Dung What Comes Naturally

THE REAL DIRT rTC

October 31, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

There are rabbits in my roses, and snails in my spinach. Now a skunk has arrived to sniff my chrysanthemums.

Chase them? I embrace them!

But for their trade name, you'd never suspect the true source of these cute critters. Called "Poopets," they are lawn statues fashioned from fertilizer -- cow droppings, a.k.a. farmer's clay. Placed in the garden, the figures enhance the landscape as they sweeten the soil.

The non-toxic Poopets are rapidly gaining in popularity. Garden centers and gift shops in 49 states now carry the biodegradable wildlife, which were introduced last October and which retail for $3 to $12.

In rural terms, Poopets are as hot as the middle of a compost pile. Each month, 8 tons of cow manure are used to produce the brown animal figures, each with relevant nicknames, including "dung bunnies," "stool pigeons" and "turdles."

"Most people see these figures and laugh," says John Rothman, creator of Poopets. "They legitimize a potty humor that many people like to engage in. A woman called to say she'd been

trying to find a way to give her boss ---- for years.

"But, humor aside, we're getting feedback that this stuff really works. One gardener claimed that since she bought Poopets, her herbs never looked better."

Hand-crafted in Lancaster County, Pa., Poopets range in height from a 2-inch mouse that will fertilize houseplants, to an 8-inch quail that will feed an entire bush.

Forget human caricatures, says Rothman:

"We've had requests to do presidential candidates and almost every pro football coach. But you've got to be relatively sensitive about your materials."

Rothman, 44, quit a lucrative medical career as a research scientist to develop Poopets.

"I've downsized my life considerably," says the New Jersey native.

"What I'm doing now isn't high-tech, it's lost tech," says Rothman. "Manure was probably man's earliest building material. malleable and it dries as hard as rock. Dung bricks last for years, and they're still used in Asia and Africa.

"Manure is also nature's finest organic fertilizer. Gardeners can't get enough of it. So why not combine those ideas and create a line of slow-release, self-fertilizing pottery?"

How long do Poopets last? Years, Rothman reckons.

"Place them outdoors and they turn gray, like rocks," he says. "As the figures age, they develop fine cracks that allow moisture inside to release the fertilizer, bit by bit. It reminds you of those tiny time capsules on TV."

Rothman chose Lancaster County, in southeastern Pennsylvania, as his production center because the large population of Amish there have "a tradition of craftwork, an indefatigable work ethic . . . and tons of cow poop." Many of his craftspeople are Amish housewives.

In the town of Bird-In-Hand, he found an old barn and enough raw materials to sculpt the prototypes for Poopets. Rothman then advertised in community newspapers for hired hands.

"Manure molders needed immediately," the ad said.

Hundreds responded, including comedian Jay Leno who, on "The Tonight Show," referred to the manure ad as "The president's jobs program."

Actually, it's a lucrative cottage industry. From their garages, his workers turn out 2,500 Poopets a week. The lawn statues are dried and deodorized at the firm's plant in Coatesville, Pa.

In part because the statues are deodorized, Poopet sales are strongest in urban centers, Rothman says.

"It's 'designer fertilizer' for city-dwellers," he says. "On the other hand, in rural areas, it's hard to sell manure back to farmers."

Poopets are good not only for gardeners, but also for Lancaster County; they rid the region of a source of pollution. Effluence from animal dung in the region is a major pollutor of the Chesapeake Bay. Now dairy farmers can give their manure to Rothman to make his products.

"What better way to use up excess manure and send it where it's needed?" says Sam Fisher, Poopets production manager.

"Some people who have Poopets don't even garden. One man keeps them on the mantel in his living room, as a conversation piece.

"It's the perfect gift for the person who has everything."

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