Doesn’t it sound like utterly pastoral to wake up, make some coffee or tea, dress and walk to your backyard to collect fresh eggs for breakfast? A Houston affiliate of a service called Rent The Chicken is making it easy for suburbanites to make that humble dream come true.
The service provides two to four egg-laying hens; a portable coop that sits on the ground to allow the chickens access to fresh grass and bugs; a food dish; a water dish; chicken feed; and a book named Fresh Eggs Daily. Rentals are for five or six months, and the service for two chickens and their supplies — including free delivery within 50 miles of Katy — costs $400. At any time, the customer can adopt the chickens for an additional fee or return them to the local affiliate.
The company was founded in Freeport, Pennsylvania, by “Homestead Jenn” and “Homestead Phil” in 2013. (Everyone involved with the service goes by Homestead-something as part of the branding.) The company has grown extremely fast, with affiliates in 20 states as well as in Canada. We spoke with Homestead Jenn by phone, and she says they started the company by building coops and doing some “research and development” with family and friends. “We understand not everyone knows what to do when it comes to having backyard chickens,” she said.
Not everyone can take advantage of the service, unfortunately. Most neighborhood homeowners’ associations still prohibit backyard chickens as well as all other kinds of livestock. Roosters make a whole lot of noise but hens do not. “Some homeowners' association policies are harder to change than city ordinances,” said Jenn. “Hens are not any noisier than the neighbor's dog and produce less waste than a German shepherd.”
"Homestead Ed" is the Houston-area affiliate. He's raised chickens on the outskirts of Katy for about 15 years and became interested in providing chickens for rent when he saw an article about Rent The Chicken last year. Getting the business up and running hasn't been easy. He lost 49 chickens to a coyote and had to start all over again. Soon, his first 12 chickens will be ready for rent. By July, he will have more than 100 available.
Obviously, the cost is higher than what it would be to go to the grocery store or farmers' market and buy backyard eggs by the dozen. However, the “try before you buy” and training aspects of the service are part of the attraction. "It's the ultimate farm-to-table experience," said Ed. "You're getting eggs right out of your own backyard." A pair of laying hens will produce about a dozen a week. Ed also says that every chicken has its own personality. "The entertainment factor alone is worth it!" he said. "It's a unique experience that you don't find every day."
Another benefit of the service is that chickens do not lay eggs their entire lives and people don’t know what to do with one that has outlived its productivity. (Author’s note: When I was growing up on my grandmother’s ranch, those chickens usually turned into dinner.) There are many reports of urban farmers abandoning chickens that no longer lay eggs at animal shelters. That's a poor use of shelter resources and not the best result for the chickens, either. Since Rent The Chicken lends only egg-laying hens, that puts an end to the dilemma of what to do with older birds. Simply send them back and get new ones still in their egg-laying prime.
Additionally, the rental is not available during the cooler months, so there are no worries about the chickens freezing to death outside. Rentals usually are available from April through November.
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Homestead Jenn gave us tips on the care and feeding of chickens.
- The coop should be moved daily to allow the chickens access to fresh grass and bugs.
- If the chickens are allowed to freely roam the backyard (which sounds like a good, humane idea), they should be supervised at all times. This protects against predators.
- Wash your hands before and after handling the chickens to protect both you and them from germs.
- Make sure the chickens have an appropriate amount of food and water. Their ability to lay eggs depends on good nutrition and hydration.
The company also offers a five-week Hatch The Chicken service that allows renters to see a baby chick hatch right in their own home.
Interested parties can obtain more information at the Rent The Chicken web site or call 724-305-0RTC.