Rent the Chicken's Seasonal Rentals Help Vermonters Raise Backyard Hens | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Food + Drink » Food + Drink Features

Rent the Chicken's Seasonal Rentals Help Vermonters Raise Backyard Hens


Published March 15, 2022 at 3:57 p.m.
Updated April 5, 2022 at 4:58 p.m.

Jillian Turner - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Jillian Turner

Jillian Turner got her first chickens as an antidote to puppy fever. She wanted another dog, but her then-boyfriend — now husband, Sy Reaves — said, "Absolutely not. No puppies."

Turner, 37, has chronic Lyme disease and had read that chickens were good for tick control. "I used that as leverage," she said.

In 2018, the couple agreed to start with 10 chickens. After the first year, Turner's flock had grown to 20.

Now, she has more than 100 at her Colchester homestead — but only until May. In 2019, Turner began operating the first Vermont affiliate of Rent the Chicken, a Pennsylvania-based company that provides egg-laying hens, portable coops, chicken feed, educational resources and a toll-free hotline to help people raise backyard chickens.

Each May, Turner delivers hens to their renters — two to four per home — throughout the greater Burlington area, along with all the supplies they'll need to keep them for six months.

Unlike starting from scratch, renting chickens gives customers fresh eggs right away — two hens produce eight to 14 per week.

"The renters don't have to worry about raising chicks, who don't give you eggs until they're, like, 6 months old," Turner said. "They're freeloaders for quite a while. But we don't send out freeloading chickens."

Customers keep their hens all summer long, then Turner comes back to pick them up in October. It's a way to get the experience of taking care of chickens without the year-round commitment. If things go well, or if they get attached, they can rent the same chickens again the following year or adopt them at the end of the season.

Turner first heard about Rent the Chicken while listening to the "We Drink & We Farm Things" podcast in 2018. Jenn and Phil Tompkins — known as Homestead Jenn and Homestead Phil in the Rent the Chicken community — were the episode's guests, sharing how they hatched their chicken rental business.

The Pennsylvania couple were looking for a way to earn extra money from home when Phil found "chicken rentals" in a Google search of "crazy business ideas."

"We had some chickens, and I can run the power tools," Jenn said on the podcast. "Why not?"

They'd seen friends and families start keeping chickens with disastrous results: hatching all roosters or losing hens to predators. By providing hens that have already started laying — and the supplies and support needed to ensure success — the couple hoped to make chicken raising easy for people who had previously been unsuccessful or intimidated by the process.

A Hatch the Chicken client's child with a recently hatched chick - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • A Hatch the Chicken client's child with a recently hatched chick

The Tompkinses launched Rent the Chicken in 2013. Their business has grown to include more than 50 farm and homestead affiliates in the U.S. and Canada, each of which covers roughly a 50-mile radius.

Turner called Jenn and Phil right after listening to the podcast episode to ask whether they'd consider a franchisee in the Green Mountains.

"They were like, 'Really? Vermont? Doesn't everybody already have chickens up there?'" Turner recalled. "But they were willing to take a risk on me."

Turner started just a year after she had gotten her personal chickens, aiming to rent out five coops. She ended up renting out 10.

"My husband is my coop builder," Turner said. "We were doing mass production of chicken coops in our garage," and he made 10. The following year, he built 10 more coops so they could offer 20 rentals, mostly around Burlington and Stowe. One delivery took her — and the well-traveled chickens — on the ferry across the lake to New York State. Turner rented 55 hens in 22 coops in 2021.

Laura Hill and her son Warren of Hillcrest Nursery & Landscaping in Greensboro became Rent the Chicken affiliates last year, covering the northeastern part of the state around St. Johnsbury. They'll take over the Stowe rentals this year.

"It was a good time for me to start this up," Turner said. "During the pandemic, people wanted to be able to provide their own food, or at least know how to, as a sort of safety net."

The chickens are also a great form of entertainment, Turner said, which was especially true early in the pandemic when people were stuck at home. "We call it Chicken TV," Turner said with a laugh, noting that she encourages people to grab a glass of wine, sit on the back porch, and watch the chickens roam around the yard and leap into the air to catch bugs. "Not only do they provide you breakfast," she said, "but they're good pest control, and they're really cute to watch."

