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The Emu Industry

Although the commercial Emu industry dates only to the late 1980's, the ratite industry is relatively new only to the United States. The ratite industry dates back over 130 years to the Ostrich farms founded in South Africa. For nearly 100 years, South Africa controlled and monopolized Ostrich production. Early in history, the South African government prohibited the exportation of sexually viable Ostrich or their fertile eggs. Recently, under new trade regulations, Ostrich chicks and eggs have been allowed to be exported. In our country, the chicks and eggs must undergo a strict quarantine, which eliminated the majority attempting exportation.


The Emu industry experienced a similar monopolistic situation with the Australian government. Exportation only occurred to zoos and private collections. Since 1960, the exportation of chicks, adults and fertile eggs has been prohibited. The Australians are also in the early stages of a commercial Emu industry and with government help and assistance have developed extremely large ranching facilities. Much of the Emu meat currently sold in the United States is Australian in origin. Unlike the United States, the Australian government controls, approves and supports the Australian Emu industry.


In the United States, the domestic production of ratites gained acceptance among forward thinking southwestern and southern ranchers seeking livestock diversification and alternative sources of income. The domestic production of ratites expanded rapidly in the late 1980's and into the 1990's focusing primarily on existing livestock, exotic animal producers and other ratite ranching operations. Due to the extreme shortage of the Emu and Ostrich, breeding stock began demanding extremely high purchase prices.


Economically, as the interest in ratites grew, the supply lagged behind and this drove prices even higher. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs saw this as a golden opportunity to profit and they began promoting the future benefits a commercial ratite market could have as though it were nearly a current reality.


Without standards, avian research, genetic studies, tracking capability, or specie knowledge nor a base of data, many small to medium investors were induced to invest their life savings into artificially inflated "superior bird" prices approaching the $50,000 to $100,000 per pair prices.


By the mid 1990's, the supply of chicks from these adaptable and prolific birds exceeded the demand, since no commercial outlets yet existed for American produced ratite livestock. Despite an outward appearance of a glut of birds, the actual live inventory never approached 1/30th of the livestock inventory required to even support 1% of the then current domestic meat consumption.


Many small growers were enticed into the speculative breeder market by unsupportable and unrealistic promises of fast wealth mirroring what the speculators were able to attain. When the apparent glut appeared, panic rapidly spread through these seekers of fast dollars. With the panic came an almost overnight decline in bird prices.


Growers interested in the natural process of raising birds and transitioning into a commercial industry were faced with a sudden glut of birds on the market and fire sale prices. The value of all ratites was severely undermined by this panic.


Serious growers did not panic. They knew the possibilities of a commercial market and focused their resources on retaining their breeding stock while systematically reducing their production stock to what the market would bear. As the panic progressed, even some seasoned growers divested themselves of their flocks, some because of the decline in the profit rich breeder market, and some for other reasons. This added to the glut of birds and put further drain financially on those growers retaining faith in the birds.


To further exacerbate the situation, panicky growers with questionable ethics, began wholesale releasing of birds into the wild. Some were discovered clubbing their birds on the head or marshalling hunters for a once-in-a-lifetime hunting experience. The publicity from these actions fueled the media and in turn the public's perception that the Emu business was filled with risk, lacked reality and the bottom had dropped out of the market.


Without government research money or active support, a few growers continued the quest for marketable commercial products and to bring the ratite industry forward. Despite the infusion of money and research by other countries to assist their ratite growers in bringing their products into commercialized use, the States and Federal governments relied upon the negativism reported by the media to justify a lack of interest to bring a new specie into commercialized use, and permit America's farmers a means of bring profit back to the small family farm.


Associations and trade groups were formed during the speculative and high dollar years. Meetings were held, conventions extolled the upcoming commercial markets, and some minor research into the birds and their potential commercial uses was funded. At one point in time more than 20 groups were active with over 9,000 members. Under the auspices of some of these groups and companies, several universities performed research on the technical aspects of ratites. Among then were Auburn University, Iowa State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, University of Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Mississippi State, University of Missouri, Georgia State and Louisiana State. Many of these universities continue research even today.


The raising of ratites is viewed as an alternative to the raising of crops and other traditional livestock. It comes at a time when family farm profits from traditional sources is declining to all time lows and diversification offers the only visible hope for the small family farm. Successful commercialization of the Emu and Ostrich markets offers a significant hope for these farm families. But commercialization is not an overnight process.

Commercialization will progress in due course. With governmental assistance it would grow more rapidly, but even without it, the markets will still grow. With this growth will come tremendous opportunities for growers, large and small, especially if they can learn to work together.


Legislatures in many states now recognize ratites as livestock on par with other species. USDA now considers providing subsidized loans and promoting low cost loan programs for new or existing farmers to encourage participation in alternative agricultural.


With the ridiculously high livestock prices of the early '90's, development of a commercial meat, hide, oil, feather or by-product market was prohibited by prices. With the market value of the collective commodities being far less that the value of an animal sold as a "breeder", both supply and product pricing prevented much market penetration of the products as they were developed.


The in-fighting and inability to work together has led to the decline in ratite association membership and the reciprocal decline in monies available for research and promotion of these new industries.  With the lack of confidence generated by the association members inability to put aside petty differences and self-aggrandizement, new participants are difficult to recruit and investment money is subject to perceived risk beyond that offered by other investment possibilities.


The consolidation of meat processing facilities and closure of many small processors has led to a shortage of inspected processing available to those growers actively developing commercial markets. Without the ability to create adequate supplies to meet commercial user needs and requirements, the current markets will continue to develop as niche markets supporting those developing them.


Until enough investor money, venture capital or governmental development funds are allocated to support product development and market penetration for ratite products, the growth will continue at a steady but measured pace. The outlook for the venture capitalist is rosy. With the published and patented applications for ratite products, the consumer acceptance that has been proven to date, and the potential uses not yet publicly disclosed, double-digit profits are not a dream but a reality for the astute investor.





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