Many people fantasize about quitting their day job in order to pursue a dream, start their own business, or simply live independently from “The Man.” When Jason Amundsen lost yet another day job, rather than pound the pavement for employment, he identified a niche to fill himself.
In a recent conversation at his poultry operation in Wrenshall, he referred to working for a company as essentially working in a pyramid scheme whereby many people put in the hours so that the few at the top can make a lot of money. Therefore, he decided to create his own pyramid.
As a proud wrangler of a small backyard flock of chickens myself, I went into this interview incredulous at the prospects of making any kind of money from pasture-based, egg-laying hens. Raising chickens truly is a gateway livestock, which nearly anyone would be capable of handling.
Imagine, however, the prospects of earning a profit by caring for over 2000 hens, and all the complications that come with that. Jason, who continues to live in the city of Duluth, had to find suitable pasture to be rented for his flock of working girls to forage. Then he paid to punch a well through that soil to a supply of fresh water. Chicken houses were constructed from scratch, and some were converted from interesting sources (such as an old semi trailer). Then electricity was trenched out to each of the hen houses. Think of all this infrastructure poured into rented land for the sake of hens that on average lay approximately one egg every 25 hours!
It seems one of Jason’s favorite topics to discuss are the numerous mistakes they made along the way as they learned to bring their knowledge of chickens from the scale of a backyard flock to the commercial. Providing adequate water-delivery systems last winter, their first winter in the business, was enormously challenging and fraught with trials for one thing. Just three days before our conversation he began a better grain-delivery system that he figures will cut his feed budget in half due to there being far less waste.
Then there’s the endless manual collection of eggs, and 2,000 eggs a day is not mere chicken scratch. Honestly, it is egg chaos there! Then they have to haul all these eggs to be prepped for shipment. That is an enormous undertaking in and of itself, but add in dozens of other menial tasks such as the constant moving of fences for fresh pasture, and it becomes mind boggling to understand how he and his wife have been able to develop a solid business plan that has resulted in a profit after their first year.
It all comes back to that niche I spoke of earlier. Prior to launching the business, Jason observed (as many of us have, but weren’t CRAZY enough to do anything about) that the Whole Foods Co-op did not have a supply of eggs from our immediate region. Obviously our area puts a heavy premium on any kind of food that can be grown locally in this difficult region for agriculture.
There’s clearly a market for pasture-raised eggs, but the simplicity and sustainability of the Amundsen’s business model borders on the awe-inspiring. Jason comments repeatedly about the steep learning curve they have had to endure. A post on their blog from last June underscores this when they observed the many labor-saving options being used by a farm they were invited to visit that was considering switching to a pasture-based egg laying operation. Lucie, his wife, bluntly assessed the contrast in efficiencies by noting:
“It was an Amish facility. Yes, a farmer who rejects the modernity of zippers and buttons grossly out techs us. Yeah, that stings.”
They have had to be resilient, flexible, and learn from others, all while developing a recognizable and desirable brand in Locally Laid. It has been necessary to adapt on the fly, when others would have thrown in the towel, such as when an inspector from the state declined to give them the go-ahead on their egg cleaning facility just two weeks before their eggs would be sold to important customers last summer. Rather than give up, Jason contacted an acquaintance in the food distribution industry and was able to rent a space in an approved facility while installing all the necessary equipment to meet the USDA’s exacting requirements.
Now back to that business plan. Yes, the eggs are capable of making a profit in and of themselves, and the Amundsen’s have done an admirable job of landing solid regular customers such as the Whole Foods Co-op and the Duluth Grill. The real kicker, in my opinion, is the remarkable expansion of their brand. Multiple farms are gradually coming on board regionally as they pursue a key component of their plan, which is contract production. This is how they have been able to land and supply important customers in the Twin Cities, for instance.
Other farms, which meet Locally Laid’s standards for pasture-raised eggs, but have no interest in marketing, supply the eggs through contract production down there. These other farms supply the eggs, and a distributor takes care of picking up the eggs and supplying them to customers under the Locally Laid brand. This will soon be spreading to other states as the reach of the brand expands and other farms are able to successfully supply local customers with Locally Laid eggs. They are also starting to rent the brand to others, and these components of the business that are being pursued are truly impressive for this upstart that continues to find its way through the constant challenges each day brings. As you can see, all of their eggs are not in the same basket.
Currently they are on the cusp of moving the operation to their very own farm being purchased in Wrenshall. Then they’ll be able to develop a far more efficient egg collection system, will build propane heated hen houses, which will in turn make water delivery systems more viable in the winter, etc. His optimism for the future of the business seems boundless, and though I arrived a skeptic, I left thoroughly convinced of their ultimate success in this extremely forward-thinking and well diversified venture.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Locally Laid’s commercial finished second in online voting among 30,000 contenders for a free Superbowl commercial sponsored by Intuit. This small outfit from the northland actually has a solid chance to be awarded a commercial during the most watched television event of the year. Judges are currently whittling the field down to semi-finalists, and we’ll know if Locally Laid made this elite cut on October 28th.
Check out the commercial (it wound up being the runner-up):