When Turner first drops off a coop in the spring, she explains to the renters that the chickens' free-range time should always be supervised; if left alone, the hens are susceptible to harassment from neighbors' dogs, circling owls and hawks, or foxes.

She also goes over the hens' daily routine, showing where they sleep, where they lay their eggs, when to let them out in the morning, how much food and water to provide, and when to move the wheeled, wire-bottomed coop so the chickens have plenty of fresh grass.

Turner also demonstrates how to hold the chickens: She tucks them under her arm, like a quarterback carrying a football down the field.

After the drop-off, Turner is available for urgent problems. But renters also have access to telephone support from Rent the Chicken headquarters for tips and troubleshooting.

"A lot of people have always wanted chickens but didn't know where to start or were scared to do it on their own," Turner said. "Having that support makes it easy to dip your toes in."

Rent the Chicken coop and hens ready for their summer home - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Rent the Chicken coop and hens ready for their summer home

That was the case for Susan Robinson of South Burlington. She first rented Turner's other offering — Hatch the Chicken — in the fall of 2019. The hatching program provides an incubator, seven fertilized eggs, a light to shine through the eggs to watch them develop, a cage for the chicks after they hatch and all the supplies the chicks need.

The three-week process was a hit with Robinson's animal-loving 8- and 11- year-old children. When the chicks were a few weeks old, Turner came to pick them up.

The next spring, the Robinsons rented a coop and were reunited with a chick they'd named Eggzilla. The kids were home due to the pandemic, and Robinson thought it would be a good trial run to see whether they could handle the responsibility of grown-up hens.

"It was a nice way to get introduced to them and not have to take care of them over the winter," Robinson said. "My son would go out in the yard with his computer to do his Zoom lessons, and the hens would just walk all around him. They got to be pretty personable."

The Robinson family will rent a coop again this year, too. And later this month, Turner is dropping off a Hatch the Chicken rental for a pre-K classroom at Heartworks Burlington, where Robinson is assistant director.

"They did a whole farming unit, so the children are really familiar with the whole process," Robinson explained. "They're really excited."

Most of the rental chickens are Golden Comets, a high-production, friendly breed. They tend to lay more eggs than the other breeds Turner keeps as her personal chickens, such as Easter Eggers, known for their light blue, green and pink eggs.

The standard rental package is $475 for the season, with two egg-laying hens and a barn-style standard mobile coop. The upgrade package ($575) offers a bigger coop; the deluxe package ($675) is for four hens. The lightest-weight coop, an Omlet Eglu Go UP, is $875 and comes with three chickens.

Each package includes feed Turner sources from Guy's Farm and Yard; organic feed is available for an extra fee.

In addition to teaching the basics, Turner shows renters how to train their chickens to return to the coop. "Mine are trained to the sound of a plastic bag," Turner said. "But one of my renters trained her chickens to come back ... to the sound of a bell. She'd ring it, and they'd come running from her garden."

Renters get to name the chickens, and many end up renting the same hens year after year. When the rental ends in the fall, Turner brings them back to her homestead for the winter.

"We don't have a big barbecue at the end of the summer, I promise," she said. "Our chickens are friends, not food."

This time of year, Turner is overwintering the rental hens and getting ready to send out the first hatch rentals of the year. She started taking Rent the Chicken reservations for this spring back in October and will keep taking them until they're sold out — likely in May, she estimated.

Turner also runs a pet photography business, Gone to the Dogs Photography, and an off-leash dog camp. Before she started working with Rent the Chicken, she'd been a full-time employee at the University of Vermont Medical Center for 15 years. Now, she works there per diem.

"The chicken stuff was a gateway for me to start my other businesses," she said. "I've definitely become a crazy chicken lady, but it's neat to help other people find out they're crazy chicken ladies, too."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Spring Chickens | Local franchise offers seasonal rentals to help Vermonters raise backyard hens"