'They can chicken out:' Farm offers chicken rentals as introduction to backyard farming

Ida DeFrancesco loves her “girls.” The Northford farmer also loves sharing them.

“The girls are just a normal part of a farm, and getting to bring that to other folks and get to see them get so excited about something that is just my normal experience is such a blessing,” DeFrancesco, of Farmer Joe’s Gardens, said.

Her girls, of course, are chickens: Around 10 different breeds of egg-laying hens, which she parcels out on a season-long basis to backyards throughout Connecticut.

DeFrancesco’s Farmer Joe’s Gardens is the Connecticut representative of Rent the Chicken, a collective of farmers and homesteaders across the U.S. and Canada who provide two (or more) hens and everything needed to take care of them for six months, including a movable coop, feed, water dish and a support line in case of trouble.

Chicken rental, which starts at $450, is a good introduction to backyard farming, teaches children about responsibility and where food comes from, and offers companionship and a positive conversation-starter in a time when things seem negative, DeFrancesco said.

There’s also no long-term commitment.

“They can chicken out. If they love chicken-keeping, if they love the routine, they can make decisions (to keep them), and if they don’t, they can turn them back to the farm and we love them,” DeFrancesco said.

“If they want to do the long-haul adventure of chicken-keeping, they have all the support, and then they know what they’re in for.”

Backyard chicken-keeping has boomed since the pandemic started, DeFrancesco said.

Cherylyn Tunnicliffe, of Portland, rented chickens last summer as a way to keep her 7-year-old twins active and interested during a season when they would otherwise be traveling.

“Once it became evident that COVID was going to cancel all of our plans for the spring and summer, I was searching for enrichment opportunities for my children that would help to make the summer of being home a little more fun,” Tunnicliffe said.

“They are a great age to have responsibilities and learn about taking care of animals, and being able to have a pet that provides eggs, too — well, that’s a bonus.”

Tunnicliffe said in addition to taking on the responsibility of caring for the chickens, her children incorporated them into their playtime.

“During Harry Potter-themed make-believe games, the chickens were actually thestrals,” she said. “All in all, I feel like having chickens gave our summer mornings a nice routine and resulted in a family learning experience and hopefully some positive association when they look back on 2020.”

The family is now taking part in Hatch the Chicken, a new five-week offering. The program ($200) includes free delivery, setup and pickup; seven fertile eggs; a mini incubator; a “candling light” for use in seeing the development of the eggs during incubation; a copy of “Where Do Chicks Come From?” by Amy E. Sklansky; and a “starter kit” with food, shavings, a brooder box and heat source.

Turnnicliffe said her children like to think of these chicks as the offspring of their summer brood.

With Hatch the Chicken, “You get to have the full experience of getting to see the joy of something being born,” DeFrancesco said. “Just about when the kids lose interest, I take them back. It’s really smart learning.”

DeFrancesco emphasized chickens returned to the farm are adopted out — “we have a really long list” of folks wanting socialized chickens, she said — and those that don’t find new homes “go into retirement” on the farm.

Chickens can live up to 10 years, she said, but are at prime egg-laying age in the first three years. All DeFrancesco’s rentals are “spring chickens,” meaning this is their first egg-laying spring.

Customers also can over-winter their chickens and repeat the experience with the same hens the following year or opt for new ones.

“You get the experience of farm life, and you get the joy of these fluffy little personalities running around. You get to talk about something that is really positive and uplifting, and everyone can use a little something to talk about in your regular conversation,” she said.

“With all the social distancing, we’re talking about interacting with living things.

“The ones who don’t even like chickens are the ones who, by the end of the program, are like, ‘Can they come back next year?’ ”

awinchester@bcnnew.com