AirB-N-BAWK? Minnesota chicken farmers on their unique agritourism experience

Jason and Lucie Amundsen
Jason and Lucie Amundsen own Locally Laid Egg Company in Wrenshall, Minn.
Chris Farrell | MPR News

Picture this scene back in 2010. Jason and Lucie Amundsen went out to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant in Duluth where they lived. They both made a living tapping on keyboards.

Jason pitched the idea of farming pasture-raised chickens. He said, “This is the kind of farm I want to start.” The conversation didn’t go well.

Yet something about the idea must have had staying power, because two years later they started what became the Locally Laid Egg Company in Wrenshall, Minn.

MPR’s senior economic contributor Chris Farrell visited their farm not far from Duluth and learned that there is even more to the farm than chickens.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: Picture this scene, this is back in 2010, Jason and Lucy Amundsen went out to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant in Duluth where they lived. They both made a living tapping on keyboards. Jason pitched the idea of farming pasture raised chickens.

He said, this is the kind of farm I want. The conversation didn't go well. But something about the idea must have had staying power, because two years later, they started what became the locally laid egg company in Renshaw, Minnesota. MPR Senior Economic Contributor Chris Farrell visited their farm not far from Duluth and learned that there's even more to the farm than chickens. Hey, Chris.

CHRIS FARRELL: How you doing, Emily?

INTERVIEWER: I'm looking forward to talking about this. All right, so let's start with the basics. Pasture raised chickens-- so what does that mean?

CHRIS FARRELL: OK, so they have about 300 chickens. And by the way, they're all named Lola. And the chickens aren't confined in cages or packed together in large barns. Instead, Lucy says, with their approach, chickens roam the farm grounds.

SUBJECT 1: What we do here is called pasture raised. So pasture raised, the birds go out on pasture that we rotate regularly. So they get to have a buffet of seeds, and tasty bugs, the occasional mouse, whatever comes through. They're able to forage. And they also exercise a lot. So we call them salad eating poultry athletes.

INTERVIEWER: OK, so that's fun, sounds kind of idyllic. But farming is hard. Did they grow up on farms? Do they have a background in agriculture?

CHRIS FARRELL: No, not at all Lucy does come from a business owning family, but they were liberal arts students and they worked with words. And so what they did is what people who work with words do. You do research.

They took business and farming classes. They visited a number of farms. And Jason's ambition was to open the first commercial scale pasture raised egg operation in the upper Midwest. And they learned through the School of Hard Knocks.

Lucy says that as the business evolved, they gained insights into how to market and distribute their product. And it's through Jason's work at distributing their eggs that they teamed up with a number of Amish farmers.

SUBJECT 1: Well, distribution was huge. Jason had to teach himself all of that and meet with distributors. And we end up actually, it's not just us at this particular farm, we have seven other partners who came to us wanting to get into the egg business or expand their egg business.

But they saw that Jason was making headway into distribution, so we ended up forming this bigger brand of the locally laid egg company, and having enough eggs to be in places like the cub foods and many of the co-ops in the Twin Cities, and up here at Super One and places like that.

INTERVIEWER: Now, Chris, I know that many farmers have multiple revenue sources. There's a lot of bills. Is that the case with Jason and Lucy?

CHRIS FARRELL: Yes. You're right-- farmers do diversify their sources of income. And, Emily, that strategy is not just farmers. If you think about artists, right, they have multiple strains. A lot of small businesses do the same thing.

Now, in their case, Lucy works as communications director for the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and brings in an outside income, you get benefits. But the farm has diversified in these ways that I found fascinating.

So I'm going to start with the honey berry patch. They have 10,000 honey berry plants. Now, have you ever heard of honey berries?

INTERVIEWER: I have not.

CHRIS FARRELL: OK, most people haven't. So here's how Lucy describes honey berries.

SUBJECT 1: They are very big in Russia and Canada. And, well, my joke is that, good news, the Northland has the same growing climate as Siberia.

CHRIS FARRELL: OK.

SUBJECT 1: So it's a plant that is like a blueberry meets maybe some sort of sweet tart at the end. So it has a great finish to it, they're kind of oblong. And we've been introducing the area to it. And it's been really fun.

INTERVIEWER: All right, I'll bite. What do you make out of honey berries?

CHRIS FARRELL: OK, so most of the business on the farm is pick your own. And while I was there talking to them, a family came to pick them. But honey berries, they do show up in wine, ice cream, baked goods, all kinds of places. They also have blueberries and strawberries. Now, Emily, I saved the most intriguing income generating idea for last.

