Growing up in a small town, Kate Belbeck often felt “a bit on the outside of things.” but she always connected with animals. Today, Kate uses her connection with animals to break people out of their isolated bubbles and strengthen community bonds.
As co-owner and manager of Belbeck’s Family Farm, she and her husband, Ivan, are dedicated to delivering naturally raised eggs and meat to their Guelph, Ontario community. And their “Rent the Chicken” program is bringing a small taste of farm life — not to mention fresh eggs — to the backyards and breakfast tables of time-starved families.
“Being out in the country can be a little bit isolating, and especially as a mom with a bunch of small kids,” says Kate. “It’s not easy to get away and connect with people. So I started looking for a way to marry my love for animals with my desire for connection.”
Rent a Chicken gives people a hands-on role in producing their own food. The farm delivers everything aspiring “chicken hosts” need — a portable coop, feed, laying hens, feeding dishes, a book and instruction manual, as well as support by phone, text or email — to raise chickens (and enjoy their eggs) throughout the spring and summer. In the fall, Kate and her crew return to collect the chickens and bring them back to the farm — unless, of course, their host families decide to permanently adopt them.
“The energy surrounding the delivery of chickens is always really thrilling for me,” says Kate. “You roll up with the trailer, and everyone is so excited: there are neighbours coming up, children running down the street, and the chickens diving all over the trailer to try to get a look. People who have wanted chickens their entire lives are finally getting the opportunity to do it.”
Kate’s chickens live in community gardens and schools, as well as homes, and business grows through word of mouth.
Kate’s oldest son, Fletcher, 11, loves to accompany her on chicken deliveries. “He’s definitely my sidekick. He is the one outside with me, doing chores no matter the weather. He gets a lot of pride out of teaching people and sharing his knowledge. Living on a farm can be hard sometimes — there’s always some heartbreak. Not everything goes according to plan. My kids see sad things from time to time and learn how to deal with them. But they also see some of the most wonderful, joyous things, like animals being born. They learn empathy and responsibility, how to relate to the world and its creatures. They gain a real appreciation for life.”
Kate and Ivan’s biggest heartbreak has been the loss of their toddler, Ashlyn, who died in 2012 after being struck by a car.
“It was the worst time in my life, the worst possible thing,” says Kate. “After she passed away, it was really isolating. I felt very alone out here.”
Still, Kate, who at the time worked outside the farm, wanted to be at home. “It really became important to me to not be away from my children all the time, to be able to include them.” She calls Blaez, 5, and Marrec, 4, her “rainbow babies”: “They came after the storm.”
She decided to start her own business then, to share her joy in raising animals. “Not everybody can have chickens in their backyard, and that’s okay. Not everybody wants to. But everybody who does take that step to produce a bit of food on their own, is helping the environment. [The farm] has evolved into this huge community of people who support me, and I in turn support them.”
“Whether it’s watching your kids cooperate as they take care of the chickens, enjoying a meal together from the eggs in your own backyard, or sharing compost for gardening, chickens really do bring people together. It’s pretty amazing.”