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The $10,000 ostrich: real business or flightless fancy?

FIVE YEARS AGO WHEN HER HUSBAND NORM CAME HOME WITH $20,000 worth of live ostriches, Trudy Hemstad laughed at him. Not any more. Now the two are at the forefront of an industry they think provides a great opportunity for rural diversification. And they hope you'll learn to crave the taste of roast ostrich, although at this point there's little ostrich available to eat. The big birds are so valuable as breeding stock, they rarely get served up on plates.

But recently the Hemstads were able to provide a rare opportunity for a taste of ostrich. One of their 18-month-old male birds broke a tendon in its leg. Like a racehorse, the bird was worth a lot of money alive -- about $10,000 to be exact -- and just like a racehorse, it had to be destroyed. Instead of crying over the loss at the Blue Moon Ostrich Farm, the couple decided to throw a promotional party.

They rented a banquet room at the Victoria Inn in Brandon for an ostrich-tasting event, designed to attract the media. Invitations were sent out to about 30 ostrich producers in the province and, of course, the mass media. Alice Krueger, food editor of the Winnipeg Free Press had made the 2 1/2-hour trip, as had Manitoba BUSINESS Magazine.

To stage an event like this, the Hemstads had to have the ostrich processed in a government-inspected meat plant. Stan Cochrane of Country Side Meats in Kenton says this was the largest bird ever done in Manitoba. Cochrane says he was glad the bird was down and couldn't walk or kick because its six-inch claws can rip open anything that threatens it. Weighing in at nearly 115 kilograms, it dressed out at just under 50. Special care had to be taken with the skin. With boots made from this luxury leather selling at $800 a pair, Cochrane says, "We didn't want to damage the skin."

On the evening of the tasting the banquet room was alive with anticipation. Three times the number of people expected had turned up. Many of the producers and those looking to get into the industry had driven more than 350 kilometres to sample the bird. When they got a chance to do so, most thought the meat tasted similar to beef. That may have been because the roast ostrich looked and sliced like roast beef. Even Krueger declared, "If I had my eyes closed, I would have said it was a very mild roast beef." Only forks were provided at the buffet table, but knives turned out to be unnecessary anyway, the meat was so tender.

Wearing a tiny gold ostrich pendant, Trudy Hemstad circulated among the guests encouraging them to have a close look at some of the valuable by-products. Three beautiful feather jackets, one white, one black, and one, a smokey blend of grey, hung on one wall. She had looked after every detail of this marketing event, from draping the walls with batik fabrics displaying the big birds, to making sure guests signed the register with an ostrich feather pen.

Trudy believes the key to the success of this industry is promotion. "It's an exciting new business; I think it's a great idea for rural diversification; it's a great way of perhaps changing some of our ideas about agriculture and what we can do in the province of Manitoba," she says. Norm's been a livestock specialist with the Manitoba department of agriculture for more than 20 years and he is also excited by the prospects for farmers. "The enthusiasm of the producers is very refreshing," he says.

Using a table, he compares the ostrich industry profits to those of the beef industry. Even with the slightly higher input costs, he predicts that in a three-year period an ostrich producer could net $115,000 compared to $17,500 for a beef producer. But he quickly adds that this does not threaten the viability of the beef industry in any way. "In Canada, in order to get one per cent of the beef market, we would have to kill six million ostriches," he says, "and that just isn't ever going to happen."

Norm Hemstad also predicts it could take seven to 10 years for the meat to be available, and maybe even then, only as a gourmet item. Right now the demand for the breeding stock is so great, producers are pushing to be able to import African birds. With breeding pairs costing about $20,000, and this kind of demand, there's no doubt money can be made. But for how long? Some remember the promise of the Ilama industry in Saskatchewan, until the bottom fell out when no meat market developed. That's why the Hemstads believe events like this opportunity to taste ostrich are important as a first step towards building that market.

Susan Proven is a freelance writer living near Brandon.
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Title Annotation:Marketing; ostrich industry, Manitoba
Author:Proven, Susan
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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