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Column: A locally hatched business

Eddy Gilmore1 / 2
Jason Amundsen in the great outdoors with some of his 2,000 hens. (Photo by Eddy Gilmore)2 / 2

Many people fantasize about quitting their day jobs in order to run their own businesses.

When Duluthian Jason Amundsen's day job quit on him, rather than pound the pavement for employment, he identified a niche to fill.

As a proud wrangler of a small backyard flock of chickens myself, I went into this interview with the self-described "head clucker" of Locally Laid Eggs being rather incredulous at the prospects of making a profit from pasture-based hens. Imagine the prospects of earning a profit by caring for more than 2000 chickens, and all the complications that come with that.

First, Amundsen found suitable pasture to rent in Wrenshall for his flock of working girls to forage. Then he paid

to punch a well for a supply of fresh water. Chicken houses were constructed from scratch. 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 in the business, was enormously challenging and fraught with trials. 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 that much less waste.

Then there's the endless collection of eggs. Two thousand eggs a day is not mere chicken scratch. 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.

There's clearly a market for locally laid eggs from pasture, but the simplicity and sustainability of Amundsen's business model borders on the awe-inspiring.

Jason often comments about the steep learning curve they have endured to get to this point. 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. As Lucie, his wife, bluntly yet eloquently states on their blog, "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 and flexible while developing a recognizable and desirable brand in Locally Laid. The phrase "Adapt or die" comes to mind when reflecting on their experiences, such as when an inspector from the state declined to give them the go-ahead on their egg-cleaning facility just two weeks before thousands of eggs would start appearing daily. 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 at the 11th hour.

Now back to that business plan: The Amundsens 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 expansion of their brand that is nothing short of remarkable. Multiple farms are gradually coming on board regionally as they pursue 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. A distributor takes care of 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.

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 28.

Currently, the Amundsens are on the cusp of moving the flagship operation to land they are purchasing. Then they'll be able to develop a far more efficient egg collection system, will build propane-heated hen houses, and this will in turn make water-delivery systems more viable in the winter, etc.

Their optimism for the future of the business seems boundless, and though I arrived a skeptic, I left thoroughly convinced of their ultimate success.

Monthly Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore is a freelance writer, father of twins and husband of one. He can be reached via e-mail at eddyg_123@ yahoo.com.

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