The farmer takes … an emu?
Emus are strange looking creatures with their useless wings, reptilian legs and feet, and long necks.
“They can look over a six-foot fence if they want to stretch their necks a bit. Their backs are about four feet tall,” said Cyril Klein. “I call them the gentle cousins of the ostrich.”
Klein tends 20 acres of corn and hay, and 70 emus near Cedar Falls, Iowa. He’s been raising the flightless but speedy birds for 20 years.
Many farmers across the U.S. started raising these big birds from Australia as an alternative source of revenue when times turned tough on the farm in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Far fewer are in the business today — but those who persevered, like Klein, expect sales of emu meat and emu oil to take off soon.
“You can use every part of the emu,” Klein said. “Whatever you want to put your energies into, you can market. The feathers are marketable. The hide is a very fine hide. The meat is a very healthy, low-fat, high-protein meat. It’s a red meat. The main product is the oil.”
This oil extracted from emu fat is sold for a range of pharmaceutical and cosmetic purposes. It has not received approval from the Federal Drug Administration, so it can’t be marketed as a cure for anything. But emu farmers say the easily absorbable oil can be used in products to relieve joint pain, repel insects, prevent hair loss, soothe chapped lips and shampoo pets.
Klein entered the business at a time of high interest in alternative ways to earn farm income. People were looking at emus, along with ostriches, llamas, pot-bellied pigs and other exotic livestock, as possible cash producers. But hundreds have since abandoned this pursuit.
The 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census indicated more than 5,200 emu farms nationwide. By 2007, that number was down to around 3,600. In Iowa, the number dropped from 59 in 2002 to 37 five years later.
Mike Eppley, president of the American Emu Association, said some of that decline is due to a sifting out of those who were simply looking for fast money.
“Once people found out there was a little work involved, that it was not a get-rich-quick scheme, they moved on and it left an industry where there were now farmers,” he said.
Eppley said he’s again seeing young people buying emu chicks to begin raising the birds. But the job is not for everyone. It requires skilled entrepreneurs capable of building their own markets, primarily over the internet. A few health food stores and specialty groceries sell the emu oil and meat products, but not many.
The Gateway Market, in Des Moines, has started offering emu meat. Store manager David Clemens said he wasn’t sure how the meat will do at the cash register, but he at least understands what he’s dealing with — he’s tried it.
“The texture of it is similar to beef, and the taste. It’s a little gamier, but it was pleasant,” he said.