Fred Bias bought a pair of emus six years ago, hoping to breed the large, flightless birds on his Southern Maryland farm and cash in on what he thought would be a ready demand for the exotic Australian creature's lean, red meat and oil.
He assumed that as state and national industry groups got the word out, the orders would come rolling in from U.S. supermarkets and restaurants, eager for the meat. Health and beauty companies would clamor for the oil.
But so far, Bias's emus have been a losing proposition: After pouring $40,000 into fencing, electricity, incubators and other equipment for his Charles County emu farm, he has not been able to sell the meat to restaurants and supermarkets. Bias, a program manager at the Federal Aviation Administration, sells emu steaks and emu burgers to friends and co-workers at prices that don't cover his costs, he said. Half of the meat sits unwanted in a freezer.
Bias said most emu farmers wrongly assumed that the meat would be so sought after that the birds would sell themselves. So he is working on a plan to carve out a niche for his birds and, eventually, make money: emu hot dogs, which he'd like to sell to the Charles County public schools.
"Charles County schools alone could use up all the emus we have in Maryland," he said. "If this doesn't work, we're out of business."
Since the height of the emu craze in the early 1990s, few U.S. investors have made a profit from their gamble. Like Bias, many of the approximately 150 emu farmers left in Maryland and Virginia are struggling. But those who remain are focusing on making the transition from naive investors to profit-making marketers.
The Virginia Emu Marketing Cooperative, formed two years ago, is buying emu meat from member farmers at $3 a pound and making it into meat sticks for sale in Virginia convenience stores. The co-op plans to produce a summer sausage, a kielbasa and possibly a jerky and is looking for a distributor to market the products more widely.
The Maryland Emu Association--a support group with about 20 members, about half the membership it boasted a few years ago, according to Bias--is making plans to package and sell members' emu meat under one label. And individual farmers such as Manassas resident Anne Geller have contracted with small laboratories to produce products for niche markets such as health and cosmetics stores.
Geller, who paid $25,000 for her first pair of emus at the height of the craze, finally expects to turn a profit in the next year, after shifting her focus from meat--which she sells to gourmet stores and restaurants--to a new line of emu oil products, including lip balm, moisturizer, soap, massage oil and gel caps.
"Someone came in to buy a bottle of emu oil the other day and walked out spending $52," she said. "Being a retailer--that's what it's all about."
Many emu farmers see their future in attractively packaged emu oil moisturizers and massage oils, and in meat sticks, sausage and "bird dogs."
Alexandra Hall, an Eastern Shore emu farmer, has only one product--pure emu oil. But she has focused intensively on her product marketing, aiming her Web site at men with "workman's hands." She calls her line, Outback Medic, "survival gear for skin" and decorates bottles with a medical cross in camouflage.
Although emu farmers see a variety of paths to profitability, marketing experts say such small-time producers face an uphill battle.
"The thought of eating a gangly bird like that, that doesn't appeal to me as something I've got to go out and buy, said Robert McMath, president of the New Products Showcase and Learning Center in Ithaca, N.Y. "The oil is a challenge, too. There's people who don't want their products tested on animals, and they're not going to want a product with animal in it."
"You've got to get an Elizabeth Arden or a Proctor & Gamble or one of the major companies with deep pockets to put out your product," McMath said. "Even then it's going to take a long time to grow."
William Edwards, head of California-based Dermalay, a publicly traded emu oil products company, said his firm expects $16 million in profits next year largely because it has kept its product line small and targeted its marketing efforts.
In addition to plain emu oil, Dermalay offers an anti-inflammatory lotion for sore muscles and joints called "Powerheat" and a body cream for dry skin, eczema and burns.
Sold nationwide to health and drug stores by U.S. Health Distributors, its products are available to consumers by catalogue sales as well. Edwards expects that Dermalay will soon land deals with television shopping networks and large cosmetics and health product companies.
Geller said emu products' greatest market potential is with the medical industry. She recently scheduled a demonstration of emu oil's burn care potential to Prince William Hospital and has sold her product to individual doctors for eczema treatments.
She expects that health care professionals will increasingly turn to emu oil for a wide variety of uses, including as nutritional supplements that contain 29 essential fatty acids, Geller said.
Emu farmers also are looking at ways to streamline their work, pushing legislation to make USDA inspection of emu meat mandatory, so that farmers would not have to pay for the inspection. Such a change could shave $1 or so off the cost of every pound of meat.
Although such new ways of thinking have enlivened emu farmers' business prospects, patience and faith are still the forces that keep them going.
"If I think about where we could be financially if we hadn't gotten into the emu market, it just about makes me sick," Geller said. "Still, I keep coming back to my gut feeling, that emus have so much to offer."
Emu: The Other Red Meat
Emu farmers are waiting for their product to catch on with consumers. Emu meat is similar in taste and texture to lean beef, but lower in cholesterol, fat, and calories and higher in iron and protein. Emu oil has multiple uses.
Analysis Emu Beef Turkey Chicken
Protein 23 g 19.9 g 22.3 g 23.1 g
Calories 120 225 104 110
Sodium 40 mg 55 mg 61 mg 65 mg
Iron 4.5 mg 2.1 mg 1.4 mg 0.7 mg
Cholesterol 45 mg 65 mg 73 mg 64 mg
Fat 3 g 15.6 g 1.6 g 1.2 g
Saturated fat 1 g 7.2 g 0.7 g 0.3 g
Physical characteristics: Flightless bird with brown-black feathers.
Height: Up to six feet tall.
Weight: Can weigh up to 110 pounds.
Habitat: Indigenous to semi-arid plains of Australia.
Diet: Berries, fruit, grain, grasses, insects.
Reproduction: Female will usually lay a clutch of nine to 20 dark green eggs, which are incubated by the male for about 60 days. Eggs are 5.5 inches and weigh 1.5 pounds. When hatched , the chicks are 14 inches tall. The male feeds and protects the chicks for about 7 months.
Lifespan in the wild: Five to 10 years.
Speed: Can reach a ground speed of 30 mph; also are good swimmers.
Emu oil has diverse applications, including cosmetics, soaps and shampoos. Emu oil also has medicinal purposes as an anti-inflammatory that can reduce swelling and stiffness in joints, bruising and muscle pain.
SOURCE: American Emu Association
CAPTION: Some emu farmers assumed that the meat would be so sought after that the flightless birds would sell themselves.