In 2017, I decided to bring chickens to the inner-city elementary school where I teach in Chicago, Illinois. The students were over the moon at the prospect. Most had never touched a chicken.
But I was nervousâ€”afraid, really. I didnâ€™t have any chicken experience and was hesitant to commit to an animal I didnâ€™t know firsthand. So I signed up for a chicken rental service. My school liked the arrangement so well that 2022 will be our fifth consecutive year of renting chickens.
Weâ€™ve never bothered to buy!
Why rent chickens? It seems crazy when a chick costs less than $5. But consider my side of the equation. I didnâ€™t have the equipment, didnâ€™t want the birds year round and worried about everything from lurking predators to the hens spending winter in a playground coop.
Renting chickens is a terrific solution to these problems and not just for me. Many folks discovered chicken rental during the COVID-19 quarantine, and the chicken rental industry is expanding at a dizzying pace, generating tidy profits along the way. In the not-too-distant future, two or three chicken rentals may be competing in every city, town and suburb nationwide.
My chicken-rental story hints at some of the factors driving this niche industry. First, thereâ€™s the need for convenience. My rental package includes regularly laying hens, coop, food, feeders and replacement chickens if one dies, all delivered in spring and picked up in fall for a fee just under $1,000.
Thatâ€™s a lot of money. Itâ€™s also a lot of valueâ€”one-stop chicken shopping, if you will. I didnâ€™t have to research breeds or drive around town comparing feed prices.
Second, rental chickens provide a limited commitment. Most people new to chickens arenâ€™t sure if theyâ€™re in it for the long-term. As a teacher, I badly needed an out if something went wrong, such as if a student got salmonella, parents were up in arms and the school chickens were blamed. I needed a way to give the chickens back without sending them to an animal shelter.
(Chicagoâ€™s shelters are overwhelmed with chickens that people have decided they just canâ€™t keep.)
Third and perhaps most important, chicken rentals provide a connection to farm life. The farmers I rent from, Rob and Susan Yeary, have become almost honorary teachers at my school. When their schedules allow, they spend an hour during drop-off talking with students, showing them how to handle the hens, and pointing out features of chicken anatomy. Those wonderful, meet-a-farmer moments are like a field trip to the country without the students ever climbing on a bus.Â
What You Get When You RentÂ
A rental chicken is more than the bird itself. Itâ€™s also a package of supplies, information and support that make the rental experience as fail-proof as possible. One of the advantages of renting chickens is that you always get hens at peak productivity, laying every day. And youâ€™re typically getting a variety known for being docile and laidbackâ€”think Barred Rocks and Cinnamon Queens.
Rental packages typically start at two hens and go up to six or higher, with escalating fees, of course.
The coop is a straightforward affair, often smartly painted and with wheels on one end so customers can use it as a chicken tractor. Newbie renters have no idea how simple chickensâ€™ needs are, so some rental businesses offer fancier coops appealing to customersâ€™ sense of whimsy.Â
Willow City Farm in central Illinois offers a custom coop package. â€śSometimes renters have a specific look or larger design they want for the coop,â€ť says owner Tara Davlin Moore. â€śWe did one coop that looked like a city. We did a coop that looked like a Western saloon.â€ťÂ
Many rental businesses also rent out chicks to hatch or raise. These packages are separate from the laying hens with a different, usually lower price. Itâ€™s not difficult to imagine why families with young children would jump at such an offering. Why go to a petting zoo when your kids can have their own for a couple months?
The length of a rental can vary widely. I have seen chick rentals as short as two weeks and hen rentals as long as seven months. Virtually every chicken rental business offers free delivery and pickup within a certain radius.
Delivery and pickup are typically available outside that area with added fees.
A great deal of customer education is built into rentals because most of the customers donâ€™t know much about day-to-day chicken care. Some rental businesses put lots of this information on their websites. Others give customers a homemade manual or a favorite poultry guidebook. Still more is passed along through email exchanges, phone conversations and long chats during the delivery.
Willow City Farm offers, simply, â€śunlimited phone and email support.â€ťÂ
Toward fall, the business owner reaches out and offers renters a chance to purchase their chickens, often with a package of supplies. Itâ€™s a last-minute chance to capitalize on the attachments built up over the long summer.
Variations on a Theme
There are as many ways to structure a chicken rental as there are breeds of chickens. Doug Anderson runs a small business, The Chicken Rental Place, from his home in Goochland County, Virginia. He rents up to 15 coops a season, with at least two hens per coop, while holding down a day job as a design engineer.
Most of his customers are young families. â€śIt gives them a chance to try chickens out without spending a lot of money,â€ť he says.Â
The growing popularity of rental chickens has also drawn nonfarm businesses to try it. Dave Zahn, for instance, is a carpenter in Imperial, Missouri, who used to spend most of his time remodeling human homes. But Zahnâ€™s sideline businessesâ€”A+ Builds and The Easy Chickenâ€”building pet homes, including deluxe coops with features such as radiant heating and ceiling fans, have grown so big that now theyâ€™re his main job.Â
Zahn rents a coop for $400 plus a delivery fee. He will also buy back unwanted birds from coop renters at seasonâ€™s end, which is unusual because he doesnâ€™t rent or provide chickens. He is buying back birds the customers purchased and raised on their own.
