OverEZ Chicken Coop egg-spanding into Europe

Manheim-based OverEZ Chicken Coop makes backyard chicken coops and accessories. PHOTO/PROVIDED
Manheim-based OverEZ Chicken Coop makes backyard chicken coops and accessories. PHOTO/PROVIDED

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

EDC posts banner year in 2021, helping hundreds of businesses 

A chicken house on Jarred and Sarah VanderPlate’s 53-acre chicken farm in Rapho Township. PHOTO PROVIDED.

Jarred VanderPlate has been farming – in one way or another – since he was 10 years old. 

“I always wanted to buy a farm,” he said, but “I never thought I actually would.” 

Thanks, however, to the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County and its EDC Finance Corp., VanderPlate and his wife, Sarah, were approved for money from the state’s Next Generation Farmer Loan Program, which they used to help purchase a 53-acre chicken farm in Rapho Township. 

The EDC team was as busy as ever in 2021, according to its annual report, approving millions in loans for dozens of Lancaster County businesses and farms so they can “stay and grow,” which is its core mission. 

Last year, 41 projects adding up to $155 million in total investment received more than $36 million in economic development financing. 

That includes 10 Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority loans – six agriculture and four commercial/industrial – as well as 15 Next Gen Farmer loans and 16 Small Business Administration 504 loans. 

The PIDA amounts ranged from $384,500 to $2 million, while the Next Gen Farmer loans were from $315,000 to $558,000. 

Among the SBA 504 borrowers, loan totals went from $448,000 all the way up to $4.252 million. 

The vast majority of recipients were from Lancaster County, while seven of the SBA loans went to businesses in Dauphin, York, Adams and Cumberland Counties. 

In addition to the financing aspect, the EDC team averaged about 85 active projects on a rolling basis, helping local businesses with site selection and land planning; partnering with local municipalities; and providing connections to workforce development services and overall business counseling. 

Lisa Riggs, president of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, said most EDCs have seen a lot of expansion as businesses began to rebound after the worst of the pandemic. 

2022 is off to a fast start as well, with eight or nine Next Gen Farmer loans already approved, she said. 

As to the PIDA loans, some of those were pushed through before interest rates reset at a higher level, Riggs explained. 

The EDC team is also unique in the region for its technical expertise with SBA 504 loans, which is why it will help businesses outside Lancaster County get approved. 

A formal memorandum with other counties allows that, she said. 

Additionally, last year saw $3 million in loans go to 159 Lancaster small businesses through the City Revitalization & Improvement Zone program, the EDC report noted. 

Being a conduit for special state programs related to the COVID-19 pandemic affected EDC’s volume as well, Riggs said. 

In partnership with the Lancaster Chamber, EDC Finance helped 316 businesses receive more than $6 million from Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 Hospitality Industry Recovery Program. 

Machine contractor Flex-Cell Precision Inc. Received a $1.48 million loan from the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority for a 23,500-square-foot addition in Lancaster. PHOTO PROVIDED

From manufacturing to agriculture 

With aid from the EDC team, Lancaster precision machining contractor Flex-Cell Precision Inc. received a Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority loan of more than $1.48 million. 

The money supports a multi-million-dollar expansion project – nearly finished – to add 23,500 square feet to the plant’s existing 17,500 square feet, said President and CEO Tony Fanning. 

Fanning, who started Flex-Cell in New York in 1991, moved the business to its current location at 1151 S. Duke St. in 2013. EDC was involved then, too, he said. 

Flex-Cell also worked with Chris Deascenti at First National Bank on financing the expansion. 

“We’ve always had steady growth,” Fanning said, and the extra space leaves plenty of room to accommodate that in the years ahead. 

The company employs about 50 and has a good mix of medical, military and commercial clients, mostly in the Northeast, he said. 

“It was great working with EDC,” Fanning said. “They’re a fantastic group.” 

Jarred VanderPlate said he and his family have been farming for about 10 months. The $552,000 Next Gen loan approved for him and his wife assisted in the $4 million farm purchase. 

There are a number of options for first-time farmers, he said, and the Next Gen route was what they chose. 

The VanderPlates’ chickens are pullets, which will be egg layers and supply Kreider Farms. Their farm has the capacity for 227,000 chickens, and is currently at a little more than 200,000. 

He said their five children – the oldest is 13 – help out. “They really enjoy it.” 

More industrial land needed 

According to the annual report, the EDC has also been working on analyzing what industrial land is available in Lancaster County, as sites to accommodate expansion for manufacturers are getting scarcer. 

This is building on the Lancaster County Planning Department’s Places2040 comprehensive plan “and has tapped into the knowledge and expertise of many local municipal managers,” the report noted. 

Riggs said half the county has been completed in the analysis, with an initial emphasis on municipalities with urban growth areas. 

Only 3% of land in Lancaster County is zoned industrial. And when that’s combined with an industrial vacancy rate is 2%, alarm bells go off, she said. 

The solution to this unbalance between supply and demand, Riggs said, will take time. 

“Companies that make stuff want to make more stuff,” she said. “There’s real value in those jobs.” 

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer. 

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