In 2010, on a rare date night over dinner in Duluth, Lucie Amundsen's husband made a less-than-romantic proposal: Let's start a chicken farm.
The couple already had five chickens, but Jason wanted more — 1,795 more, to be exact. He wanted to quit his job and begin selling eggs from pasture-raised chickens.
"I did not react well," Amundsen said of the proposal. "It was not my finest moment. There may have been tears."
Those tears eventually turned into a "yes," however, and that yes became Locally Laid, a chicken farm in Wrenshall, Minn. The small operation made big headlines last year when the cheeky name ruffled some consumers' feathers.
Amundsen, who drives a car that says "Get Locally Laid" on the side, embraced the controversy. "When our perfect double entendre breaks through the media clutter in which we're all steeped, we leverage it. With that second look from a consumer, we educate about animal welfare, eating local, Real Food and the economics of our broken food system," she wrote on the company's blog.
Now, she's written a book about her family's (mis)adventures on the road to becoming farmers. Before they began farming, her husband was a grant writer. Amundsen worked as a freelance writer.
"There's nothing about our background that would have made [a farm] make sense," Amundsen told MPR News host Tom Weber. Keeping five chickens in the backyard had very little in common with wrangling 2,000 birds.
When they set their goal at 2,000, the Amundsens had no idea that they'd stumbled into one of the most difficult markets in modern farming: middle agriculture. They were somewhere between hobby farms, with 5 to 40 birds, and large-scale producers, with 10,000 or more birds.
"I was shocked to learn that not only am I doing this fantastical thing of trying to open a chicken farm at 40 years old, I also am entering into the most difficult market to do it in," Amundsen said.
No one even wanted to sell them "only" 2,000 birds. "We weren't worth their time when they had a ready-made market with the big guys."
Finding someone to sell them their first flock was only the beginning of their troubles. The book plots the pitfalls — heartbreaking, stressful and hilarious — of the Amundsens' grand chicken plan. (Just imagine receiving a delivery of thousands of birds that spent the day on the highway during Grandma's Marathon.)
Eventually, the farm was functioning with a flock of thousands — every one of the birds named Lola. (That's short for Locally Laid.)
"We were selling pretty much right away, and there was money coming in, but it just gets folded back into the business because of myriad expenses," Amundsen said. "Every day is a surprise party on the farm: It's 'Surprise! You need a new pump,' 'Surprise! There's another expense.' You have to learn to be an incredibly flexible human being."
Her husband was getting up at 4:30 a.m., and spending 16 or 17 hours a day at the farm, miles from their house. Amundsen was taking freelance writing jobs and other gigs to keep the farm going.
"Most farms in this country, something like 88 percent of them, rely on off-farm income to float them," Amundsen said. What kept them going was their commitment to the quality of the eggs, and the importance of middle agriculture.
Consumers have come to recognize the importance as well. Locally Laid, in collaboration with several partner farms, sells eggs in multiple markets around the country.
"They're really starting to vote with their dollars," Amundsen said of consumers. "My eggs cost a lot more, I'm the first one to admit it. It costs a lot more because our inputs — everything that goes into it — is more. We have a lot more labor because we are moving fences and getting chickens outside. That is more, but we actually have more demand than product. That's people saying: 'This is the kind of agriculture I want to see.'"
Reading egg labels
Amundsen provided a quick crash course in reading the labels on egg cartons:
Organic: Organic refers to the standard of feed, Amundsen said. An organic egg comes from a chicken that was fed certified organic food. It does not refer to where and how the chicken was raised.
Cage-free: Cage-free means the birds were not confined to small enclosures, but it does not mean they spent time outside. "I like to say it's a little bit like they live in a casino," Amundsen said about cage-free birds. "They have no idea what time it is, they don't know the season of the year."
Pasture-raised: Pasture-raised eggs come from birds that spend time outside. "When they're on rotated pasture, it means they're getting a really varied diet of bugs, seeds, a wrong-place-wrong-time frog," Amundsen said. "They have all kinds of different things added to their diet, which really gives you a better diet."
For the full interview with Lucie Amundsen about Locally Laid and the state of middle agriculture, use the audio player above.