s Soup factory.
We also kept a flock of roosters for meat. We would buy forty or fifty rooster chicks for a few cents apiece in the spring – rooster chicks cost next to nothing because they were roosters. Over the summer they would free range around our farm, scratching up bugs and worms and pecking up the grain that would get spilled as it was being hauled to the hogs and cattle. In the fall, the night would come when my dad would go into the coop and pick ten or fifteen of the fattest ones and put them in a crate. The next day, our whole family would spend the morning butchering chickens. We would chop off the heads, dip the bodies in scalding five-gallon buckets of water to loosen the feathers, pluck the birds clean, dress them out, cut them up, put them in plastic bags, and then into our freezer. Unlike all those folks who think that food is somehow magically and spontaneously generated at the grocery store, we knew where our meat came from. And we knew firsthand about the lives and deaths of the chickens that gave us our eggs and meat.
The poultry industry, since the middle of the last century, has devolved into a behemoth that produces cheap meat and eggs in an inhumane and unsustainable way (For the story of legislation to improve the lives of laying hens, read my series in this blog, "Edging Away from Cruel Eggs" ).
First came the freak chickens. Poultry producers, through selective breeding, created a chicken with massive muscles that gained weight at a phenomenal rate. The rapid muscle development, and simultaneous bone and tendon abnormalities in these birds has resulted in lameness and many birds that are barely able to stand. Others have completely lost the ability to walk and drag themselves around on their hocks. Those that can walk are hampered by their large breast muscles which move the chicken’s center of gravity forward causing an ungainly unnatural gait. Scientific studies have shown that these chickens are in constant pain. These sad creatures are raised in windowless sheds and packed in at about ¾ of a square feet of space per bird (that’s about the size of an 8½ X 11 inch sheet of paper). By the time they reach market weight they basically have no room to move.
About the same time that these freakish meat chickens were being developed, somebody came up with the battery cage system for egg production. Egg laying hens are stuffed into battery cages with slanted wire floors. They access food and water by sticking their heads through the bars of the cage. Their poop falls through the wire floor and their eggs roll down the slanted floor to a collector. They spend their entire lives here – unable to turn around or stretch their wings – essentially egg laying machines – until their egg production drops and they are slaughtered.
Because freak chicken meat is so cheap, nobody wants to use laying hens for soup or any other human food anymore. Laying hens, almost entirely, become dog food at the end of their lives. And because freak chicken meat is so cheap, nobody uses the roosters of laying breeds for meat anymore. The day they hatch, baby chicks are separated by sex and the roosters are euthanized.
This is the thumbnail description of the poultry industry. If you think about it in terms of cheap and rapid production of meat and eggs, it’s all great. If you pause to remember that the meat and eggs come from sentient creatures, then you realize that there are all sorts of problems.
People have been talking about this broken system at least as early as 1964, when Ruth Harrison wrote “Animal Machines.” Many have tried to circumvent this system by raising backyard chickens or by starting small commercial flocks. The Amundsens, though, have taken it to next level. Their business model was not for a small flock. Neither was it for a gigantic animal warehouse filled with hundreds of thousands of birds. They chose the middle path: An initial flock of around 2000 chickens living free range and periodically rotated onto fresh pasture. The hens would be treated humanely, would live in a healthy environment, and consequently would produce healthier eggs. The system would be sustainable, and the business would be profitable. That was their vision. The book is a three hundred page recounting of what went wrong and how they managed to circumvent each problem.
What went wrong: Let’s start out with the basic premise. Pasture raising chickens. In Northern Minnesota. I assume, since the Amundsens live there, that they were well aware of Minnesota winters - and that much of the year there would be no pasture. But, wow - that first winter, as described in the book, must have been heartbreaking. That was one big hurdle. Then there’s the matter of experience. Prior to undertaking this endeavor, their entire animal husbandry experience was a few backyard chickens. They chose to start their venture on rented pasture with no preexisting infrastructure. They built a number of prefab, canvas-covered hoop houses to shelter the hens. I would rate these as fine in the summer but barely adequate in the winter. The buildings were not plumbed for water and every drop of water for eighteen hundred hens had to be hauled from a nearby well. Water, of course, freezes in the winter. Did I mention that this was Northern Minnesota?
They persevered, they survived, and they have become a model for the sustainable agriculture movement. In part they have survived and grown because they have subcontracted much of the business of egg production out to local Amish farmers. They have also done an excellent job of PR with a cute logo, a clever name, great ads and great press. Each chicken is named Lola (for LOcally LAid) – My God! How can you not love them just for that?! And really, these are likable people doing good stuff--so what's not to like? You want them to make this crazy enterprise work! But the spoiler for me was that I knew it worked--I can go to my local grocery story and see their eggs right there in the case.
I first became aware of Locally Laid because of the Super Bowl thing. In 2013, Intuit, a software company, sponsored a contest for small, innovative companies to get a 30-second spot during the 2014 Super Bowl game – a spot that would normally cost $3 million. When the local press reported that this small egg company from Duluth that pasture raised its hens was a finalist in the contest, I took notice and so did a lot of other people. Ultimately, their clever ad was only a runner-up, but they did win the attention of a lot of potential customers. About the same time pretty much every single one of my Facebook friends posted Lucie’s viral blog post on my timeline. Her post was in response to a guy who took umbrage to the double entendre of the name “Locally Laid”, and wrote a letter telling them that not only was the name vulgar but in addition their eggs cost more than most of the other eggs in his grocery store. Lucie’s response was fantastic and spot-on – so it is not surprising that it went viral on social media. Employing the same humorous and gentle tone to educate that she uses in her book, she explained that pasture raising chickens is both expensive and hard work. She also explained how small agricultural ventures like hers work to improve the economy in rural America. Finally, she apologized for having caused offense, and then went on to offer “one of our American-made “Local Chicks are Better” t-shirts, but I don’t think you’d wear it.”
Ultimately, I think, Locally Laid has convinced the buying public that while their eggs are more expensive than many other brands in the grocery store, buying them not only means taking home a superior product, but also it also helps to build a better world. This message has gained traction because of great PR. As I mentioned previously, Lucie is a fantastic writer, and she writes great ads. But beyond that, the message has taken hold because it is, simply, the truth. And that’s the story of their success.
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|"Locally Laid" is now available in paperback - $17.00 from Amazon - Click the image!|