What happens to food before it hits a supermarket shelf? This seemingly simple question has an exceedingly nuanced answer, with many of those nuances nearly invisible to the consumer—from the economic barriers smaller farmers face, to the inhumane conditions of factory farms. Made uneasy by this disconnect, more and more consumers are seeking a renewed connection to their food sources, or hoping to educate their children about where food comes from.
In the past decade, one particularly unconventional solution has emerged: chicken renting. Businesses deliver chickens (and a coop) to clients for a month or summer, then take them back for the winter.
Though it’s been years since both farm-to-table and backyard chickens have been deemed trends, businesses in both realms have continued to thrive. Rent The Chicken, RentACoop, and Coop and Caboodle are all staking their territory within the sharing economy—“a growing category now estimated at $3.5 billion that includes companies offering products or services without transferring ownership,” writes Claire Martin, Prototype columnist, for The New York Times. (Rent The Chicken clients can even become “Homesteaders”—essentially, satellite renters raising their own flock of rentable chickens to service their own local regions.)
Taking eggs straight from the backyard to the table is the most direct expression of “farm-to-fork.” As with drinking out of vintage Mason jars, home-brewing, and pickling what’s bountiful, harvesting eggs from rented chickens suggests a kind of re-agency in the de-industrialized production of our food. After all, even baking a cake from scratch is not truly from scratch: The wheat's been bleached and milled, the milk's been pasteurized and fortified, and the sugarcane's been crushed, heated, and crystallized—all before reaching the home cook. But to watch a chick transform backyard grass and sunlight into an egg? That allows for a deeper understanding of the many ways food gets transformed before we buy it.
For 14-year-old Iliana Bassin, living with her family in suburban Maryland, chicken renting has been empowering. She’s noticed that the animals—free to roam and dust-bathe as they like—produce eggs that look and taste much better than the ones her family used to purchase at the supermarket, which they haven’t done for the past two years.
Because of the chickens, renters are spending more time outdoors, engaging their community and expanding their gardens (complete with chicken manure–fueled composting). A recent study showed that children’s meaningful engagement with nature—as opposed to screens—leads to improved social relationships and general well-being, physical and mental.
“Kids are now so far away from the earth. But chickens bring them closer,” says Gretchen Brocks, a Rent The Chicken client. Usually shy, and house- and iPad-bound, her neighbors’ kids now visit the chickens after dinner every night instead of turning to their screens. Brocks also says that having chickens has, in noticeable ways, contributed to her mental welfare; she finds herself stopping housework throughout the day just to hear the clucking chickens. “Just being one with the Earth and having that quiet time is really important,” she says. “It’s almost like meditation—it makes you appreciate nature more.”
Still, in this chicken-renting arrangement, renting is the key word. Clients get to decide if and when they want to play a role in the production of their food. Like others in the sharing economy, chicken renters provide an experience, not just a chicken or coop. There is no expectation that renting birds will replace going to the supermarket, and as soon as the chickens become more of a nuisance than a fun, educational, and egg-rich hobby, back they go to the renting companies.
And unsurprisingly, this too-easy adoption and returning of chickens may be a bad thing, or at least complicated. While renting chickens might be an "experience" to try on for a day or a month, it encourages a warped understanding of food production—that farming is a fun hobby and not a livelihood that 11 percent of our population relies on.
For one thing, the animals' living conditions are much harder to regulate in non-farming environments. In a 2018 study examining urban poultry regulations in Colorado, professors of community development, Catherine Brinkley and Jacqueline Kingsley, found that the loose regulations (and tax incentives) surrounding backyard chickens allowed for improper care, disease reporting, and inhumane slaughter. "Many owners understand that water and food are basic necessities, but when cities do not codify these requirements, animals have little legal protection and are not officially entitled to veterinary care even when they are sick, injured or dying," Brinkley and Kingsley write.
Additionally, urban hobbyists are largely blind to the many elements (and costs) that farmers have to factor in before taking on any flocks. If there's a bad year due to weather, fluctuating market prices, government policies, and random accidents and/or illnesses, small farmers may be overwhelmed by debt. But, for many renters, as soon as their chickens stop producing deep-yellow yolks or cluck too loudly, the birds get packed up for no-hassle, free returns.
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