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Food & Wine Urban egg lovers skirt bylaws with chickens for rent

Signe Langford/The Globe and Mail

With the recent arrival in Toronto of Pennsylvania-based Rent the Chicken, it would appear the urban hen-keeping trend will not be slowed down by one little city bylaw. Amid ever-growing concerns around food quality and animal welfare, the backyard hen-keeping community is becoming more vocal. To wit: the expansion into Toronto of a service that allows the chicken-curious to take up hen-keeping on a trial basis. Residents of Guelph, Ont., have enjoyed a similar service – Backyard Bok Boks – for three years now.

It's nothing new; urban-dwellers the world over have always kept a few hens for eggs and meat, and Toronto is no different. It was only in 1987 that the city's anti-hen-keeping bylaw was enacted, and that didn't make committed chicken fanciers give up their broods; it just drove them and their fowl underground – literally – into basements, as well as into sheds and garages. All while municipalities across North America – Victoria, Vancouver, Niagara Falls, Ont., Kingston, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, to name a few – are not only allowing it, but actively encouraging backyard hens.

In 2013, entrepreneurial rural homesteaders Phil and Jenn Tompkins, of Freeport, Pa., saw an opportunity to offer urban and suburban folks a low-commitment, fuss-free way of addressing that curiosity. According to Jenn Tompkins, "People really are interested in bringing food sources closer to their table; we provide an avenue for that without the commitment."

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For their Toronto-area customers, available hens are kept at the Stoddart Family Farm in Ontario's Kawartha Lakes region – from where they will be dispatched and returned; Rent the Chicken buys back the birds for $1 each, unless the renter falls hopelessly in love with them, in which case the hens may be adopted for a further fee. And if a rental hen dies of illness or an unavoidable predator attack, the company will replace it.

For $375 or $575 – for two hens or four hens – the company provides a portable coop, food, supplies and laying hens, just for the summer months. They'll take them back in October for the winter, when egg-laying slows down and keeping livestock becomes more complicated.

They'll also take them back if you're busted by the city. But it would be you, the hen-renter, who faces the long arm of the law and the $300 fine, not the company. Due to the language of the bylaw, selling or renting a chicken to a Toronto resident is perfectly fine; keeping that chicken within the city boundaries is not.

Regardless, there's an appetite for super-fresh backyard eggs; Rent the Chicken has only been in business here since March, but several Toronto families have already signed on to become proud urban hen-keepers and fresh-food renegades. And though they didn't disclose the exact numbers for Toronto, the Tompkinses did say that at any one time, they've got hundreds of hens in backyards across the five North American areas they service.

And, when the hens of summer are handed back, what does Rent the Chicken do with them? Says Jenn Tompkins: "Most of the hens get adopted by the renter, but if not, we re-home them on farms or put them into our own flock. We don't have a big barbecue at the end of the season!"

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