When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, many Americans sheltering at home started looking for ways to produce their own food.
And one method already gaining in popularity – backyard chickens – just exploded during the pandemic.
Manheim-based OverEZ Chicken Coop, which makes backyard chicken coops and accessories, saw its sales triple in 2020 and double in 2021, said CEO Chet Beiler.
This year, sales to date are up 30%, he said, and will approach $20 million. This growth led the company to open a second plant, in Dublin, Georgia, and to expand its market across the Atlantic into Europe.
Beiler, who bought the business in June 2020, said backyard chickens are appealing because people yearn for self-reliance and sustainable living. They love having fresh, organic eggs daily, and families with kids and grandkids enjoy caring for the animals, who become beloved pets.
A press release from OverEZ said that families often name their chickens and “treat them as any other pet, like cats or dogs. These affectionate pets provide companionship and have individual personalities. Chickens will eat from your hand, sometimes jump onto your lap, respond to your voice, and even follow you around. Backyard chickens are generally docile and serve as good pets around children with disabilities.”
The lifespan of chickens is five to 10 years, the company said, and they produce 300 eggs a year.
“Smaller or newer chicken breeds lay earlier (starting at 16-18 weeks), while larger or heritage breeds will take longer to reach maturity (24 weeks or more),” the OverEZ website explained. “The downside is, generally, early-to-lay hybrid breeds will decrease egg production after about two years. Slower-to-mature breeds will produce longer, but will eventually slow down as well.”
For those looking for friendly chickens that make the best pets, Silkies and Rhode Island Reds are among the breeds suggested.
Hundreds of breeds are found globally, but the American Poultry Association recognizes more than 50 large chicken breeds, as well as many bantam (smaller) breeds. There are an estimated 24 billion chickens worldwide, or three for every person.
Also, according to backyardchickenproject.com, the color of eggs depends on the chicken breed. And color doesn’t determine the nutritional value or how “natural” or “organic” an egg is.
Finally, in the category of oddball facts, modern-day chickens – believe it or not – share common ancestry with dinosaurs.
Though interest has settled down since the worst of the pandemic, the upward trend in sales for OverEZ remains strong. What’s happening is a lifestyle shift, Beiler said.
Chris Lesley, editor of Chickens & More magazine and author of “Raising Chickens: The Common Sense Beginner’s Guide to Backyard Chickens,” told AARP that “quarantine was the flash point that motivated a lot of people to get chickens, but the underlying reasons people wanted them are still there.”
Also boosting OverEZ Chicken Coop was Beiler’s appearance on the TV show “Shark Tank.”
Though he came away with no deal, it was “a terrific experience, interesting and fun,” he said. And the exposure was great, bringing calls from investors.
Market keeps growing
In addition to backyard coops made by Amish carpenters, the approximately 90,000-square-foot Manheim location at 340 Hostetter Road produces gazebos, pergolas and pavilions. The coop factory in Georgia is about 80,000 square feet.
Beiler said most jurisdictions don’t require zoning approval for keeping backyard chickens. OverEZ sells to every state in the U.S., as well as Canada; the No. 1 state for sales is California.
The predator-resistant, red-and-white modular coops work in all climates, he said.
There are five sizes: small, medium, large, extra large and jumbo, ranging from about $1,200 to $4,000 each. Shipping is free in the continental United States.
The small coop houses up to five chickens, the medium up to 10, the large up to 15, the extra large up to 20 and the jumbo up to 30.
By far the most popular is the large coop, Beiler said, which has two windows; the small and medium coops come with a single window.
Customers can purchase the coops through dealers (Tractor Supply is the largest), through the company website or via Shopify.
He said 50% or so of OverEZ’s business is direct to consumers from the website.
Tractor Supply also sells chicks, and they can be shipped in the mail, too, Beiler said.
OverEZ is the top-rated chicken coop on Amazon and other sites, he said. The product gets nice reviews because it’s good quality, easy to ship and put together, and easy to move around the backyard.
“With only eight separate pieces, all that is needed is 30 minutes, a screw gun, and two people to assemble an OverEz chicken coop,” the company said.
For its expansion in the European market, OverEZ has identified a place in the Czech Republic, between Prague and the German border, that will start making coops, Beiler said. In addition, an extrusion and blow-molding business in that country will manufacture high-quality feeders and waterers for the chickens.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is providing substantial support for the outreach into Europe, he said, and the exposure on “Shark Tank” helped, too.
Interest in backyard chickens is even greater in Western Europe than it is in the U.S., according to Google Analytics.
OverEZ plans to start selling to residents of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, Beiler said, and then move into Belgium, France and the United Kingdom.
Paula Wolf is a freelance writer