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Rent-a-Chicken provides backyard birds to Long Islanders

Homeowner Justin Spring, left, with one of the

Homeowner Justin Spring, left, with one of the chickens he has rented for the summer from Rent-a-Chicken franchise owner Jim Jonke, center, at Springs home in Bridgehampton, July 26, 2017. Jonke's daughters Kayla, 10, and Kelly, 5, join them. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Shoreham entrepreneur Jim Jonke is hoping to “cluck” his way to the bank.

He’s renting chickens to clients across Long Island, through a licensing agreement with Michigan-based Rent-a-Chicken.

Jonke, 31, who said he already had chickens of his own, was looking for a way to turn a passion into profit when he came across an ad for Rent-a-Chicken on Craigslist.

“I thought it would be funny and cool if we could turn this hobby into a business,” Jonke said.

Those who want fresh eggs need to check local town codes on keeping fowl. For example, Hempstead does not permit chickens, Oyster Bay requires residents to obtain a special permit, and Brookhaven allows up to six chickens.

Chicken rentals can run from mid-April to mid-November, Jonke said. He takes the birds off clients’ hands and cares for them over the winter.

Jonke, who operates as Sister Red’s Farm and raises the chickens, started working as part of Rent-a-Chicken last summer, covering both Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Rent-a-Chicken was founded in Michigan in 2009 by spouses Leslie and Mark Suitor.

“We wanted to provide a commitment-free way for people to see what it was like having chickens at home before taking the plunge of buying them . . . We like to say that we give them the opportunity to ‘chicken’ out,” said Leslie Suitor. “But we also work to promote understanding of the sustainability of backyard farming.”

Most clients are seeking access to “fresh, organic eggs,” although others view the animals as pets, she said.

The Suitors’ company, which had sales of $3,000 its first season, had revenue of $23,000 last year. Rent-a-Chicken now works with 27 farmers in 34 locations nationwide.

If another Long Island farmer wanted to work with the company, Leslie Suitor said the farmer would have to get the green light from Jonke.

So, how does renting a chicken work?

A $395 “starter package” includes the three-month rental of two chickens, two 35-pound bags of organic grain chicken feed, a coop and bedding, and delivery within 30 miles of Shoreham.

A six-month package costs $595, and each additional bird is $50, with higher prices for rare breeds such as the Easter Egger, which lays blueish-green eggs. Jonke’s maximum rental is six birds.

“Clients can expect about five to six eggs a week or an average of one egg per day” per chicken, he said.

Clients who have their own coops get a discounted rate. For those who don’t want to do it themselves, weekly coop cleaning starts at $135.

It’s cheaper to buy eggs in the supermarket, but Jonke is selling the experience of keeping a chicken, and the freshness of the eggs.

There’s growing interest in keeping backyard chicken flocks, said Vicki Fleming, youth development program director and farm administrator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Yaphank. The extension started a backyard chickens educational program three years ago.

“I think it’s because people want to know where their food comes from and like the idea of fresh eggs, plus chickens are pretty low-maintenance.”

Fleming said she sees “no negatives” to Jonke’s business, though she said renters should be careful to keep other animals, like dogs, away from the coop.

Jonke, who still has a day job in the transportation industry, had 15 clients last year; this year he has 30. He says he’s breaking even. If he doesn’t turn a profit next summer, he’ll raise his prices.

Lisa Zimmerman, 46, of Holbrook, is one of his repeat customers.

“The first year I rented two and this year three, and I was absolutely heartbroken when they went home” for the winter, she said. So much so that she admits she’s gone to visit them.

“They’re intelligent and they recognize you and interact with you,” Zimmerman said. “If I had my way, I’d have them at home the whole year, but my husband is not a huge fan.”

Zimmerman said that she also enjoys the opportunity to eat just-laid eggs and show her 7-year-old son, Jayden, “where food really comes from . . . not a carton from the supermarket.”

Justin Spring, 54, a writer who lives in Bridgehampton, rented four chickens from Jonke for the first time this year.

He said having Jonke as a resource takes the guesswork out of handling the birds.

“It’s been a wonderful experience, and if my work schedule allows, I definitely see myself doing this again,” he said.

“The chickens are incredibly productive. I’ve been able to give eggs away as gifts to friends and neighbors . . . and it’s nice making homemade mayo, soufflés and having breakfast for dinner.”

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