Images of farmers dumping milk, slaughterhouse closures, and news of farmhand shortages have Torontonians feeling uneasy. Food shortage is a fear that many are facing head-on by building urban coops and renting backyard chickens.
UrbanHensTO launched on March 2, 2018, as a pilot project aimed at garnering interest in urban chicken farming. Organizers expected the program to be popular, but the current pandemic has made chickens one of the hottest commodities this spring.
Under the program, Toronto residents can keep backyard chicken coops in four wards, including Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Parkdale-High Park, St. Paul’s, and Beaches-East York. Urban farmers dreaming of chicken coops and fresh eggs must also own a property (or gain written permission from a landlord).
The city’s website makes it clear that chickens housed to produce eggs are not for consumption and that urban farmers cannot share eggs with neighbours and friends.
There is also a limit of four hens per property, and chickens must be at least four months old, a measure put in place to deter people from purchasing fuzzy baby chicks and then abandoning them.
Urbanites that don’t want to bother with building a coop and buying chickens have the option of renting hens through the Rent the Chicken program. In the Toronto area, Belbeck’s Family Farm handles chicken rentals through the Rent the Chicken program. Owner Kate Belbeck has already seen a surge in rental registrations.
“Our waitlist in only a little over a month is 10 times what it was for the whole year last year. Approximately 20 per cent of our rentals are repeats. We overwinter rental hens for our renters so that they can re-rent the same hens the following year. The rest are new customers.” she said
Purchasing new hens and building new coops is something Belbeck’s is trying to do to meet the demand, but obtaining supplies and finding backyard chickens to buy proves difficult in the current economy.
“We’ve been building additional coops and have secured additional chickens. It’s been very challenging in the current climate to secure the building materials for the coops. Additionally, our suppliers for our additional hens are seeing the same upswing in people wanting chickens, and most are sold out until the fall. Unfortunately, there is just no way that we will be able to serve all of the people on our waitlist this year, but we are trying to get to as many as we can,” she said.
Buying backyard chickens outright comes with its own onslaught of problems. Most chickens live to be eight years old but produce eggs only for the first two to three years. SPCAs overrun with older chickens is a possibility that some cities have already seen as a result of urban chicken farming.
Kate attributes the uptick in chicken rentals to current food security concerns, but also believes that there’s a fun factor at play too.
“I think people realize that they are going to be home more this season than they maybe would’ve been otherwise (not traveling) so they can commit to having chickens, they are looking for something to entertain and engage their children that are now at home,” she said.