Photograph by Porter Loves.
People don’t often think about all of the benefits of having backyard chickens. In addition to producing fresh eggs (which are healthier than most supermarket eggs), chickens also naturally fertilize the ground where they roam and effectively control ticks. They provide unconditional friendship and help to combat loneliness. And, during the Covid-19 pandemic, they are giving children and families more reasons to smile. Simply put, “backyard hens are egg-cellent,” according to Phil Tompkins, homesteader and co-founder of Rent The Chicken.
Rent The Chicken, co-owned by Phil and his wife Jenn, provides all of the resources, equipment, and egg-laying hens to folks who always wanted to raise backyard chickens (but may not have had the tools to take the plunge). Daycare centers, schools, senior homes, and rehabilitation centers have also purchased Rent The Chicken’s chickens to enrich the lives of their members. With more than forty farmer and homesteader affiliates across the U.S. and Canada, Rent The Chicken extends from Long Island, New York; to Omaha, Nebraska; to Vancouver, British Columbia, offering more opportunities for a yard-to-table food experience. Phil and Jenn also offer a Hatch The Chicken program, where educators, kids, and adults can watch chicks come to life.
When March thaws into April in the northern U.S. and Canada, chicken deliveries begin. Rental packages—which last for six months—include either two or four egg-laying hens, a coop, food and water dishes, food, and free delivery within 50 miles (or 80 kilometers). In warmer regions of the U.S., chicken rentals take place all year round and deliveries may occur in the winter. After customers place an order, Rent The Chicken will deliver all of the supplies to the site, recommend a suitable spot for the coop, and provide all the instructions customers need to feel confident in caring for their hens. Every week, folks can expect their hens to lay eight to fourteen eggs (from two hens) or sixteen to twenty-eight eggs (from four hens). Customers have ongoing support from Phil and Jenn throughout the rental period, and can also choose to adopt their chickens at any point.
“You never know who you’re going to deliver to until you show up. We’ve delivered to NHL hockey stars, NFL coaches, and NASCAR drivers. We’ve delivered to the single mom who just wants to make a difference for her kids,” says Phil.
Whether customers rent the chickens for a closer food source or other reasons, the hens invariably become a part of the community and facilitate healing in different ways. One Rent The Chicken affiliate in Tennessee described her visit to a senior home, where one particular member who hadn’t said a single word during her residency spoke for the first time because she was so engaged with the Hatch The Chicken experience. At a live-in drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, the chickens created an opportunity for deeper bonding between a resident and her child during one of their visits.
“When kids visit their parents, they don’t have a lot to do. They can color or do some puzzles, but the center isn’t made for children. We received a story from a foster care assistant, who said [to paraphrase], ‘Those chickens were amazing because this child’s mother was an expert about them and could show them to her daughter. It really impressed the child and created some bonding,’ Phil shares.
It is these tales that inspire Phil and Jenn to continue expanding their program, even when the Covid-19 pandemic created lots of uncertainty. In the spring of 2020, Phil and Jenn made their deliveries completely contactless and socially distanced. They also created a virtual tour of their coops to limit physical contact. Their adaptability paid off, and Rent The Chicken saw a 35% increase in sales in 2020. As families were cooped up at home and spending less money on vacations, they turned towards chickens. Rent The Chicken also experienced its highest adoption rate ever.
“During the coronavirus pandemic, we have provided something else for the family to do at home. You can sit on your back porch, drink your sweet tea, and watch your chickens—it’s soothing…We also hear parents say, ‘I want to provide education for my kids and give them a chore to do.’ Our program only takes three to five minutes a day, but that also gives young kids something to do other than be on their phones,” says Phil.
Since 2014, Rent The Chicken’s reach has steadily grown throughout the U.S. and Canada through other farmer and homesteader affiliates. Farmers who wholeheartedly love chickens and want to grow their chicken rental business for additional income can apply to the affiliate program online. While affiliates are not responsible for managing orders or handling customer service situations, Phil and Jenn do provide different business tools so that they are successful in their own markets. There are now 45 farmers and homesteaders in the Rent The Chicken family in the U.S. and Canada. Some of them have even been able to quit their nine-to-five jobs and be on their farms full-time.
“Not everybody is a business person, so we offer different business classes within our program. We have courses on how to create a marketing budget and how to set up a trade-show booth, among others. It’s like Rent The Chicken University. We offer these classes to help business owners learn how to run a business and not just a hobby farm,” says Phil.
Phil joined his Entrepreneurs Forever peer group in New Kensington, PA in May of 2020. At the time, he and Jenn were considering hiring a business coach (which they have since done) and were seeking ways to take their business to the next level. For Phil, his peer group provides validation and feedback on business ideas and other small business strategies. The monthly check-ins with his group also give Phil a space to talk about Rent The Chicken’s success with other business owners who support each other’s growth.
“A couple of years ago, I wanted to develop a new hatching program; we haven’t offered it because we weren’t sure if it would be successful. I asked my group for feedback about the idea, and they confirmed that the program probably wouldn’t work. So getting confirmation about product development, hiring the right employees, and billboard advertising are how my group helps me the most.”
Phil’s entrepreneurial efforts are not limited to chickens. He is also a franchisee of Coffee News, a weekly publication that features local advertisements (including Rent The Chicken) and community events. Phil aims to grow the business, partly with the support of his peer group, and help other local businesses advertise affordably.
Bookings for Rent The Chicken open annually in October for the following year, but interested individuals may call Rent The Chicken to place an order at any time. If the service area is sold out, there is a wait list so be sure to plan early!