Emu ranching exploded on to the agriculture scene in the late 1980s, but most of those endeavors failed. Now, only two ranches remain in Montana, and they are thriving.
Story by Molly Priddy | Photography by Sally Finneran
It sounded like a muted bongo drum, the thud-thud-thud working its way up a snowy hill at one of the last remaining emu ranches in Montana.
More drums joined in, making the fields seem like an unsynchronized attempt to get a dance party started. A quick glance down the hill for the source of the noise revealed what looked to be giant wigs on legs walking and leaping around a series of lean-tos and barns, but no drummers on parade.
Then again, very little about emus is as it appears.
“Those are the hens,” Don Collins, owner and operator at Montana Emu Ranch near Kila, said of the drumming as he made his way toward the primitive, fence-running birds. “The males sound more like they’re grunting.”
Collins has the matter-of-fact tone of someone who has spent years getting to know these creatures, which used to run and dance on thousands of ranches stretching from Texas to Canada during the emu boom years of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Emus were considered the next red meat craze in the United States, with the rotund birds providing a good source of lean meat, as well as fat deposits from which to derive oil products of all sorts. They were originally imported from their native Australia as breeding pairs for American zoos in the 1950s, with farming catching on in the late 80s.
But many emu ranches have since gone the way of the dodo. According to the American Emu Association, there were roughly 5,500 member ranches in 1992. About 1,000 remain today.
At Collins’ ranch, the birds are bred and slaughtered for their meat and oil. The oil is prized for its healing properties, especially for burn victims, since it’s an effective transdermal carrier of Vitamin E and various omega oils. Collins and his wife Penni have been in the emu business since 1992, when they started on a modest piece of land off Whitefish Stage.
Originally, the couple thought they could sell the birds live to others hoping to get into the business. It was a wild market at the time, with breeding pairs going for $45,000, but there was little in the way of producer cooperatives to help with the market for the emu oil products, Collins said.
“If you had a chick with a heartbeat, it was worth $5,000,” he said.
They realized their survival would depend on establishing and marketing their own value-added products. By 1998, they had 200 emus on 4 acres and were selling their oil creations, starting with the Made in Montana show in Great Falls. A trade show for health products in Seattle in October 1998 changed the business’ trajectory when they attracted a broker who landed them distribution in 250 stores in the Northwest U.S. The Collinses expanded to their current ranch in 2000, turning the red barn into a sterile lab and packaging facility.
Now, Montana Emu Ranch products, ranging from hand crèmes and facial moisturizers to the EmuGency line of aid for cuts and burns, can be found in more than 2,000 stores nationwide. The couple also gets a pretty penny for the emu eggs they don’t hatch: One egg fetches $5 and is equal in size to eight to 10 chicken eggs.
Emus are still a viable business, with $30 million in sales in emu products across the country over the last year, according to a report from ABC News, with the lion’s share of that in oil products.
Joe and Clover Quinn of Wild Rose Emu Ranch in Hamilton have been in the bird business for 21 years, joining when the craze was starting to die out. That $45,000 breeder pair in 1993 dropped to $25,000 by 1995, Clover Quinn said, and then to $1,000 by the time they got in the business in 1996.
“A year later, there were free birds in every state in the union,” Quinn said. “The breeder market collapsed. Nobody had marketed the products. They were raising them to sell them for thousands of dollars.”
The Quinns started with four pairs of yearlings and four chicks, and didn’t have product for two-and-a-half years. But after their oils caught on for skin care, they soon had more than 1,200 customers. She even went to Russia to teach emu cultivation.
“We learned immediately that if we didn’t educate and market the product, there was no point in going into the market,” Quinn said. “When we got in the business, there were about 150 people hoping to turn it into a business. Then the numbers dwindled radically right from the start.”
As far as Quinn knows, Collins is the only other ranch in Montana still raising the birds, though there has been rumor of a new startup.
“There are others who have one or two or perhaps a handful of emus that we don’t know of, but most of them have gotten rid of their birds over the past 21 years,” Quinn said.
Montana Department of Livestock Meat Inspection Bureau Chief Gary Hamel said his department only has one fully inspected meat-processing plant that still does emu, and it’s Lower Valley Processing in Kalispell. According to stats from the department, in 2013, there were 204 emus processed there, followed by a major increase in 2016, which saw 331 birds processed.
Quinn said they take their birds there for processing, and even with the 200-mile trip one way, the work Lower Valley does is worth it.
Emu meat is red like beef, and Quinn describes it as dark and lean, like filet mignon. Quinn, who is now in her 70s, said she’s seen a spark in emu ranching among younger people and hopes it catches on. Forty farmers from Pennsylvania are visiting in June to learn about it, and the ranch puts on 100 tours a year.
But in the meantime, their lives were gearing up to revolve around the hatchlings.
“It really is the best time,” Quinn said.
The birds themselves are very primitive, evolving little in the last 80 million years. At about 100 pounds when grown, emus have heads the size of baseballs, and their eyes outweigh their brains.
“They are operating on instinct, but their persistency is amazing,” Collins said.
At the ranch, the emus’ feet, which would look right at home in “Jurassic Park,” left huge prints in the snow as Collins and his team worked to plow the pens. Soon, it would be time for the dozens of massive, green eggs in the incubators to hatch. The eggs resemble large avocados in their natural camouflage, and in the wild, the roosters would be responsible for hatching them, not the hens.
Collins herded the skittish creatures by whistling and moving slowly, and the yearlings responded with leaps and dances. These birds might end up in breeding pairs, or they’ll grow into the right size to be sent to Lower Valley. It’s a quick cycle of life here, with about 15 months from birth to processing.
Ever present in the background, the females continued to drum.