Rent-A-Chicken provides eggs for wannabe farmers
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - It's not out of the ordinary to rent things such as textbooks, power tools and designer dresses. But a chicken? Leslie Suitor's Rent-A-Chicken business out of Leelanau County makes it possible. Suitor and her husband, Mark, loan hens from spring until the warm weather fades, as late as Thanksgiving.They drop off two hens, a coop and feeding materials for $250. First-time chicken owners are welcome: The Suitors set up the coop and answer questions on chicken raising 101. "They're so easy to keep I don't understand why everybody wouldn't have chickens," Suitor told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. "You get the payoff every day they lay eggs. It's like a Christmas present every day." Suitor clucked over the business idea after Traverse City officials in 2009 amended an ordinance to allow citizens to keep up to four chickens, but no roosters, per parcel. Rent-A-Chicken took flight in 2010. Rent-A-Chicken was the first of its kind in the country, Suitor said. Similar businesses have hatched in Alabama, Maryland and Massachusetts. A recent interview with a Chicago radio station piqued listeners' interest. Requests to deliver chickens to Illinois have Suitor considering recruiting out-of-state farmers to be satellites for the business. Locally, Rent-A-Chicken rents to 12-15 people a year. "We're not going to be huge because I don't want it to be like a factory, like a production. We only have so much room to keep them comfortable and have a good life," she said. She wanted to give chicken keeper wannabes a solid starting point because raising chicks is a delicate operation. Suitor's always on call to answer renters' emergency questions, such as how to break a broody hen. "A lot of people don't know the first thing about chickens," said Suitor, who grew up around the birds. Often, Suitor's customers are parents who want to show kids where their food comes from. Little ones enjoy the daily responsibilities. Jewelry designer Becky Thatcher keeps two chickens, Mable Mae and Gladys, behind her Glen Arbor shop Becky Thatcher Designs. This is her second year renting. Customers' kids love learning about the birds. "They're really dear," Thatcher said of the hens. "We're still learning their personalities." The gang of roosters, hens and a few ducks on Suitor's 10-acre Elmwood Township farm have distinct characteristics. Four "arrogant" roosters - Elvis, Louie, Big Bill and Tony Hawk - run with their groups of "girls." A "great mom" hen named Mommy looks after a quartet of adopted chicks. A few dozen eggs are tucked away in an incubator in Suitor's home. They'll hatch at the end of the month, then she'll divide them for a few hens to raise. Those chicks will become next year's chicken rentals. Not all the birds on Suitor's farm contribute to the business. Tina, a blind and docile hen, sunbathed quietly in the corner of the pen on a recent afternoon. "She's totally a pet," Suitor said. Thatcher's relationship with her rented chickens is give and take. She feeds them dinner table scraps - pizza crusts, pasta, rice, greens. They provide an egg a day in return, and their manure enriches the soil for her fruit trees. Thatcher was heartbroken when an animal killed her rental hen named Margaret. That's one of the pitfalls of Suitor's business venture. Suitor herself lost 29 chickens to a neighbor's dog. In unpreventable cases such as Thatcher's, Rent-A-Chicken usually replaces the hen for free. A clause in the rental agreement requires renters pay $20 if a chicken dies in their care to prevent people from neglecting them. But customers generally take good care of their chickens. Renters get attached to their feathered friends and sometimes request the same ones the next year. "They get to know their chickens. They're very personable," Suitor said.