Book tells the whole story of how Locally Laid company got hatched
If you were at a certain local Mexican restaurant on a summer evening in 2010, you might have been privy to the early seeds of a business plan that would take a Duluth family from desk jobs to coop life.
Jason Amundsen presented his dream over chips, salsa and beer. He wanted to build an egg farm using pastured hens, he told his wife, Lucie Amundsen. She didn't immediately register his passion for the project but listened passively, watching his hands make "Itsy Bitsy Spider"-like gestures.
Then reality hit. His intensity increased; her voice pitched higher. The words "not a farmer" were bandied about, then sheepish smiles were turned on nearby diners — witnesses to the couple's rare public argument.
The date night gone wrong is one of the first scenes in Lucie Amundsen's debut, "Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm — From Scratch" (Penguin Random House), which gets its release Tuesday. It reads like a sometimes-comedic memoir and lingers like a documentary about building a small business, middle agriculture and what you didn't know you wanted to know about eggs.
The book launched Wednesday at Fitger's Spirit of the North Theater and copies are available at bookstores around the Northland and online.
'My life with a lens'
The Amundsens' story starts with a grant writer, a freelance writer and their two young children who left behind an idyllic beige rambler in a Twin Cities suburb to move to Duluth for a job. The job didn't last, though — part of a series of events that led Jason Amundsen to move beyond the family's modest backyard chicken coop to the middle-sized farm in Wrenshall, home of Locally Laid.
Lucie Amundsen blogged it all on the company's website — a writing project that proved to be more fun than working on her thesis for her MFA from Hamline University.
"I was trying to write this important thing about transformation," she said. "I kept wanting to write the blog. We always want to be writing what we're not supposed to be writing at the time, what we're not on deadline for."
Eventually she saw that the blog could become a book and that her original thesis would make a good second chapter.
"That was really exciting for me," she said. "There was a 'eureka' there."
Amundsen said she would wake at 4 a.m. to write for three hours before transitioning into her already-busy days filled with work and family and, eventually, egg-washing.
"What separates Lucie from a lot of of people: She knew she was onto something," Jason Amundsen said. "She was willing to delay the gratification and had stick-to-itiveness to keep going. She wasn't satisfied with just putting out a product; she wanted to put out the best product."
There were horrific hiccups on the farm involving chicken transport, unsteady finances, learning curves that bent to vertical and the sort of marital messes that occur in the thick of being consumed by something new.
These moments get ink, a rarity in books about agriculture, according to Jason Amundsen, who said there is a lot of pie-in-the-sky, farmer-in-the-dell literature out there.
"As a family, we're proud of the record Lucie built with the book," he said. "But, you know, it's ugly, and it's not a pretty picture. Making sausage: no one lets you in the factory. You buy it off the shelf, you taste it, and you think it must be easy. ... This is what it's like to make sausage. Or scrambled eggs."
There are also triumphant lessons learned, the growth of the company, national attention by way of a contest to win a commercial during the Super Bowl, and the defining moment when Lucie Amundsen first uses the words "our farm."
For her, it was all tempered by her ability to see things from a writer's perspective.
"It definitely was a coping mechanism to look through my life with a lens," Amundsen said. "Everything that was going wrong didn't feel as real because I was already living it as a narrative character and tucking away details. When you're listening for dialogue and looking for vivid details and sounds and sensations, all of a sudden you aren't experiencing how chaotic your life is."
She's coined a saying about it:
"That which doesn't kill us, makes a good essay."
Years ago, Lucie Amundsen secured an agent who ultimately passed on the graphic novel she was writing but said she would be interested in her next piece.
"This was the next thing," Amundsen said.
Her agent, Holly Bemiss, gets a shout-out in the acknowledgments for pushing Amundsen to rewrite her book proposal 18 times. Two weeks after nailing it, in July 2014, the book was sold to Penguin.
In the meantime, there was more and more farm-related fodder including bird flu and a letter from a non-customer who took offense to the brand name — a critique that Amundsen used as a teaching moment, which ultimately went viral.
She added all of this to the story.
Jason Amundsen said this book shouldn't be mistaken for a fluff piece.
"In reality, it's ag policy meets a romance meets a business startup horror story," he said. "It's also really stupid funny. It's a testament to her writing skills."
"Locally Laid" has already gotten two big nods.
Joel Salatin, author of "You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise" blurbed: "I laughed, cried and said 'Amen' during this roller-coaster pastured poultry farm start up memoir."
Another blurb was dished by a famous mystery writer who called it "funny and informative."
"I absolutely loved 'Locally Laid!' " wrote Sue Grafton. "Read it in two days and enjoyed every minute."
Claire Kirch of Publisher's Weekly said the book was getting good buzz during the Heartland Fall Forum, where Amundsen was a speaker. It also was selected as a Midwest Connections Pick.
Lucie Amundsen received the uncorrected advance review copies of her book last fall. Her response was to clean the bathrooms. What if she didn't like the story anymore? she remembered wondering. It was disconcerting, she said, and seeing her name on the front was surreal.
"I remember not making full eye contact (with the books) for a while," she said.
She eventually made peace with the project, re-read it (made a few small changes) and found it still to her liking.
Things went better more recently when she received the hardcover copies. Amundsen said she removed the dust jacket and saw the embossed company logo.
"I did get choked up," she said.**********************************************
Title: "Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm — From Scratch"
Author: Lucie Amundsen
Publisher: Avery/Penguin Random House