SILK HOPE - High and dry after Triumph Boats left Durham last year, two local engineers have put old boatmaking techniques to a new venture they hope will cash in on a swell of enthusiasm for backyard chicken coops.
Watercraft hulls are no longer Randy Sweat’s vocation. The former tooling foreman for Triumph’s Durham facility now uses the same fabrication equipment and process of rotational molding to create modular homes for chickens.
“They offered to move us up there but we didn’t want to move to Minnesota,” said the Chatham County resident. Instead, he bought the factory’s equipment and moved it to Silk Hope. He looked around for a business venture where he could apply skills honed making polypropylene boat molds for 16 years at Triumph. The pleasure craft manufacturer once employed up to 75 people in Durham but announced in 2010 it was splitting for Little Falls, Minn.
After much tinkering, Sweat and a former Triumph engineer named George Blaisdell hope the product they’ve developed will prove a winner.
The Yolk is a portable coop advertised as predator-proof and big enough for six chickens. The plastic housing and its attached cage can be moved about the yard and easily cleaned. It is offered for sale online and at feed stores around the Triangle.
“There’s been a huge explosion in the number of people that want to raise chicks,” said Connie Tabor, an associate at the Southern States farm store in Carrboro.
Southern States has a Yolk for sale for $1,500, a $100 markdown for North Carolina buyers also offered on the product’s website: http://www.theeggyolk.com.
“We’ve never marketed any type of chicken coop here,” Tabor said. “It’s a consigned item. We’re not really sure what kind of market there is for it. It’s a nice unit and you can move it … and it’s completely predator-proof.”
Eggs from the backyard come cheaper than at the grocery store and buck the dismal factory-farming conditions to which most of the country’s egg-laying hens are subjected. Depending on light levels and the season, a hen can an egg just about every day.
Expecting a surge in demand for chicks, Southern States has doubled its order from last year to 150 chicks per week, four shipments in all. The chicks are delivered overnight from Mt. Healthy Hatcheries in Ohio via the U.S. Postal Service.
“Because the law says chickens can’t be kept as pets, we’re not allowed to sell less than six at a time,” Tabor said.
In 2009, the Chapel Hill Town Council voted to allow keeping up to 10 hens in all residential zoning districts in the town. Carrboro, Durham and Raleigh also permit keeping hens in the backyard. Municipalities typically ban roosters, which are noisy and not needed for hens to lay eggs.
Sammy Slade, who sits on Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen, has been raising chickens in the town for several years. “I wanted to localize my food as much as possible, out of awareness of how far away our food comes from,” he said. “So I started raising chickens, and then I started gardening.”
Slade quoted figures from a study finding that only about 5 percent of food consumed is produced locally. “There is huge potential for economic growth,” he said.
Slade, whose chickens live in a more conventional-style coop at the Weaver Street Housing Association’s Bolin Creek co-op, said he has indeed experienced trouble with predators.
“On occasion when someone forgets to close the door, I’ve heard the chickens making loud noises. There’s something out there,” Slade said. Once, he saw a fox trotting along with one of his chickens in its mouth.
In addition to predator protection, Blaisdell said, the plastic and aluminum materials of The Yolk have the advantage of being nonabsorbent, easier to clean and less prone than wood to trapping odor and mites.
They are built using a process called roto-molding, whereby powdered plastic fills a rotational metal mold which is heated, then removed after cooling.
“The molds can take anywhere from six weeks to build,” Sweat said. “I did a lot of the labor on the molds. We’d get chicken people together and they’d look at things and tell us what the problems were, and we’d go back and change the mold.”
With an investment of about $110,000, which included the purchase of equipment from Triumph and a metal building with an overhead crane for the workshop his property in Silk Hope, Sweat got his business together last year. He is the LLC’s sole employee. Blaisdell has helped with the design and marketing for The Yolk.
To help research their project, Blaisdell began raising chickens in his own backyard near downtown Greensboro, housing them in their prototypes.
“My fiancé really, really did not want do to the chicken thing,” he said. “She is totally engrossed in the process now.”
They have enjoyed watching the birds out their window.
“We call it Chicken TV,” he said.
Their invention is set to be profiled in the April issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine, whose distribution has risen to 75,000 copies in the last decade.
“People are wanting… to see change. They’re wanting to see more humane treatment of animals,” Blaisdell said.
His sentiments echo those of many who are drifting away from the industrial model of food production.
“They’re pumping them full of hormones and antibiotics and everything’s productivity, productivity, productivity.”