Duluth-area writer and co-chicken farmer Lucie B. Amundsen is the author of Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm from Scratch (Avery, 2016). She will appear at the Chippewa Valley Book Fest Saturday, October 15, 2016, at 3:30 p.m. in the Eau Claire Room, L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library. She has a masters of fine arts in writing from Hamline University, has written for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and has served as an editor at Reader’s Digest Association.
The book recounts the adventure she and her husband began when they decided to create a large-scale, pasture-raised egg farm—with no previous experience! In November she’ll be speaking as a William J. Clinton Guest Lecturer at the School of Public Policy in Little Rock about Middle Agriculture, which, she says is “quite an honor for a reluctant chicken farmer.” The book recently won the Midwest Choice Award for Nonfiction.
Recently we spoke with Amundsen about the adventure and the book.
► Why did you decide to write the memoir? It started as a blog, which honestly I started as part diary/part mental health exercise. I found that if I was writing out everything that was going on (read going wrong) at the farm, I wasn’t grinding my teeth quite so hard. Then I needed a subject for my book-length thesis project for my masters of fine arts in writing from Hamline University in St. Paul. Oddly, I began writing other topics, but found myself drawn to writing the blog. Then it hit me that the blog could be adapted to a book. Also, I think of the book as narrative nonfiction—like if a memoir and a popular nonfiction had a bab. There’s a tremendous amount of facts and research in there, and my hope is that the personal, funny story will propel people who didn’t know they cared about the food system into reading a book about it. I’m tricky that way.
► All the chickens are named Lola, short for Locally Laid. Are all your chickens of the same type? What type(s) do you have? We have had different breeds over the years—mostly Rhode Island Reds, Bovans Brown, and Red Stars. They’re all hearty northern girls, good layers with gentle personalities.
► You have said that in this venture you are “championing agriculture of the middle,” saying in an Open Letter to the Man Offended by Locally Laid (http://locallylaid.com/open-letter-to-the-man-offended-by-locally-laid/), that Middle Agriculture is “the most stressed, least understood agricultural segment in America. Mid-sized farms, like awkward teens, don’t fit in anywhere. They tend to be too large to sell all they produce directly to the public (think farmer’s market or CSA) and way too small to romp with the big dogs of commodity markets. As such, there are less of us mid-level producers every day. Between 1997–2012 the number of these types of operations has declined by 18%. That’s over 130,000 farms that have been shut, barn doors closed, tumbleweeds cued.” You wrote that when this happens, it affects all the local and regional agriculture-related industries. This is really the crux of the farm for me. The idea is that when a business sources locally — farmers in our region grow our Non-GMO corn, then we use the local feed mill to grind and store our feed, buy our supplies from the local farm store, handle our own processing, and hire our neighbors to wash eggs, and then use a local distributor to sell locally — then all that economic vitality swirls around the community and we’re all better for it.One of our partner farmers who had been renting his land forever was able, on the strength of his Locally Laid contract, to buy his farm. It gives me goose bumps.
► How much training or education would someone need to do what you and your husband have done? I think of my book as farm contraception. If someone reads the book and still wants to go into farming, then they should find a farmer to have a mentor relationship with for at least a year. Also, understanding of accounting and marketing would be really useful, too. Farmers now can’t just excel at the craft of agriculture, they also must understand branding.
Why, in your mind, is growing and selling/buying locally better (assuming you think so)?
There’s everything I said above, but also I talk about food miles in the book. Here is a bit on that from page 108. “It’s a form of culinary accounting, adding up all the travel on long-haul trucks and plane hops a product takes to get from farm field to processing plant to your town. The Worldwatch Institute ran the numbers and figures that most things we pick up from the grocery store travel between 1,500 and 2,500 miles before they slap down on our kitchen counters. And that seemed like an awful big side of diesel with our breakfast. I started writing about it.”
► Are local organic eggs more nutritious? Do they tend to be more expensive than Big Ag eggs? It had been our intention to be organic certified, but then we learned a lot.Organic eggs don’t feel local to me as most of the organic animal feed in this country comes from China and India. Our government subsidizes commercial corn so heavily, it makes business sense to export our commercial grain and import organic. Of course, I’m not sure how organic a crop can be from some of the most polluted countries on earth.
However having my chickens outside on ROTATED pasture (cage-free birds don’t really go outside, but when they do it’s often on a concrete slab or on denuded pasture) adds nutrients to their diets. All that clover, flowers, grasses, seeds,bugs, and hapless frogs makes for better eggs—tastier and also with more yolk integrity. A USDA-funded study and others have found that pasture-raised eggs have less fat, less cholesterol, more beta-carotene, omega 3s, vitamin A, etc.
It makes sense to me that when I exercise and eat salad, I’m healthy. Same for the birds.
► What has been the most challenging aspect to your chicken-raising endeavor? It’s hard to say one thing. The book really is a giant pratfall into our ag experience, but because we’re not so small that we can procure all our chickens at say Dan’s Feed Bin (a local feed store in Superior) and we’re not ordering the 30,000 pullet minimum from a big hatchery, getting lines of supply going as a mid-sized farm was very difficult.
► What has been the greatest reward? The greatest reward has been watching some of our partner farms (farmers who raised eggs to our brand standard, we buy them and do all the distribution and marketing) have a materially better life. Like I said, one bought his farm. Another insulated his house. That’s tangible stuff.
In the book, I find ways to take big questions like “Why is a food system broken?” and find light, amusing ways to answer them. At a reading, I had a woman come up to have her book signed, and I could tell she had something important on her mind. This is a paraphrase of what she said, “In the 1980s my parents lost our farm, and I thought it was because we were bad at business. But then I read your book, and I see it had nothing to do with that. That the whole deck was stacked against us. And now…I see things differently.” This might be the most rewarding thing that happened about the book for me.
We are hosting the annual Eat Local Challenge, where local chefs seeking to use local, organic products create a wonderful meal. Have you and your eggs participated in any events like that? If so, why do you think they are important?
We’ve been involved with the statewide project Minnesota Cooks. I think events like these are good for consumer education and are usually a lot of fun.