These Backyard Chicken Farmers Started With 5 Hens. Now They Sell 7,000 Cartons a Week.

This Minnesota couple launched a business built around “salad-eating poultry athletes.”

Con16_Amundsen04Courtesy LUCIE AMUNDSEN/ Farm and Ranch Living Magazine
Before expanding into a commercial-scale, pasture-raised egg production business, my husband, Jason, and I were backyard chicken keepers. Looking back, it was an idyllic time. I was content with our five ladies scratching around the yard.

Jason’s earnest attempt at urban farming provided the confidence to dream bigger. He sought after and received invaluable advice from the fine folks at Lake Superior Sustainable Farming Association, University of Minnesota-Duluth Center for Economic Development and Springfield Farm in Maryland. In 2012 we hatched Locally Laid Egg Co., envisioning farmers market-quality eggs in grocers’ dairy cases.

That first year we grew from a handful of hens to about 2,500 Rhode Island Red, Red Star and Bovans Brown chickens. It wasn’t easy. We attempted during winter months to keep chickens in hoop coops modified with insulation. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Record cold battered northern Minnesota with temperatures plunging down to 25 below zero for days at a time.

Con16_Amundsen06Courtesy LUCIE AMUNDSEN/ Farm and Ranch Living Magazine

We left our rented land and bought a farm in Wrenshall with a barn that we dressed out with dust baths, roosts, and hay for foraging. We installed poultry lighting to keep the birds laying through the winter, though at a reduced rate.

Except in winter, our salad-eating poultry athletes are pasture-raised, which means they can partake in the salad bowl that is the open field. These birds can run around, stretch their legs and enjoy clover, flowers, seeds, grasses, bugs and any ill-fated frogs that jump into the paddock. This varied fare gives our eggs more flavor than those from chickens fed a commercial diet. And Penn State University research demonstrated that pasture-raised eggs have twice as much vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent heart disease and stroke, and may help control conditions like eczema, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

[pullquote] Except in winter, our salad-eating poultry athletes are pasture-raised, which means they can partake in the salad bowl that is the open field. [/pullquote]

On the new farm, our ladies still live most of the year in hoop coops. These are similar to the kinds of structures that grocery and home improvement stores set up in their parking lots to sell plants in spring.

Each morning, my brother-in-law, Brian, opens up the screen doors, and chickens rush into paddocks we created with solar electric fencing. In a few days, after the hens have pecked down the grasses and thinned the insects, we move the electric fence onto new pasture.

Con16_Amundsen05Courtesy LUCIE AMUNDSEN/ Farm and Ranch Living Magazine

While the birds are out, Jason and Brian freshen the waterers; fill the feeders with a supplemental ration of non-genetically modified corn, soy and vitamin mix; and make sure there’s plenty of hard calcium in the free-choice bins. Then they collect eggs from the nesting boxes and store them in our walk-in cooler to await processing. Twice a week the washing team loads thousands of eggs into our 1954 Aquamagic egg washer, where they are scrubbed and candled to set specifications. Then we weigh and pack them.

FRLon16_KatieCannon2Katie Cannon Photography/ Farm and Ranch Living Magazine

We thought caring for livestock and dealing with government rules were challenging, but then we tried to get shelf space in stores. Jason’s willingness to show grocers the quality of our eggs was key.

We also found out that news and social media coverage involving our firm made it easier to get orders. When customers ask for a product, grocery managers will stock the product. Soon we had the brand presence to attract a distributor.

We were still in our rocky first year when other farmers started to ask if they could produce for us. I was skeptical of this contract egg production, given its history of diluting the vitality of family farms.

Con16_Amundsen03Courtesy LUCIE AMUNDSEN/ Farm and Ranch Living Magazine

We realized, however, that fair contracts, along with local selling, could bring tangible benefits to the communities that farmers represent. It also could help us meet increasing demand. In 2013, we worked with one partner farm; now we have seven. Together, we now produce more than 7,000 cartons weekly.

Sales recently helped one of our partners buy the farm he had been renting. Receiving good news helps balance the challenge of attempting to make a living in agriculture.

If you’d like to know more about our operation, you can pick up a copy of my book, Locally Laid, or visit our website, locallylaid.com.

Originally Published in Farm & Ranch Living

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