Geri Johnson just sent 15 pounds of lean meat to a family in Nebraska who wanted something a little different on their Thanksgiving table this year.
Unfortunately for Johnson, emu steaks are a little too different for most Americans.
Ten years ago, this flightless, chubby bird that grows as tall as 6 feet was billed as America's next red meat. Its flesh is a nutritionist's dream — it's lean, low in cholesterol and high in iron and vitamin C. Emu connoisseurs attest the bird tastes like a fine filet mignon.
But Americans just haven't taken a liking to it, and American emu farmers like Johnson are struggling to sell their steaks.
"My own brother says it tastes awesome, but he can't get past the mindset," said Johnson, who tends to about 50 of the birds with her husband at their farm in Gill, Mass. "There are people who are just can't feel comfortable eating something besides pork, beef or chicken."
A Tough Business
The emu is native to Australia, where scientists believe it began roaming the Outback some 80 million years ago. The birds were originally imported to the United States as breeding stock for zoos, but a 1960 exportation ban in Australia has since barred emus from crossing the border.
Emu farming from those original zoo stocks first took off in the United States during the late 1980s, and quickly became the fastest-growing segment of alternative agriculture. By the mid-1990s, emu farms from New England to Texas to Montana to California hosted packed, busy pens of the tall, fence-pacing birds.
But selling emu meat is tough business since one bird only yields about 30 pounds of boneless meat (a cow can yield about 550 pounds of meat). By the time she ships her birds for processing and then forwards the meat to customers, Johnson says she often ends up spending more than she earns.
The low-yield problem, coupled with the "yuck" factor among many Americans, led to a shakedown in the emu meat business. Today, membership in the American Emu Association has dropped from about 5,500 in 1992 to about 1,000 today, according to Margaret Pounder, executive officer of the group.
Still, Pounder points out the American emu business is not all bad news. Americans might not want to eat emu, but they seem quite willing to rub it into their skin.
Oil: The Emu’s ‘Golden Egg’
Pounder reports that revenue from American emu farms doubled in the past year from $15 million to $30 million. At least 80 percent of those sales, she says, came from emu oil products.
Emu oil has been shown to relieve arthritis pain, muscle soreness and joint stiffness. It penetrates the skin very effectively and is widely added to beauty skin products such as face and body moisturizers and cosmetics (the ingredient is often listed as "kalaya oil" — kalaya means "emu" in an Aboriginal language.)
It's also used in shampoos and conditioners and has proven to be an effective anti-wrinkle cream.
"We're growing in leaps and bounds," says Don Collins about his emu oil product company, Laid-in-Montana.
Once he refines his products' packaging and penetrates new markets throughout the country, Collins anticipates his business to reach $1 million in sales within the next three years.
Rendering oil from an emu also offers a more efficient yield. One 14- to 16-month-old emu carries about 24 pounds of fat, which can be processed into 2 gallons of oil. Emu oil can sell for about $7 to $8 per ounce, according to Pounder. In the right product and packaging, it sells for as much as $20 per ounce.
Eggs ’n’ Emu for Breakfast
Of course, the more emu oil farmers produce, the more emu meat they'll have to sell. So Pounder and others are exploring new ways to market the lean meat. Emu sausages and jerky, she says, could be the answer.
"Emu sausages have all the taste, but are low-fat and low-calorie," she said. "We think there's a strong market for it."
Pounder says at least one hospital in Nashville, Tenn., has already begun serving the sausages to their patients as a healthier alternative to pork.
Johnson, meanwhile, says she's finding emu converts one at a time. Her doctor started buying emu steaks from her farm after he noticed how the meat helped lower Johnson's and her husband's cholesterol levels.
"We're going to stick with it — even if it's to keep supplying our family and friends," said Johnson. "It's just a business that's going to take more time and patience than we all thought."