Want To Be A Chicken Farmer? Try It Before You Commit

The idea of raising backyard chickens has become very popular. But people who follow through on the idea don't always know what they are getting into. So a few companies are letting would-be chicken farmers try out the experience — for a fee.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Like canning and growing your own squash, keeping backyard chickens seems to be the thing to do these days. And that includes city dwellers, which means a lot of people aren't sure of what they're in for.

And so, while charmed by the idea of chicken ownership, are still reluctant to commit, which has led to a new crop of businesses that allow you to try before you buy, as Gigi Douban has this report.

GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: There is a dark side to keeping chickens. Just ask city councilwoman Paula Pentel of Golden Valley, Minnesota.

PAULA PENTEL: No roosters allowed, thank you. You may have three hens. We have a slaughter ban as part of the ordinance.

DOUBAN: A slaughter ban. These are rules the city council settled on in June after years of study.

PENTEL: People were concerned about the impact on neighbors, about noise, about smell.

DOUBAN: Next thing you know, your neighbors despise you. For those who are reluctant to commit to chicken ownership, there's a solution: rent some.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS)

DOUBAN: There are about 50 chickens here at Coop and Caboodle in Leeds, Alabama. Many of them will be rented out. And if things work out, some will be adopted. Things didn't work out for Ethel Merman - the chicken. Melissa Allphin started leasing chickens about year ago.

MELISSA ALLPHIN: I actually had somebody that had rented her, and they said I have the noisiest hen - she just won't be quiet. I said, well, she's probably getting used to her new home. And then I went and got her and brought her home. She is the noisiest hen. She just...

(LAUGHTER)

DOUBAN: It happens. That why for $395, Allphin will rent out two hens, a coop and 50 pounds of feed for six months. Similar outfits have popped up in Michigan, Massachusetts and Maryland.

ALLPHIN: And I knew that there's a thriving community of chicken keepers in Birmingham or in the Birmingham area. Thought, you know, there are people that would like to try before they buy.

DOUBAN: Jim Cohen, director of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland, has studied urban farming. He says he's seen all kinds of city regulations for keeping chickens - from public nuisance laws to noise ordinances. So, renting chickens?

JIM COHEN: Sounds like a good idea. Sounds like dating.

DOUBAN: But like dating, there are always, surprises. If it's not the noise or the smell, it's what Pentel of the Golden Valley City Council calls the slippery slope.

PENTEL: You know, once there's chickens next there'll be bees followed by goats.

DOUBAN: In other words, some residents feared chickens would be like the gateway drug to other backyard animals.

For some, like Mary Britton Clouse, it's that chickens are exploited enough for their eggs. She owns Chicken Run Rescue in Minnesota, one of a few chicken rescues in the country. She says recently, the number of rescues has soared. Renting them, she says, won't help.

MARY BRITTON CLOUSE: To rent them to people who do not know what they're doing and want only eggs, and don't want the bother of a long-term commitment, how's that going to work out?

(LAUGHTER)

DOUBAN: Pretty well, if you ask Coop and Caboodle's Melissa Allphin.

ALLPHIN: Of the 70, 75 people that have kept their chickens through the summer, I would say 90 to 95 percent are planning to keep them.

DOUBAN: To buy the birds and the equipment, that'll cost them an extra $50 to $200.

ALLPHIN: They've gotten used to having fresh eggs. They've named them.

DOUBAN: And Allphin says once they've named them? It's pretty hard to turn back then.

For NPR News, I am Gigi Douban in Birmingham, Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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