Little Egg That Could

On the day we visit Jason Amundsen
at his farm, it’s two degrees below zero and
blindingly bright. The late February sun
shatters off mountains of snow left by the
most recent blizzard. And since his hens
possess more sense than people usually afford
members of the poultry family, they had
thought better of venturing outside today.

Instead, the 2,300-head flock of egg-laying ladies can be found clucking contentedly inside Amundsen’s cozy
insulated barn. Perched on hanging water elements, snuggled into nesting boxes, or wandering around the barn’s
open floor, these hens (all named Lola, affectionately taken from the first two letters of each word in the farm’s
name—Locally Laid) produce about 1,300 eggs each day in the winter months, eating primarily a high-calorie feed
comprised of non-GMO corn, soybean meal, alfalfa meal and calcium for shell building. But with winter’s final
retreat, the barn doors will be opened wide, and Amundsen’s hens will spend their days out at pasture, digging in
the dirt for seeds, foraging for insects, and grazing on anything green.

Pasture-raised chickens are not to be confused with free-range, a term that means only that an animal is allowed some
access to the outside, with no specifications on the size of the space or the duration of the time outside. Pasture-
raising calls for laying chickens to be raised primarily outdoors, as opposed to confining them indoors. It works as
a system of moving fenced areas that allow the animals to graze an area during the day then return to the barn at
night to safely sleep. Amundsen chose to pasture-raise his hens because he believes they’re salad-eating poultry
athletes, not sedentary egg-laying machines. “We want them to be chickens, and do things that make chickens
happy,” he said, reaching for a shovel to begin today’s mucking. “We can’t wait for it to be spring so they can get
outside.” And what’s good for the chicken is good for the farmer, too. Chickens who go to pasture cost less to feed,
and they increase pasture fertility by spreading their own fertile waste on the fields as they forage.

Many people ask Amundsen if his eggs are organic, a question for which he wishes he had a different answer. Every
farmer has to make compromises, and for him it’s foregoing organic certification. When faced with the decision
between providing his hens with a non-GMO feed produced 10 minutes down the road and an organic feed an
eight-hour roundtrip away, he chose local over organic. It was a choice both pragmatic and ethical; trading an
organic certification for the added carbon footprint didn’t make sense to him. As it is, he and his wife Lucie donate
a tree for every delivery they make in an effort to offset the carbon output of their operation. Since they started the
farm a few years ago, they’ve planted thousands of trees across Northern Minnesota through a program with The
Nature Conservancy.

Amundsen, who is warm and energetic despite the weather and the fact he rises daily at 4 am to start farm chores,
is pioneering a space he refers to as “middle agriculture.” It fits somewhere between farmers’ markets and industrial
agribusiness, and has been a next-to-impossible niche to inhabit on account of our bifurcated food system. But
little by little, he’s building an egg empire based on happy hens. He partners with farms in Iowa and Indiana,
trading his business acumen and brand identity for their pledge to raise their hens to his standards. And he’s got his
eyes set on more; this summer, he’ll start construction on a processing facility on his farm. Once that’s completed,
he won’t have to drive his eggs to a commercial kitchen in Duluth to cool, clean and package them, but will be able
to do it right in his own backyard. These ventures are just a few of the ideas always swirling in Amundsen’s head,
which means that he’s always pushing for more. “I call it living at the tip of the spear,” he says, squinting in the sun
and gesturing to where the future processing facility will reside. “We want to keep innovating, keep looking for ways
to improve what we do and to positively impact our local food system. You look over that precipice of what you can
afford to do and you say, ‘Yeah, I think we can go a bit further.'”