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Rent-a-Chicken

If you’ve ever wanted your own fresh eggs, Michele Allman can help you decide if keeping hens is for you

I am not alone in imagining chickens in my back yard. Backyard flocks are on the upswing in suburban and urban America, Chesapeake Country included. Why, the state’s capital allows city-dwellers to raise them.
    I’d appreciate their weeding skills to keep the violets, dandelions, and chickweed in check and to work compost into the soil where I’d like to install new garden beds. Most of all, I’d like just-laid eggs, firm with bright orange yolks.
    I can dream, of course. But am I really up for raising a flock of chickens?
    Michele Allman has my answer. A homesteader in Mitchellville, Allman rents hens so a would-be flockster like myself can learn what it’s like to live with a back yard full of clucking chickens — before buying them.

The Brain Behind the Business
    Given Allman’s life story, it’s odder that she’s a hair stylist at Varuna Avada Salon in Annapolis than that she’s a chicken-rental entrepreneur.
    A child of the 1970s, she grew up in a household where “doing more for yourself” was the ethic. America woke up to environmental stewardship at about the same time, with a wake-up oil crisis and a president, Jimmy Carter, who installed solar panels at the White House.
    Allman began gardening in the 1980s, and when she had her own children, she wanted to be able to know where her food was coming from and to live as a good steward of the land.
    Now Allman calls herself a homesteader, her term for people committed to feeding themselves and their family from the land on which they find themselves. For the Allman family of four, that happens to be about three acres near Bowie bought in 1988, when it was zoned agricultural.
    “It’s about the empowerment of being able to walk into your yard and feed yourself,” she says.
    The Allmans grow 30 to 40 percent of their food. As well as eating fresh and well, she values “knowing where it came from, how it was treated, everything that went into it — from seed to harvest.”

Michele Allman rents hens so would-be flocksters can learn what it’s like to live with a back yard full of clucking chickens — before buying them.

    Raising chickens “seemed a natural next step,” she says.
    Like her heritage vegetables, her birds include heritage breeds and hybrids of breeds with old bloodlines, such as Rhode Island Reds.
    Given the right environment, birds like these mostly take care of themselves. On the other hand, chickens bred for mass markets — such as white layers for eggs or Cornish cross for meat — often don’t do well in homesteads or back yards. They’ve been bred to have their food and water right there in front of them, not to seek water or to forage for insects or weeds.
    When Allman’s flow of eggs grew beyond the appetites of family and friends, she turned to selling eggs. The sales bring in a bit of income to help support the flock; they also bring people closer to one source of their food. From the egg came chicken rentals.
    “People started to wake up to self-sufficiency and were excited about having chickens,” Allman says. A volunteer with the SPCA for 15 years, she has seen excitement wane under the reality of keeping animals.
    “What’s going to happen to all these chickens?” she worried. From that worry, her new business was born. As the business plan took shape, she recruited husband Tim to build rental chicken housing.

The Chicken Lifestyle
    Keeping chickens is not for the faint of heart. Is it for me? Eighty dollars for a two-week rental seems like money well spent, because then I’ll know.
    Before Allman can rent to me or you, we have homework to do. First I need to know whether I can legally keep chickens (see sidebar). I’m in Anne Arundel County, so I can, although I need to observe setback regulations, which include hen housing.
    Second, Allman needs to know how well I’ll tend the birds. They need a secure environment. We’ve got foxes and hawks, maybe snakes. To keep the chickens safe, Allman’s rental arrangements include a portable henhouse that provides an easily accessible nesting box. She calls it a chicken tractor.
    “The tractor’s secure,” Allman says. It’s been tested by her local foxes, who “have not been able to penetrate.”
    The tractor is not only safe but also offers shelter and shade, which the chickens especially need on a hot day.
    Allman sees her rentals as a way to keep the peace. “Say the kids want chickens, but Dad’s not sure. Two weeks is enough time to know how comfortably chickens fit into your family and lifestyle.”
    A chicken-friendly lifestyle starts in your backyard.
    If given a choice between foraging for their own food and eating feed, chickens will go with foraging. But if you have flower or garden beds, you’ll want to block those places off.
    And if you’ve sprayed your yard with pesticides or herbicides, you’ll probably want to rethink keeping chickens. Chemicals put down to curb weeds are likely to end up in the chicken — and in your eggs.
    It’s a lot easier to bring home eggs from the grocery, but bringing home chickens will change your lifestyle. And long before Allman’s two-week trial ends, you’ll know if tending chickens is for you.
    I’ll let you know what I decide.
    Think raising chickens if your thing? michelesorganichomesteading.com.


Chicken Rules

    If you live in Anne Arundel County, you may keep up to 32 chickens per 40,000-square-foot lot. Any structure for housing the chickens needs to be at least 50 feet from the sides and back of the lot. Find county ordinance at www.backyardchickens.com/atype/3/Laws.
    Annapolitans must apply for a permit to keep or rent chickens: www.ci.annapolis.md.us/government/city-departments/neighborhood-environm....
    Calvert County requires three acres with setback requirements of 25 feet for any structures used for keeping animals. www.co.cal.md.us/index.aspx?nid=117.
        Each town center within Calvert County has different ordinances. For instance, Solomons allows smaller spaces for keeping chickens.