Under a tent at the Durham Farmers’ Market, several dozen people lingered at lunchtime Saturday after the farmers had packed up their fresh produce and homemade goods.
A near-freezing rain chilled the air.
But warmth and merriment exuded from the small crowd gathered around a large rectangular piece of plywood with numbers painted on it.
“We have a number two on 21,” George O’Neal, owner of Lil’ Farm in Person County and president of the Durham Farmers’ Market board, shouted with glee.
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The crowd cheered. Then Harriet, one of the four chickens pecking at the carrot tops, organic feed and cookie crumbs on the painted board, fluffed her tail feathers with a little shake of her leg.
The game that drew a curious group of onlookers and participants is known, in polite company, as chicken-poop bingo.
It’s a spin on the church-hall pastime that thrills preschoolers who find potty humor irresistible and disgusts others who turn their nose up at the mention of such acts of nature.
But for several decades now, bingo games centered on animals – cow-pie bingo is a twist that requires a larger number board – have become popular draws for small-town fairs, honky-tonk bars and fundraisers.
The way it’s played is this: Players put down $2 and try to pick the number where the chickens strutting across the game board will do their business.
The four chickens at the market on Saturday were straight out of the backyard of Emily-Kate Hannapel, the assistant market manager who lived several miles away. Aware of animal-rights activists protesting such events elsewhere, Hannapel was quick to announce that her chickens were well-loved.
Hannapel, O’Neal and fellow organizers and participants threw out carrot tops, mustard greens, organic seed “that costs more than dog food” and homemade cookie crumbs onto the game board to raise money for the Double Bucks program.
The crowd oohed and aahed as Harriet, Sashafluffy, Sashaunfluffy and Frodo strutted up and down the board pecking away at the treats.
O’Neal, an emcee with an abundance of chicken-poop jokes, explained mid-game about the mission behind the merriment.
Nearly 3,000 Durham residents within a three-mile radius of the downtown farmers market are eligible for EBT (SNAP) and WIC federal food benefits.
To encourage the food-stamp recipients to buy fresh produce and support local farms, the Durham market offers shoppers a match of up to $10 for every $10 spent by swiping their card.
“This increases access to the market,” O’Neal said, “and it’s good for the farmers.”
David Crispell, his wife, Amber, and their 11-month-old Asher huddled under the tent, curious to see how the game would be played.
David, who works at a Montessori school in Durham, had seen cow-pie bingo played at his high school. They painted the soccer field, let a couple of cows out and raised money for the sports team.
But his wife had never seen such a spectacle.
Joi Whittington, a Durham resident, had read about the event on Twitter and had to use more than a little power of persuasion to convince her husband, Dawayne, son Cole and daughter Cori to bundle out in their winter wear and join her at the market for what she promised was a “good cause.”
But with dollars down on several squares – the eight, 28 and 19 – the Whittington family soon forgot their reluctance and cheered on the chickens.
“Bring on the manure,” O’Neal, the jovial emcee, called out.
Then word came. One of the chickens left its mark on number eight and the Whittingtons were over at the prize table covered with baked goods, T-shirts, restaurant gift cards, ornaments and other treats.
Elizabeth Read and her 3-year-old son, Charlie, came from Burlington to watch the unusual bingo game. Charlie, who has chickens in his own backyard, had perfected the dance they seemed to do right before leaving their mark. He would bend one knee lower to the ground, kick up the other leg and wiggle his hips.
The stack of oatmeal and raisin cookies he won were a hit. The chickens scratching under the tent were even more of an amusement.
“I like chickens,” he said.
And many in the crowd, young and old, left the farmers market tent on Saturday afternoon amused by the unusual twist on bingo they had just seen.
“It’s fun and it’s for a good cause,” Dawayne Whittington said.