A string of new businesses are bringing fluffy birds and farm-fresh eggs to a backyard near you.
Photo by Elias Gayles via Flickr
If you love eggs, but fear commitment, maybe it’s time to consider renting some chickens. Recent news reports from Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ontario have highlighted the growing trend of chicken rental businesses, allowing ovo-curious suburbanites to collect farm-fresh eggs daily in their own backyards. With the rise of urban farming and the local food movement, many non-rural people are experimenting with the birds and the bees to mixed results; for those looking to make their lives a little more farm-y, just interested in a seasonal project or even seeking an interesting pet, renting hens, along with a complete suite of supplies, might be the answer. Last week, the Chicago Daily Herald covered the phenomenon with the story of Kellie Burke, whose company, Urban Chicken Rentals, has been expanding in the Illinois suburbs. “It's becoming more and more popular,” Burke told the Daily Herald. “It's not just a trend. People are changing their lifestyles and taking control over their food.”
Rent the Chicken, a Pennsylvania business that has expanded to cover parts of seven other states as well as Washington, D.C., opened up shop in Toronto last week, where (as in many cities) backyard chickens are technically illegal. The company offers 6-month packages that start in the spring and come with a portable coop, food and water dishes, instructional literature, and all the chicken feed you’ll need for the duration of your rental. Pricing varies by location and how many hens you want to keep, but a two-hen deal will set you back between $300 and $400 for the 2015 season, and should produce between eight and 14 eggs a week. According to CBC News, Rent the Chicken also runs a “hatch the chicken” program, allowing “families and schools to rent seven fertile eggs for five weeks,” and so experience the joy of baby chicks. As far as the legality of the operation in Toronto goes, the CBC reports that a deferred 2012 vote has left the status of backyard birds in limbo, and though the laws against keeping chickens are still on the books, “city officials will continue responding to complaints, but won't actively enforce the bylaw.”
Recent nutritional revelations have caused eggs to lose some of their cholesterol-related bad reputation, and the USDA now calls them a “healthy food” containing “high-quality protein and all nine essential amino acids.” So beefing up one’s diet with a steady supply of eggs might be a beneficial choice for consumers—backyard chickens could be a fun way to do this, while keeping it local. But are farm-fresh, or in this case, backyard-fresh eggs any better than the ones we buy at the store? While my own personal experience makes me want to say “yes,” it is an issue of intense debate, with fresh, pasture-raised eggs often found indistinguishable from store eggs in taste tests, while others tout “good” eggs’ supposed nutritional benefits. An intense trial in Serious Eats concluded “freshness matters” although their attempts to root out the difference between egg qualities somehow turned into “a surreal brunch and a surprisingly complex journey into the depths of the human psyche.”
So while we may never know the exact benefits of fresh eggs, for most people, chicken rentals are fun, and about more than nutritional value. Eggs you harvest yourself will always taste better, and many customers just enjoy having the birds around. Rich Maglin, a Sparta, New Jersey resident and Rent the Chicken customer tells NJ.com that his chickens are “so cute” and like “household pets.” Jenn Tompkins, one half of the husband-and-wife team that started Rent the Chicken, also stresses that the service is about more than food. “It's not just about the eggs,” Tompkins told the Pittsburgh City Paper. “It's also about the experience.”