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Jason Amundsen, who started a business called Locally Laid, pours out feed for some of the 1,800 chickens at his chicken/egg farm south of Wrenshall on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. In the background are the hoop coops that house the birds when they're not feeding or walking around the fenced-in field. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Locally Laid eggs finding a market in the Duluth area

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Jason Amundsen liked his flock of five chickens, which he and his wife kept in their Duluth backyard. The eggs were delicious.

So, he thought, why not get a few more -- about 1,795 more -- raise them in the fresh air and sunshine, give them clean feed and good grass, and let all of Duluth have a good egg for breakfast?

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And why not try to make a living selling good eggs under a memorable name?

Locally Laid eggs are now for sale at a few retail locations around Duluth, as well as at several restaurants. Amundsen spends his days caring for his flock of friendly chickens, each one named Lucie (also the name of Amundsen's wife and business partner), and hoping that customers will pay a little extra for a good egg.

"On some level it's a gamble," Amundsen said. "It's like a giant bet on a belief system that I hope I share with my customers -- that good food is worth it."

Amundsen plans to donate 5 percent of the company's profits to local schools, libraries, and art and environmental institutions. And a tree will be planted with each large delivery of eggs, Amundsen said.

Locally Laid chickens graze freely on rented pasture in Wrenshall. They also eat corn feed that isn't genetically modified, and they don't endure the stress of living in confinement. That adds up to a high-quality egg that looks, cracks and tastes great, Amundsen said.

But building an instant chicken farm isn't as easy as unloading the chickens and waiting for the eggs to roll in. Amundsen ordered pullets -- half-grown laying hens -- from a grower in Iowa in order to get a jump on the laying season. When the chickens arrived at their new outdoor digs, however, Amundsen realized there was a problem.

The hens had been raised indoors, a common practice in large-scale animal production, and they didn't know how to behave in their new surroundings.

"They didn't know how to be chickens," Amundson said. "They didn't know how to roost or forage; they had never seen the sun before."

The chickens eventually learned to scratch and roost, but there were many nights of having to shag reluctant hens inside. And they were followed by long days of feeding, watering, moving fences, fixing glitches and catching loose chickens.

But finally the hens got down to business. Locally Laid eggs landed on the shelves at Whole Foods Co-op and Homecroft Foods in late August, and the hens already have fans among Locally Laid's wholesale customers.

"They are beautiful eggs," said Jaima Hanson, co-owner of the Duluth Grill. "We went to (Amundson's) farm to see his operation, and it's phenomenal."

The Duluth Grill uses as much local and regionally-grown and raised food as they can find, said General Manager Jeff Hanson. That includes potatoes from the Food Farm and beef from 4 Quarter's Holdings, both also in Wrenshall.

In the past few weeks, about 100 dozen of the 450 to 600 dozen eggs the Duluth Grill goes through in a week are coming from Amundson's chickens.

"They are a little more spendy," Hanson said, "but it's worth it, supporting a local company. ... As far as the quality, you can't beat it."

Egg consumption at the Zeitgeist Arts Cafe has actually gone down a bit since they began using Locally Laid eggs, said General Manager Walter Lange -- but that's because the Locally Laid eggs have a stronger yolk that doesn't break, so there are fewer wasted eggs.

"We're loving the new eggs," Lange said.

Locally Laid eggs also have sold well during their first week on the shelves at the Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth, said cool foods and meat buyer Jesse Hoheisel. He said people have been coming in asking for Locally Laid eggs by name, spurred by the company's strong on-line presence.

Having a catchy name helps, Hoheisel said.

"It sticks in people's minds," he said. "I think it was a good move on (Amundson's) part."

The Co-op is selling Locally Laid eggs at an introductory price, though ultimately they will cost "a little more" than the other locally produced eggs, Hoheisel said. Time will tell whether or not consumers will continue to support the local business, he said.

While most of the eggs sold at the Co-op are laid by local chickens, they are from people with small flocks and arrive in small batches, Hoheisel said. Having a consistent large local supplier will be nice, he said, though occasionally the Co-op is deluged with local eggs.

Finding locally-raised meat for Co-op shelves is more difficult, Hoheisel said. Most of their meat, aside from locally-raised bison, comes from farms in central and southern Minnesota. Meat must be processed in a USDA-approved facility to be sold at retail, and no such facilities exist in northern Minnesota.

Raising meat is also an expensive and space-intensive undertaking, said Jean Sramek, coordinator for the Lake Superior chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association.

"You can buy a vacant lot and grow lots of herbs," Sramek said, but supplying the Duluth area with even a fraction of the meat people eat is another matter. Many area farmers raise and sell meat directly to consumers, but selling a single steak on a grocery store shelf is more challenging.

Still, Sramek said, many people are thinking differently about where their food comes from. People are asking for more locally-grown food, and are asking questions about where and how that food is grown.

"It's hard to turn around a big ship like a food system," Sramek said. "But it is turning around by people being educated. ... Eggs are a big one. The first time people pay $3 a dozen for eggs, they grumble, but they don't usually grumble the second time, after they taste a real egg."

That's just what Amundson is hoping for.

"It's going to be a couple years before we work out the kinks, and find out how this business works," Amundson said. "But that's the price you have to pay to do something radically different from the norm. You have to believe in it, and love it, and I do."

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