Archive for Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Flightless fare

Emu flock provides friendship, livelihood for Lawrence woman

Ann Merkel gets cozy with Sampson the emu, one half of seven breeding pairs at her Sundance Emu Ranch east of Lawrence. While many speculators got out of the emu industry in the early 1990s, Merkel continues to raise the birds for meat and oil.

Ann Merkel gets cozy with Sampson the emu, one half of seven breeding pairs at her Sundance Emu Ranch east of Lawrence. While many speculators got out of the emu industry in the early 1990s, Merkel continues to raise the birds for meat and oil.

May 23, 2007


Ann Merkel started raising emus because they're so ugly only their mothers could love them.

"I thought I wouldn't get attached," Merkel says. "But I forgot I was going to be their mother."

Merkel has stuck by her emus through the years, even when many investors bailed on the big birds.

She's owner of Sundance Emu Ranch east of Lawrence, which raises emus both for meat and oil made from the birds' fat, which advocates say contains healing properties for skin wounds.

Merkel, 67, says a market is slowly building for emu products.

"We're not going in the hole like we were for years," she says. "People are finally figuring out what it is. I think it can be a money-maker for us."

Emu boom

Many speculators thought that would be the case in the early 1990s.

The buzz was that emus were the next big investment opportunities, and that drove up prices significantly. By 1994 or so, the hype was dying down, prices dropped and a lot of investors lost a lot of money.

That was around the time Merkel got interested in the birds. She had 80 acres and wanted to raise something, and she knew she couldn't raise many cattle on that size of land.

So she turned to emus. At one point, she had 150 of the flightless birds, though now she's scaled back to 72, including seven breeding pairs.

Today, there are about 5,000 emu ranches in Kansas, according to the American Emu Association.

Healthy alternative

The meat, Merkel says, tastes "pretty much like beef, but there's less fat marbled in." She sells roasts, steak fillets, ground emu and sausage at the Lawrence Farmers Market and a grocery store in Manhattan.

She also has provided meat to some restaurants in the past, including Pachamama's, 800 N.H. It was so popular there, she sold out, and she had to contact other growers in the area.

"There weren't enough fan fillets in the state," she says of the cut of meat from an emu's inner thigh.

According to USDA data, emu contains about a fourth as much fat as beef.

One of Merkel's customers, Nancy Thellman, says she likes emu because it's a healthy alternative to beef. Her family uses ground emu for tacos.

"It substitutes really well," she says. "I have noticed when you mix up taco meat, I buy lean hamburger but there's still grease at the bottom. I'll fry up the ground emu, and there's very little grease. It truly is noticeably less fatty."

Her family also likes the emu summer sausage.

"It's just fabulous," Thellman says. "All the kids like it."

Other products

Emus lay one egg every three days. Merkel typically hatches them in incubators.

She takes the birds to a processing facility in McPherson when they're around 14 months old. A typical emu at that age stands over 6 feet tall and weighs more than 100 pounds and has around 35 pounds of meat. Most of the bird is used when processed - bones are smoked and turned into dog treats, as are organs, after they're mixed with soy and flour.

Of particular value is the fat, which can be as much as 20 pounds on an emu. Merkel drives containers of the fat to Tennessee for processing into soaps, lotions and other skin-care products. It's good for burns, scrapes and other injuries, she says.

Growing market

Merkel thinks emu ranchers are slowly building a market for their birds.

"Heart doctors have discovered how heart-healthy the meat is," she says. "I think we're going to see more and more interest."

It's a Tuesday afternoon, and Merkel walks out to her pens to check on her birds.

The grown emus make a loud noise that sounds something like a bongo being beaten. The youngsters let out an occasional whistle.

Merkel opens the pen to Sampson and Samantha, a breeding pair. Sampson approaches her and wants attention, rubbing up against her.

"He'd be a lap bird," Merkel says of the 6-foot emu, "if we could figure out how."


introversion 10 years, 11 months ago

Was that really the best photo they could come up with for the top of the article?

amazonratz 10 years, 11 months ago

I'm glad my "mother" didn't raise me for meat and oil.

Jillster 10 years, 11 months ago

An emu bit me once at a zoo. I was able to return the favor a few years later and ate emu at a restaurant. Glad I did,too -- emu is tasty! I may have to go to the Farmer's Market and check this out.

Kevin Sontag 10 years, 11 months ago



Cait McKnelly 10 years, 11 months ago

Back in the mid to late nineties my sister lived in northwest Arkansas. One morning an emu showed up in her backyard. She searched and searched for the owner and eventually had to call the county to come out and pick it up. They took it to animal control where it was destroyed. In the process she found out that many emu ranchers were literally abandoning their flocks. The cost of feeding them had outstripped any financial return they were getting. Animal control told her they were picking up up upwards of ten birds per day.That was ten years ago and I doubt the situation is the same today but it's a bitter lesson that there is no such thing as a "quick buck".

Katie Van Blaricum 10 years, 11 months ago

no kidding, amazonratz! How could you raise something and love it, only to take it to slaughter? I always think it's funny how people say "Jesus is my shepard". Well, what do shepards eventually do to their sheep? They eat them!!! I don't want anyone sheparding me!

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