â€śThat way, they can have confidence that their hens end up with a good home,â€ť he says. Zahn expects to rent 10 coops this season.
A few businesses have ridden rentalsâ€™ surging popularity to become relatively large. Rent the Chicken, started by Phil and Jenn Tompkins in 2013, has more than 30 affiliates (theyâ€™re not â€śfranchiseesâ€ťâ€”itâ€™s a legal thing) in Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, plus 19 more states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces.
The Tompkins do the sales and customer support. Their affiliates throughout the country do the hands-on deliveries and pickups. Rent the Chickenâ€™s sales grew 48 percent from 2020 to 2021. And 50 percent of the companyâ€™s renters either adopt the chickens at seasonâ€™s end or ask for the same birds next yearâ€”all but guaranteeing theyâ€™ll be repeat customers.
(Full disclosure: The hens at my Chicago elementary school came from Rent the Chicken.)
One Rent the Chicken affiliate is Farmer Joeâ€™s Gardens, a full-service garden center and farm market in Wallingford, Connecticut. Expanding into rental chickens grew out of customersâ€™ interest, according to co-owner Ida DeFrancesco. She and her husband, Joe, opened the retail farm stand in 2010 and had chickens at the farm stand to educate and entertain our community.
During their chicken 101 workshops, they noticed that folks were curious about hens and also paralyzed about how to have their own chickens.Â
â€śOffering rental chickens has also deepened our relationships with our community,â€ť Defrancesco says. â€śFolks want chickens, and they want a guiding hand to start off right. Itâ€™s a true joy to share the experiences of chicken-keeping. We get to see barnyard life every day. Itâ€™s normal to us.â€ťÂ
Chicken rental lets the community experience a little bit of farm life without having to figure everything out themselves. â€śFrom the first pips of life, to the first egg from a young hen, to being followed by your hens when you walk around the yardâ€”we want to share that,â€ť she says. â€śItâ€™s a natural extension of our agricultural passions.â€ť
Then thereâ€™s RentACoop, a completely unrelated business with 15 employees renting in six East Coast states. Started by a young couple, Diana and Tyler Phillips, in 2012, they rent 40 coops a year. Thatâ€™s a self-imposed limit, because they focus instead on their chick hatching and chick rental business. They rent thousands of chicks a year, mostly to schools and families with children.Â
RentACoop also sells a significant amount of poultry merchandise. The Phillips develop and manufacture products ideal for the backyard coop owner. â€śWe werenâ€™t thrilled with the poultry products on the market,â€ť Diana Phillips says. â€śSo we set out to create solutions to typical poultry problems. For example, the hensâ€™ waterer was always getting poop in it. So, we created a waterer that the hens canâ€™t poop in!â€ť
The Phillips have a built-in market of thousands for their merchandise via their rental business.
Read more: Therapy chickens bring calm to the coop!
Do Rental Chickens Pay?
The answer is yes, of course, or else so many folks wouldnâ€™t try out the business. That said, it doesnâ€™t necessarily generate lots of dollars right away, nor are there many folks renting chickens as a full-time occupation.
Jenn Tompkins of Rent the Chicken encourages her regional affiliates, all small farmers, to think of renting as a way to bring in more direct-to-consumer dollars. â€śWe are creating an additional revenue stream, all while helping to bring sustainability, joy and fresh eggs to the backyards of many.â€ť
Tompkins notes that the profit margins can be small during the first years while building coops for customers. Once the rental coops are paid for, profits tick upward.Â
For Doug Anderson, the Virginia engineer-and-chicken-renter, renting chickens is a passion project that happens to turn a profit. â€śIt generates my fun money,â€ť Anderson says.Â
Time and again, folks established in the business noted that chicken rentals, like farming itself, are about more than money.Â
â€śItâ€™s so fun when you drop off chickens,â€ť Anderson says. One mother arranged the chickensâ€™ drop off to occur during a daughterâ€™s birthday partyâ€”to shrieks of delight.
â€śItâ€™s hard to take a break once you start,â€ť Phillips says, echoing the lament of many a farmer. â€śWe really do it because we love the joy it brings.â€ť
AÂ final encouraging word comes from my personal favorite: farmers and Rent the Chicken affiliates Rob and Susan Yeary. Every year, they bring hens down from their Michigan farm to my Chicago elementary school.Â
â€śWe initially got chickens … as a stress reliever from our busy jobs,â€ť Susan Yeary says. â€śWe soon found out what a joy they are, and renting has allowed us to share the same love with others that didnâ€™t know where to start.â€ťÂ
Find out more about renting chickens from the places mentioned in this article.Â
The Chicken Rental Place (Goochland County, Virginia):
The Easy Chicken (Imperial, Missouri):Â
Rent the Chicken (nationwide)
RentACoop (Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Virginia; New York; New Jersey; Pennsylvania)Â
Willow City Farm (central Illinois)
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue ofÂ ChickensÂ magazine.