Farmers look for a nest egg from the other red meat

by Mike Gibson

The little wooden sign that hangs from Ron and Jeri Mikesell's Madisonville mailbox sports some pretty puzzling iconography, a delicately hewn bit of exotica that seems wholly out of place in this drowsy agricultural stronghold of bucolic East Tennessee.

The lower right corner of the oaken plaque is familiar enough, engraved as it is with a tiny bovine figure. The opposite corner, however, is etched with some billowing plumed monstrosity, a large, land-locked foul with the legs of an ostrich, the neck of a crane, and the body of an overgrown peacock. Hardly the stuff of Old McDonald's fabled farm.

But the Mikesells and a handful of other nouveau agrarians are writing their own page in the farmer's almanac; the couple's Smoky Valley Ranch is home to more than 200 emus—tall, vaguely ostrich-like birds indigineous to Australia. And Ron is president of Suppliers Cooperative for Ostrich, Rhea, and Emu (SCORE), a fledgling collective of 21 East Tennessee farmers who breed the aforementioned large, flightless foul (the Rhea is a South American species, slightly smaller than the emu) for their low-fat meat as well as a host of fascinating byproducts.

"Our society has heart troubles and clogged arteries and all kinds of troubles because of our eating style; we need something to take the place of beef in our diets," Jeri insists. All three species produce red meat, she points out, a distinction that lends the resulting steaks, ground patties, and sausages a full, beef-like flavor despite a significantly reduced fat and cholesterol quotient.

The Mikesells entered the big bird business in 1994 when they purchased their Madisonville spread and bought a pair of breeder birds from another area farmer. Today, the duo have a handful of permanently-paired breeder "couples"—Fred and Ginger, Heidi and Hackett, Fester and Arnie, and Frank and Kathie Lee—and dozens of chicks and full-grown "slaughter birds" spread across a labyrinthine grid of chain-link fences and faceless shacks in the rolling, scrubby pastureland behind their home. "We've got 200 birds on 10 acres," says Ron, a short, greying mid-50ish gent with a perpetual grin on his broad, cheeky face. "Try getting that kind of ratio with cattle."

Unlike their homely ostrich brethern, emus are comely creatures, possessed of an awkward, off-beat elegance—like the shy beauty with horn-rim glasses and big feet. Measuring between five and six feet in height, the adult birds prop enormous, regal tufts of damp feathers on their rounded trunks, and their improbably long necks are brush-stroked on either side with irridescent baby blue streaks.

Grazing languorously in the full heat of day, they emit a guttural, percussive series of hoots and clucks—rumbling, bassy grunts much akin to the sound of bubbles rising from the depths of a large tank. "The females make more of a drumming sound; the males just sort of grunt," explains Jeri.

According to one estimate, there are between 50 and 100 ostrich/emu/rhea farms in East Tennessee, and even more in the middle portion of the state. "It stems from the mid-'80s, when ostrich first became an intriguing idea in the United States," says Vince Keller, a local distribution agent for a sanitary supply company.

Fascinated by a quirky pair of hayseed farmers who extolled the virtues of bird farming on an episode of Late Night With David Letterman, Keller bought two ostriches in 1990 and eventually moved to his own farm, with eight pairs of breeders among 80 birds, before selling off the creatures in 1995. "It had grown from a hobby to an enterprise, and my business career had taken off by then," he says of his exit from breeding.

"It's something that had been a big market in South Africa for 150 years," says Keller, a Harvard grad. "The idea here was, 'We can beat out South Africa agriculturally.' You can just imagine how this spread at some of these trade shows, with these old farmers giving these talks and convincing people to buy a couple of birds."

What makes the animals attractive to potential breeders is a combination of scale economics and product versatility. Requiring only a fraction of the grazing space of cattle, the birds are easily—and cheaply—fed and tended (although the massive ostriches are ornery, petulant beasts when compared to their smaller, gentler cousins). And breeder couples from either species can produce dozens of eggs in a season. "It doesn't take long to be up to your ears in ostriches," says Keller.

In addition to providing health-concious consumers with a viable beef alternative, the "harvested" bird parts can be transformed into a host of corollary products; Keller notes that ostrich skin is the source of the world's second most durable leather (behind elephant hide).

At roughly the size of an especially large human fist, emu eggs taste much like ordinary chicken eggs, only with several times the yield; a single bright green egg provides enough yolk for two good-sized quiches. Emu fat, on the other hand, is removed at the slaughterhouse and processed for its oil, which is then sold by breeders as a sort of cure-all elixir, a wondrously versatile nostrum believed to mitigate dozens of ills ranging from bursitis to melanoma. "If you just want to breed for meat, you're probably better off with ostrich," says Jeri. "But right now, the oil is selling better than the meat."

"It [ostrich] is very popular among our customers who like fish and low-fat products—the health-concious set," says George Bailey of Butler and Bailey Market, an upscale supermarket in the Rocky Hill Center. "We started carrying it a couple of years ago when some of the better restaurants started serving it. We immediately got a few calls from our clientele. It's not like handling T-bone steaks, but it has been a plus for us."

Even though delicacies like ostrich steaks and burgers are available locally in upscale restaurants such as The Orangery, Regas, and Oak Ridge's Buffalo Grill, the future of the industry in East Tennessee is still much in doubt. Johnny Sunderland, a Chattanooga pipefitter who bought four emus three years ago in hopes of starting his own farm, says the birds he paid more than $200 apiece for in 1995 now sell for less than a quarter of that price.

"I really don't see it having a lot of future around here," he says. "The year after we bought 'em, the bottom just fell out. Never did sell a one of 'em."

"I think they [the farmers] will have difficulty going from a novelty to a legitimate industry—lining up packaging, marketing, etc.," says Keller. "The industry is having some growing pains, and lots of these farmers have lost money because they didn't understand what they were getting into. How will they find distribution? And where?"

Sonny Culver, president of Delozier Sausage Company, is at a loss to explain the stifling inertia that has kept the ostrich/rhea/emu industry from achieving the success it found overseas and in the southwestern United States (ostrich farms are reportedly big business in Texas). Since last year, Culver's Seymour-based company has handled the often-turbulent task ("The ostriches are very obstinate, and they're rather proficient martial artists") of slaughtering and packaging ostriches for several East Tennessee breeders.

"I can't understand why the industry isn't growing faster than it is," Culver says. "It's amazing the number of people who say, 'No, I wouldn't want to eat that.' But yet they eat pigs, which are certainly a lot dirtier creatures. We've handled as many as 1,000 birds a month at times, but other times the well is just dry. It's been a feast or famine situation."

But the Mikesells believe the local industry is still in its infancy, and that any shortcomings are more indicative of less-than-effective marketing strategies than a lack of product potential. The year-old SCORE has only recently begun to utilize its collected resources for the benefit of its constituents—contracting en masse with distributors, finding out-of-state processors to distill oil and other byproducts, selling through co-ops and other special markets.

"We're just getting started on a lot of this stuff," says Ron. "You might say our markets are still pending. We're moving some birds, but not as many as we'd like to be. We're kind of waiting for it to go big on us. But up to now, everyone has been basically selling their own products and looking for distributors on their own."

As he speaks, Ginger, the proudest and most striking of the breeder birds with her resplendent, flaring wings and extraordinarily vibrant blue neck finery, prances deliberately along the fence behind Mikesell and punctuates his every sentence with a throaty, low-pitched exclamation point. Her owner laughs, reaches across the chain links, and lightly strokes the back of her tiny, delicately curved skull. "And heck, we're at the point now where we just enjoy having 'em around."