INTERVIEWER: OK.

CHRIS FARRELL: They've gone into the agritourism business. They call it AirB-N-Bawk. Got it?

INTERVIEWER: All right. I'm here for all the puns. I get that this is a pun rich environment. What's AirB-N-Bawk?

CHRIS FARRELL: OK. So there are several houses on the property, and one is a tiny home-- almost a tree house. And then they have these small, simple, well-designed wooden bunkhouses, and they're really intriguing. Jason, the farm manager, they built them. And they're about 20 feet long, 8 feet wide. And here's Lucy on the unique twist to these bunk houses.

SUBJECT 1: We have these great bunk houses that are 2/3 people coop, 1/3 chicken coop with glass in between. So it's a little bit of a hen aquarium experience. It's not much better than indoor camping, kind of rustic. Folks come, and they help us with chores.

CHRIS FARRELL: So who's watching whom, the chickens or the humans?

SUBJECT 1: The chickens do get rather curious, and they will peck on the glass if it's time for them to come out and no one's let them out yet.

INTERVIEWER: So you get to do chores while staying in the bunkhouse. It sounds like a good deal for the owners. It's part of the agritourism experience, right?

CHRIS FARRELL: Exactly. Now, you're not required. You don't have to do the chores. But, look, you get the chance to feed the chickens, make sure they have water. They also have an egg cooler.

And Lucy calls it Arctica. And people write their names, the dates they were there, where they're from. And Emily jotted down India, Kazakhstan, Belgium, and, of course, places like Iowa.

And Jason, he says that many of the guests are grandparents with their grandkids, and they want to show them where food comes from.

SUBJECT 2: We also see a yearning, I think, among generations. The older generations, especially with the grandchildren, just trying to teach and show. A lot of the things that you see at the store every day, people have no idea where they come from.

And this is a chance for older generations to pass along that very basic wisdom to their children and grandchildren. And we see it. And we see it when you have an 11-year-old who comes out and says, I want to let the chickens out. I want to collect eggs or just doing the basics of you're a toddler-- OK, you want an egg basket. These things are really fragile, right?

INTERVIEWER: Well, clearly, they love what they do. I should also mention, Chris, that the company is an underwriter of Minnesota Public Radio.

CHRIS FARRELL: That's right. And they're fun to be around, as you can tell from our conversation. It was a really windy day on that farm. But despite the humor, Emily, it's also clear that this has been a long, hard journey to get to where they are today.

And if you want to learn more about the difficulties of making the transition from keyboard to farm, get a copy of Lucy's book, Locally Laid-- How We Built A Plucky, Industry Changing Egg Farm From Scratch. So they managed to stay in business for more than a decade, and that's an achievement for any startup.

But farming, as you mentioned early on, farming is a hard business. And it's getting worse in some ways these days, says Jason.

SUBJECT 2: What makes farming so challenging is that we have no control over our variables. So we're always kind of at the whims of Mother Nature. And Mother Nature is quite indifferent. And I think the other thing that we're seeing, and I've seen it now is just in the past eight or nine years, is climate change is really affecting us, especially in the berry farm front.

We're just having this crazy, crazy, crazy dry spells. There used to be days we would just take off for rain days years ago. We don't take them off anymore. There are no more rain days. We had the driest ever recorded from the 1st of May through the 14th of June this year, and it's not going to get easier.

INTERVIEWER: That is really sobering to think about how climate change is having a genuine impact on Minnesota farmers.

CHRIS FARRELL: OK. But here's the thing-- this part of the conversation, as you can hear in Jason's tone, it was a really sober moment-- a realization just how much work goes into creating their farm and its various businesses. But it wasn't much later, not much later at all, that Lucy started riffing on a new business idea like taking advantage of how entertaining chickens are.

SUBJECT 1: They stretch. And they do these yoga moves. And they're quite fun to watch. I've been telling Jason we need to build a fun gazebo, and we could have a whole thing called Drinking with Chickens, and we could have tastings and whatnot. But I guess--

SUBJECT 2: Not to say "no." Maybe we will. It could happen. We can do-- right? Right?

INTERVIEWER: I can feel that energy. Thank you, Chris, for this.

CHRIS FARRELL: Thanks a lot, Emily.

INTERVIEWER: Chris Farrell is MPR's Senior Economics Contributor.

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