Farmers talking turkey about raising the emu Mount Airy couple hopes unusual fowl will be a hit

January 12, 1996|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

"Emu-burgers" aren't on the menu at McDonald's yet, but Diana Beuchert is convinced they will be. And she's doing everything she can to help put them there.

The Mount Airy woman tends a flock of 92 emus on her farm, and expects to make a comfortable living from the large flightless birds within the next few years.

She's waiting for America to discover the charms of the emu. The bird, Mrs. Beuchert says, has low-fat, low-cholesterol meat, and oil that can be used in shampoos and cosmetics.

"Public awareness is slowly creeping up, but we're still on the crest of the wave," she said. "It hasn't crashed down yet."

Mrs. Beuchert and her husband, Fred, paid $11,000 two years ago for Big Bird and Elvira, their first emu breeding pair. They continued to acquire birds, and last winter the emus reproduced.

Now, the Beucherts have 72 baby emus that they are raising for slaughter in the spring.

The couple plans to sell the birds for $500 a head to Emu Marketing Unlimited (EMU), a Texas-based cooperative of emu farmers across the United States. EMU markets emu products to restaurants, grocery stores and cosmetic companies.

The cooperative's membership is growing rapidly, from 420 to 1,600 member-farmers in the past year, said Jennifer Jennings, a secretary with EMU.

The Beucherts and other emu farmers are waiting for a nationally known company, such as Perdue Farms or Revlon, to sell emu fillets or moisturizers made with emu oil.

"The cooperative is trying to land a big contract with a household-name company," Mrs. Beuchert said. "Once that happens, the prices [of emu livestock] are going to skyrocket."

Only restaurants on the culinary cutting edge are experimenting with emu meat, which promoters say compares in taste to sirloin and veal. The Polo Grill in Baltimore and Stone Manor Inn in Middleton offer emu dishes on their menus, Mrs. Beuchert said.

Emu cosmetic products are available only on a small scale. EMU has introduced the "Dream Collection," which includes moisturizer, shampoo and soap made with emu oil.

A brochure for the emu cosmetic products says the soap is "in the shape and color of an emu egg," -- emerald green and about the size of a softball. It costs $3.25 a bar.

EMU sells purses, wallets and belts made from emu hide and markets pure emu oil as an anti-inflammatory rub for muscle aches or arthritis.

"The [emu] oil is probably what's going to take this industry to the top," Ms. Jennings said.

Emu farming started in this country about three years ago. Farmers with small tracts of land became interested in raising the birds as livestock because they don't require many acres. The Beucherts' emus live on 3 acres of their 14-acre horse farm.

In 1992, an emu breeding pair sold for as much as $18,000. Now the two birds go for between $2,000 and $3,000. The Beucherts said they expected the drop in price, but some emu farmers panicked and got out of the business.

"The prices were so artificially high and some people have become disgruntled because the prices are so low now," Mrs. Beuchert said.

She said the inflated emu prices are comparable to the beginnings of the turkey industry, when in 1929 a pair of turkeys cost $3,500.

The Beucherts, who have invested about $40,000 in their emu operation, are optimistic about the future of the industry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in November that emu slaughterhouses can hire food-safety workers to inspect the birds and give them the USDA stamp of approval.

"It lends credibility to the product," Mrs. Beuchert said. "It's not some off-the-wall, obscure meat."

The Beucherts expect to make about $36,000 this year from the sale of their chicks.

"What we need to do as an industry is go from small time to big time," Mrs. Beuchert said. "We're here to stay."

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