THE WASHINGTON POST – When Rebecca Henry noticed barren grocery aisles, she could not help but think of chickens.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had our own eggs right now?’” she said from her home in Takoma Park, Maryland.
So Henry and her husband, who had long debated a chicken investment, decided to rent a coop with two hens in hopes of becoming more self-sufficient and having “science lessons” with the poultry while her boys are home from school.
Henry is one of many Americans who have turned to backyard chickens to help get them through the days of quarantine and social distancing. As a result, hatcheries nationwide are reporting spikes in orders as they scramble to keep pace with the newfound demand.
Cackle Hatchery, based in Missouri, which hatches about 250,000 baby birds per week, has already seen a 100 per cent increase in sales this year. McMurray Hatchery, a century-old establishment in Iowa that sells millions of hatched eggs each year, has been so busy that callers have had to wait in a queue for orders and inquiries for the past two weeks, often with as many as 10 people ahead of them.
Hatcheries are also seeing a swell of interest for broilers, chickens that are bred and raised for meat. McMurray’s Hatchery noted a rise in “homesteaders types”, or buyers with small farms and acreage who want to raise their own meat sources.
“This has to do with the perceived hoarding that is going on,” McMurray’s owner and President Bud Wood said of the uptick. “People are afraid they won’t be able to buy eggs and chickens in the grocery store, and they don’t want to have to go to the store and possibly be infected.”
Egg prices have soared as the COVID-19 has confined people to their kitchens and stoked a panic-buying frenzy. As of Thursday, wholesale egg prices for the “Midwest Large” eggs have hit an all-time high at USD3.09 per dozen. This is up from USD1.03 per dozen only three weeks ago, according to Brian Moscogiuri, the Marketing Director at Urner Barry, a marketing reporting service. As a result, grocery stores nationwide are attempting to remain stocked by imposing limits on commonly hoarded products such as milk and eggs.
“Some stores are only letting shoppers get two dozen to limit hoarding,” Moscogiuri said. “Inventories are completely depleted as producers are basically running as many eggs out of the hen house and to their customers as possible.”
As longtime chicken owners like Jill Watt know, caring for backyard chickens is an investment of both time and money. Baby chicks require starter feed, water and a temperature-regulated coop. Once they are fully grown, they need fresh food in the morning, regular water changes and an evening meal.
“We are so happy we have chickens right now,” said Watt, who lives outside of Charlottesville, with 11 birds of her own and three more on the way. “I have seen the aisles in the grocery story with no eggs and whatnot. We never have to worry about that.”
While chicks tend to cost three to five dollars each, paying for the additional costs of coops, feeders and nourishment can quickly become expensive. It will be a long time before egg production covers the initial costs of the endeavour. Day-old chickens that arrive from hatcheries take about 17 weeks to start laying eggs, while ready-to-lay hens are more expensive but will provide eggs much sooner. Once the laying begins, owners can expect about five eggs per chicken each week.
Some experienced poultry owners like Diana Phillips hope people will consider renting a coop before committing to long-term ownership. She and her husband run the Maryland-based RentACoop, which provides short-term coop and hen rentals.
“If it’s not something they really want to get into, they should just rent and then return instead of making a whole mess of the thing,” Phillips said. Over the past few weeks, Phillips has been working overtime to stay on top of the flurry of interested renters. “They want their own food source, which we understand, so we are trying to meet those needs.”
Some say the backyard animals, like cats and dogs, provide much-needed company in times of quarantine. But for many, the COVID-19 was more of a catalyst than a justification for their purchases.
Kristin Sprinkle, who lives in Keswick, Virginia, placed her first order of backyard chickens last week. She said she had wanted the birds for about two years but has only now found the time and motivation to invest.
“It definitely struck me with how crazy everything got and how quickly everything got crazy that there is no time like the present,” she said.
Sprinkle said she hopes the birds will provide a fun educational opportunity for her two boys, who are antsy while home from school.
Not everywhere allows these birds to roam freely in neighbourhood backyards. Laws about keeping chickens depend on state, county and town regulations. Limits on the number of chickens per household can also depend on the zone and the size of the plot on which they are kept. A few years ago, Washington DC Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed language in the city’s budget that would have banned backyard chickens. A surge of local activists – armed with petitions to protect the rights of yard hens – eventually blocked the ban from becoming law.
For those who are legally able, Watt encourages investment in backyard chickens. She has spent the past few weeks handing out eggs to neighbours and family concerned about frequenting grocery stores
“I think everyone should have chickens,” Watt said.
“Chickens are way better than dogs.”