Photographs by David Paul Schmit
Lucie Amundsen gathering eggs on her chicken farm
Amundsen gathers eggs.
There are some 80,000 farms in Minnesota, and a whole lot of farm kids—so there must be lots of love stories among the cows and soybeans. Yet we rarely hear them, save for Almanzo “Manly” Wilder sweeping Laura Ingalls off her feet in that little house on the prairie. Jason and Lucie Amundsen have one of those farm love stories. It started typically enough: She was a young public relations hire raising money for the Children’s Home Society. He was a lieutenant back on hardship leave to see his ailing father, assigned by the Army to drum up good PR at a fundraising drive for Lucie’s employer. The two met during the campaign and eventually started dating. One thing led to another, and soon they had a cute rambler in the city of St. Anthony and a pair of happy enough little kids.
Lucie fell in love with Jason’s devotion to his family. “That’s always an attractive quality,” she says. “And I love that he is always reading. We have very interesting conversations about the world and what is going on. Jason is big, 6 feet, and bold, brave—just a perseverant, tenacious guy.” One day, her bold, brave husband announced he was sick of his current desk job—sick in a bored, need-to-change-everything way. What their family needed, he said, was an authentic relationship with the outdoors. When a headhunter from a hospital called Jason with a job in Duluth, the couple moved north, where it’s not all that difficult to have an authentic relationship with the outdoors.
At the new place, they had room for backyard chickens. Jason came to really, really like those backyard chickens. In fact, he loved them so much, he took Lucie out for date-night, and made another bold pronouncement: He didn’t want a desk job of any sort anymore. He wanted chickens, chickens everywhere, chickens running free in green pastures. He wanted to quit his new job for the life of an egg farmer. She said no. But when he got laid off, mere months after they had closed on their house, they put their life savings into a farm in nearby Wrenshall, Minnesota. And that’s how two Twin Cities desk-job people ended up with thousands of chickens, hundreds of thousands of eggs, and the region’s first large-scale, pasture-raised egg operation.
Chickens roam their paddock pasture. Eggs awaiting a wash.
Though Jason had taken classes in farm economics, nothing prepared him for the moment when 1,800 chickens arrived at the Wrenshall farm in bad shape. They were travel-battered chickens that had been raised in factory-like conditions and didn’t know to go outside in the day and inside at night, and didn’t know how to roost, peck the ground, or do anything the books said they would do. Though the couple continued to live in Duluth, Jason sometimes stayed late in Wrenshall to hand-place chickens on roosts and minister to wounded birds. On many occasions, he slept in the barn overnight.
Lucie, meanwhile, found herself in Duluth, a married single parent. The learning curve for egg farming wasn’t just steep, she writes in her new memoir Locally Laid—it was vertical. The couple didn’t completely know what it would take to get water in winter when the well would freeze, what it would take to get a state-inspected egg-washing operation through all the administrative hoops, how much upper-body strength you need to carry a 38-pound pail of feed, or how much cash they’d really need. Lucie gave herself the task of earning extra money through freelance work to keep everything afloat. Jason devoted himself to the chickens. It was no way to run a marriage.
“We were withering from lack of diversion and shared experience,” writes Lucie of her relationship with her husband at the time. Soon, Jason began literally withering away from working around the clock. Even his strong hands lost weight, causing him to lose his wedding ring. At one point in the book, Jason asks his wife, “Are you going to leave me? Because if I were you, I’d leave me.” Lucie writes, “Despite his farm filth, I reached in and folded him down in my arms, pulling his foul-smelling self against my body and rocking him gently. ‘Jason, I love you . . . and I couldn’t leave you even if I wanted to. There’s too much debt.’”
The couple’s relationship survived and so did their egg company, which they gave the wink-y name Locally Laid Egg Company. In 2012 they found their first significant market for their eggs: south Minneapolis’s Linden Hills Co-op. Because of Linden Hills, the Amundsens were able to convince other farmers, mainly Amish families, to take on their production methods of pasture-raised laying hens. The Amundsens promised to buy the eggs and eat the loss if they couldn’t sell them. The strategy worked, and today Locally Laid partners with seven local farms.
Jason, perseverant and bold, is good at selling eggs. Lucie is good at putting together the marketing materials on what makes the eggs so good. If you walk down the aisles of your local Kowalski’s, Cub, or Twin Cities co-op, you can see the proof of their hard work. Jason was right—chickens were a good fit for him. But Lucie was right, too, she’s more of a desk-job girl. In addition to teaching communications at St. Scholastica, she’s penned the first modern memoir of chickens and love on the farm that I’ve ever read.
The book is also an overstuffed quiche of amusing anecdotes about poultry. For instance, that old saying about seeing blood and going in for the kill? That’s a chicken thing, based on how likely they are to kill their best friends, if said friends become wounded. (The phrase “rose-colored glasses” comes from little glasses that hens sometimes wear so as not to see said blood.) Have Minnesota farm wives been observing strange facts about farm birds since the days of Little House on the Prairie? Certainly. But why have we never before heard of poultry responsible for a farmer’s alienation of affections?
For myself, I’ve written about food and farms for a very long time, yet it took this book for me to realize that any time I stand in the grocery store and look at a Minnesota-grown product, there are likely similar stories behind it—love stories, economic near-death stories, relationships plagued by freezing wells and burrowing skunks where everyone retreats at the end of the day to eat the ugly eggs that fancy city-slickers like me wouldn’t buy. Well, that part is specific to poultry, but now I wish a soybean farmer would write her story, too. “I would love to feel like I am letting people know there is incredible effort behind that carton of eggs,” says Lucie. “We Americans tend to feel like all our food arrives on a truck, and there is so much more behind it.”