By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
Claremont — Open the door to Julie Baker’s rural Claremont home and find little Mama Hen, hanging out on the stairway to the second floor.
No need to check the bottoms of your shoes, though. The 3-year-old broody is sporting an unusual garment featuring a small receptacle in the back, covering — as Baker puts it — her “vent.” With snaps on the back, a bow in the front and understated ruffles throughout, the bright pink get-up would make Barbie jealous.
It’s a fitting scene for Baker’s home, where goats are named after flowers and at least one goose has been known to wear a bonnet, and which doubles as headquarters for her business selling, of course, chicken diapers.
Pampered Poultry, online at pamperyourpoultry.com, allows owners who want to keep chickens indoors a poop-free experience. And it’s been generating a fair amount of buzz nationally and internationally as a backyard and urban farming movement emerges. Farmers recognize their practicality for bringing sick birds into the house, for example, and, presumably, others just think they’re cute.
“I bet chicken diapers have been around as long as there have been chickens, quite frankly, because there are practical reasons why sometimes you bring it in the house,” Baker said recently, standing in her sunny backyard where about 30 chickens roam among other small animals. “We’ve kind of taken it to the next level with the whole fashion thing, fancy fabrics. We’re a little bit over the top.”
When asked if anybody at the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture could comment on the need for chicken diapers, the woman who answered the telephone started laughing. A call to a veterinarian known in the state for treating chickens elicited a similar reaction.
“Chickens are a huge fad these days,” veterinarian George Messenger later responded in a voicemail. “I didn’t know they wore diapers, but I guess if you want to have a chicken walking around your house, it makes sense, because otherwise you’re going to have a lot of chicken poop, and chicken poop is gross. It’s stinky.”
Giggles may be warranted, but there’s a serious side to Baker’s endeavor, as well: The items are stitched at a “sew-op” — a co-op for people who sew — that Baker co-founded in the Dominican Republic in an effort to help struggling women, some of whom are the descendants of Haitian immigrants, to learn a trade and make a living.
Baker started out making a few diapers for her own chickens and found them useful for when her daughter, Bridget, would play with the birds in the house as a youngster. Bridget, now 15, eventually started showing the birds competitively, and the diapers were handy to keep the birds looking picture-perfect during long rides to events.
Baker started bringing along a few extra diapers to sell, and they were a hit.
Meanwhile, Baker was taking vacations to the Dominican Republic, but would leave feeling unfulfilled. She started volunteering for organizations during her trips, and eventually conceived the idea for the sew-op and launching her own organization there with the help of another charitable organizer on the island. She brought down the first sewing machines about 2 1/2 years ago, but the venture really took off about a year ago, she said, after Pampered Poultry was featured in New Hampshire Magazine, and subsequently featured on Chronicle and National Public Radio.
Baker happily acknowledges the product’s inherent weirdness: Diapers? On chickens? She describes the whole thing as “whimsical,” “silly,” even. So silly that at first, she didn’t discuss the product with the women in the sew-op.
“When we first started doing it, I couldn’t even tell them what we were making. … But eventually we had to come clean with it,” said Baker, who turned down an opportunity to have a reality TV show developed around her business.
“So now, they just joke, because there, the chickens run around everywhere, and no one has real doors or windows on the houses, so the chickens are just in and out, in and out. It’s dinner time and you just like, grab a chicken and it goes in the stew pot … so to diaper your chicken is just so ridiculous. But they’re kind of of the attitude of, hey, if you guys want to diaper your chicken and I can feed my kid, it works for me.”
Yet run an Internet search of “chicken diapers,” and you’ll find that Baker is not alone in her endeavor. Jennifer Megyesi, who co-runs Fat Rooster Farm in Royalton and published The Joy of Keeping Chickens in 2009, said she hadn’t heard of Baker’s business, but has ordered diapers from a similar website for a small hen unfit for Vermont winters.
“They’re clearly goofy, but I use them,” she said. “She gets this little chicken diaper and walks around the house in it, and runs over to the wood stove and lies down and sunbathes next to the black Lab.”
Baker said her sales have skyrocketed in recent months to the point where it’s “tricky to manage.” Last year, she was selling a handful of items a week, but that grew into days when she would receive up to a dozen orders, usually with two to six items per order. She recently took on two wholesale accounts: A store in Australia recently placed an order for a few hundred items, she said, and an urban farm store opening in Indiana will increase demand, as well.
Both Baker and Megyesi point to the emerging trend of urban farming as one of the reasons for chicken diapers’ growing popularity.
“Especially urban people, they have chickens that live in the house, and it’s actually a growing movement,” Megyesi said. “I certainly think that more people are doing smaller scale farming in urban areas, and it might be one or two tomato plants and four laying hens, but I think that is also a growing trend.”
One of Baker’s customers, Beth Brown, of Denver, Colo., never planned to own a chicken as a pet — she was happy with dogs, cats and a tortoise. But when a friend needed to find a home for a chicken that had been attacked by the rest of the flock, Brown decided to adopt it.
The chicken, Donna, generally lives in an enclosed sun porch at her ranch house in an urban neighborhood. But one night she broke into the house, pooped everywhere and caused a stir. And Brown always felt bad segregating her from the other pets, who happily came inside while Donna stood at the door, looking in.
So when Brown heard about chicken diapers, was she struck by the peculiarity of it all?
“No, because I have lived with her for over a year and I can totally understand the need for it, so for me it was like, that’s totally something I need. I wanted her to have the same freedoms as all of my pets,” she said. “I only put one on her when she comes in the house, if I want to leave the door open between the house and the sunroom. She likes to hang out in the house, she likes graham crackers and cookies and she drinks out of the dog bowl. Now she’s not banished.”
Costs vary depending on sizes and quantity purchased, but diapers cost about $12 each, and saddles — used to prevent roosters from clawing feathers out of hens’ backs during mating — are about $7.50.
The fabric for each item costs about $2 to $3, Baker said. She always uses the same material, Hoffman’s batiks, which she buys from Frank’s Bargain Center in Claremont. Owner Frank Methot knows to call her when a shipment arrives. The sew-op is paid an average fee of $3.50 per item sewn; 15 percent of that fee stays within the sew-op and is put toward things like buying machines and running classes, and the rest is divided up among each of the women who had a hand in making the item.
And while that may seem like a small fee to Americans, it well exceeds the Dominican Republic’s minimum wage, which varies based on industry but is generally less than $5 a day. A sugar cane worker, for example, usually makes about $3 a day, Baker said.
Baker, who also works from home guiding homeowners through short-sale negotiations, said she turned down an offer for a large wholesale account because the sew-op wouldn’t have been able to complete all the orders.
“It was an interesting business decision, because the only way I could have done it would have been to have contracted with a factory, and I’m still holding to the fact that I don’t really want to be part of that,” Baker said.
“I also recognize I can’t make the product here. I’m selling them for $12, the fabric is $2 or $3, and there’s no way I could afford to pay anybody here to make them. So I’m kind of stuck in this world of, I don’t want these made in China (or) in Indonesia for 50 cents a piece or whatever … but the way that I’m going I can’t grow as quickly as maybe if this were my main thing.”
The sew-op has been a dream for longer than chicken diapers, she said, and her hope is that the two ventures can grow alongside each other, and that as more women learn to sew, more businesses might produce their goods using their talents.
For customers like Brown, of Denver, that’s good news for her — and for her chicken Donna, too.
“She’s very sweet, so I just wanted her to be comfortable with everybody hanging out,” Brown said. “So I hope it’s not as weird as it sounds.”