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Northland-based Locally Laid partners with Amish farmers

Locally Laid brand of eggs from pasture-raised hens have more traditional pink and tan hues. (Bob King / / 7
Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth was the first store to carry Locally Laid eggs in 2012. By October, about 180 stores will carry the brand in the Midwest, including many cooperatives. (Bob King / / 7
A hen guards a newly laid egg in one of Locally Laid’s hoop coops in 2012. The company has since moved to a farm with a barn to house the chickens when they’re not outside foraging in pastures. (2012 / News Tribune)3 / 7
Jason Amundsen, co-owner of Locally Laid Egg Co., prepares feed for his chickens in his winter barn in Wrenshall in December. The company was in the process of converting to an automatic feeding system for the barn. (2013 file / News Tribune)4 / 7
Hens fill Locally Laid’s heated winter barn in Wrenshall during last winter’s harsh winter. (2013 / News Tribune) 5 / 7
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In just two years, Locally Laid Egg Co. has gotten national attention and built a loyal following for its eggs from cage-free, pasture-raised hens.

With the Northland company’s growing name recognition, and eggs sold in an increasing number of stores, it’s easy to forget it’s still a startup business with slim profits.

 “Someday, I’m sure, we’ll make money,” said Lucie Amundsen who owns the business with her husband, Jason. “We cash flow, we pay all our bills. We’re in the black, but we’re not really making a lot of money yet. We don’t pay ourselves yet. We pay everyone else.”

However, profits may not be far off.

In the Twin Ports, Locally Laid Eggs are available at Super One stores and the Whole Foods Co-op. But its distribution is expanding far beyond the Twin Ports — to more locations the Twin Cities and to North Dakota, Indiana, and the Chicago and Detroit areas. And they’re doing it without increasing their flock of 2,000 hens at their lone farm in Wrenshall.

“We’re growing at quite the pace,” Jason Amundsen said.

To expand their distribution, the couple, who live in Duluth, are taking a creative approach that’s also helping small farmers. In the past year, Locally Laid has formed partnerships with Amish farmers in Kalona, Iowa; Middlebury, Ind.; and Henriette, Minn.

Locally Laid buys the eggs from them and distributes them under the Locally Laid brand to stores, restaurants and other food services in the company’s markets nearest the farms.

“It’s great for the Amish community farmers who aren’t into being out in the world but are excellent farmers,” Lucie Amundsen said. “It took us a very long time to build up that level of trust with our partner farms. Now we have that established relationship. And they are referring us to their relatives.”

With the boost to five distributors, the company will see dramatic growth in the next month. According to Jason Amundsen:

Locally Laid will more than double its retail outlets, from the current 90 to nearly 200, with 90 percent of them retail stores. They include 60 new outlets in the Chicago area and 23 new stores in the Twin Cities, including a well-known grocery chain to be announced soon.

To expand that much, Locally Laid will have 20,500 laying hens spread over nine farms in three states. The chickens will produce enough eggs to fill 1,450 dozen-count cartons each day, he said.

Super Bowl boost

Locally Laid’s latest growth spurt probably wouldn’t be happening without its bid last winter for a Super Bowl commercial. With social media savvy, they rallied Northlanders to cast their online votes.

“It had a tremendous impact,” Jason Amundsen said. “The reason why our name is recognized and why the interest in our eggs is so strong is in large part due to the Super Bowl contest.”

The 15,000 applicants in the nationwide contest were whittled down to four finalists, including Locally Laid, which ended up the runner-up. The winner was GoldieBlox, a California maker of learning toys for girls.

“What it did is create a demand for our eggs,” he said. “We were able to build these barns and work for this community in Henriette, in part due to the demand generated through this contest.”

The couple’s use of humor in their marketing efforts also has helped endear them to consumers.

Jason calls himself the “head clucker,” while Lucie is the company’s “marketing chick.” All their hens are called LoLa, (Lo is short for local, La short for laid). Company sayings include “Free the chickens” and “Local chicks are better.” Ask them about the size of their flock and they say they have 2,000 happy hens and three even happier, though tired, roosters.

Partner farms

Their eight partner farms must operate according to Locally Laid’s pasture-based standards. Cages are prohibited. Chickens are housed in barns with regular treks outside to exercise and forage on fresh grass in rotating pastures. They are fed a quality mixture including soybean meal, alfalfa meal, non-genetically modified corn and calcium for shell building. Hens raised that way produce bigger, tastier eggs with less cholesterol and fat, the Amundsens say.

Flocks are limited to 3,000 hens per barn, which is best for pasture-based egg operations.

“You need a manageable-size flock to ensure that all the birds will go outside every day,” Lucie Amundsen explained. “If you have tens of thousands, they’re not all going to come out of the barn.”

All the partner farms had to make changes to meet those standards, as well as learn about water and feeding systems and what to do about predators, she said.

“Some were already cage-free operations,” she said. “Some didn’t have chickens going outside. Others built barns for this purpose. Some didn’t have chicken operations.”

Her husband worked with them to get them up and running and continues to monitor their progress.

So far, the partnerships are working.

This allows the couple to focus on what they do best, which is building relationships with retailers and consumers, while their Amish partners can focus on their strength, which is farming, they say.

“The (farmers) we work with really like it,” Jason Amundsen said. “They get a steady income from it, and we get a steady supply of eggs.”

According to Lucie Amundsen, their partner farms get $42 for every $100 spent by consumers on their eggs, compared to the $53 that farmers got in 1910 and $20 in 1990.

“That’s not including us,” Lucie Amundsen said of the $42. “We get paid for setting up the relationship and selling their eggs. We get part of the remaining $58. But we have expenses, too, including marketing and distribution.”

Thanks to the partnership, one of the farmers in Henriette, who has been leasing his farm land for years, is now in the process of getting a loan to buy the farm, she said.

“He’s very excited,” she said. “And honestly, that gives me goose bumps, that in some small way we are part of the American dream. That just makes me feel terrific.”

Need more, not bigger farms

For Locally Laid, more farmer partnerships are likely.

The owners say they want to broaden their network to help change the way eggs are produced in the United States and to get pasture-based, locally produced eggs to more areas.

“The goal isn’t to get bigger farms, the goal is to get more farms,” Jason Amundsen said.

Randel Hanson, assistant professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said the Amundsens’ efforts are giving midlevel agriculture needed help.

Much of midscale farms have disappeared because big industrial farm systems have taken over, he said.

“What we have in this country are giant corporate farms,” Hanson said. “In the last decade or two, there’s been a proliferation of large and small-scale farms. What we don’t have are middle-scale farms that can successfully market their products and sell directly to consumers. Institutions need to buy in quantities typically bigger than what small farms can produce. Grocery stores want an ongoing supply. These small-scale farms have a hard time in meeting that.”

So the struggle is creating midscale systems that can meet the needs of supermarkets, he said.

Locally Laid is exploring how to do that.

 “They are hard workers who are constantly trying to figure out how to organize what they are doing to fit the market and create a niche that’s viable and sustainable for themselves,” Hanson said.

He called their partner model a “brilliant solution” to those challenges.

“It has the potential to grow farms,” he said. “And we absolutely need to grow farms. We’re at a crisis moment. The average age of farmers is 56 years old. We have to figure out ways to make farming economically feasible so farmers can support families. This has the potential to do it. It’s not the solution, but they’re part of the solution.”