Lou Walker quit school after the eighth grade and worked as a clerk at Safeway for 23 years. He also assembled a real estate investment portfolio of 13 rental houses in central Fauquier County and, after retiring 18 years ago at age 50, dabbled in the race horse business and ran a variety of businesses on his 30-acre farm on Turkey Run Road outside Warrenton.
One of the most unusual enterprises is the Hide Away Emu Ranch that Walker founded nine years ago after his wife, Shirley, saw two baby birds while on vacation in Georgia and fell in love with them.
"The babies were so cute and cuddly, I just had to have them," she said.
Walker, 68, said his wife wanted to buy the emus and bring them home. But first he bought some books and went on the Internet to learn everything he could about the flightless bird, a native of Australia that is related to and resembles the ostrich. He subscribed to the trade magazine Emu Today and Tomorrow.
He discovered that every part of an emu is usable -- and profitable -- from the low-fat meat to its eggs, skin, feathers and oil, and he calculated the cost and return on the birds and equipment.
So Walker, who aptly describes himself as "high energy," entered the emu industry, one of the first farmers in the area to do so. He paid $4,500 for his first 38 birds: eight 2-year-olds for breeding and 30 yearlings for laying eggs. He spent an additional $30,000 on incubators and other equipment. Before Walker knew it, he was knee-deep in emu eggs. The birds begin laying eggs in October and produce one egg every three to five days for four to five months. At one point, Walker had 400 emus. He's now down to 46 birds until they begin laying eggs again in October.
Walker said he expected it would take about two years to make a profit. The emu business pays for itself, he said, although "the profit is small."
There are three other emu farms in Fauquier and one in Loudoun County.
"A lot of the others who tried it are no longer in the business," Walker said. "A lot of people bought them and thought they would sell them in pairs for $8,000 to $10,000, and the market dried up at those prices as more and more people started to breed the birds and there were plenty around. I got into it to raise them and sell the product, not the birds, and that's why I am still in it."
Emu chicks grow quickly. By the age of 18 months, they weigh 85 to 100 pounds, and Walker loads them on a truck and drives four hours to an Agriculture Department-approved facility in Somerset, Pa., to have them butchered. Emus can grow as tall as 6 feet and live to 30.
Each bird will yield about 37 pounds of meat. Walker sells the ground meat to customers who come to his farm for $2.50 a pound and steaks for $10 a pound. Although classified as poultry, emu meat resembles beef in taste, appearance and consistency. A 3.5-ounce serving of emu has 28.3 grams of protein; the same portion of beef has 25 grams. The American Heart Association recognizes low-cholesterol emu as a heart-healthy red meat.
The greenish-blue eggs, which are eight times the size of a chicken egg, can be used for cooking or craft projects or even fashioned into miniature purses. Emus also produce six to eight square feet of leather for use as boots, shoes, belts and handbags. They have nine kinds of feathers -- some smooth and silky, others wiry, some brown or black but mostly gray -- that can be used in hats, clothing and on fly fishing lures.
In addition, each bird produces 14 to 18 pounds of fat, which translates to five quarts of oil. The odorless oil is popular for use on burns, muscle aches, eczema and sore joints. According to the American Emu Association, "Emu oil as a topical moisturizer and tissue nutrient helps aging skin have the ability to reverse dryness and scaling."
"My hands used to look like a mechanic's," Walker said, holding out his callus-free hands. He recently started selling emu oil at the local racetracks for horses with skin conditions.
The oil is sold for $400 a gallon, and if it is sold in smaller bottles, Walker can make as much as $650 a gallon.
As more people try the emu oil and products, the business will grow, Shirley Walker said. "We have chiropractors and massage therapists who order the oil and people from out of state who call to buy it."