“It’s a bird, but it tastes like a mammal and cooks like a fish,” Lou Braxton said as he extended a frozen fillet towards me. It’s a line he’s perfected over his four years selling ostrich at the Union Square greenmarket in Manhattan. The cut, no larger than a filet mignon, was dark red—nothing like the white meat I associated with poultry.
“What cut of the animal is this from?” As I asked, a Great Dane trotted into the white tent, pulling his owners at the other end of his leash, to smell an ostrich femur. “That one,” Lou responded, pointing at the two-foot long leg bone.
When I spoke with Alex McCoy, an ostrich farmer in Idaho, on the phone a few days earlier, he had just come in from a long morning of rotating his male ostriches into new pens. “Breeding season,” he said, in a tone that suggested I could commiserate. (As he later explained, the males get agitated during fall’s breeding season, thus they have to be moved until they find the right pen.)
Just three years ago, before Alex and his wife launched their Idaho-based ostrich farm by way of Kickstarter, he was an investment banker. When his job took him to South Africa in 2012, it was the first time he’d ever seen the bird sold as meat. “At one point,” he recalled, “I found myself in a grocery store in the ostrich aisle—just like how there are beef and chicken aisles in the States.” He purchased a steak and immediately fell in love with it: “It’s 97% fat-free and looks and feels like a high-end steak, but it cost me far less,” he said. That economic efficiency and the sustainability of the meat—more on that later—appealed to his business background: “It felt like a secret,” he said.
Back up even more: In the late 19th century, ostriches were raised primarily in Europe and South Africa, but also in a few select farms in California and Arizona, for their leather and feathers. An 1882 New York Times article reported on the ostrich industry's boost from fashion-forward ladies opting for "more feathers on their bonnets." But after World War I, the economy crashed, and with it, the market for luxury ostrich goods. As a result, the industry pivoted to raising the birds as meat, which was sustained by a few niche farmers and buyers in the United States until the the late 1970s to 1990s, when brokers and investors began to see ostrich as a growth industry.
Thirty years ago, Lou told me, ostriches were a secret among American farmers for turning a substantial profit. For those in the know, they represented a golden opportunity. “There are always get-rich-quick crops and herds—at one point it was chinchillas [by some reports, after a Chilean miner brought them to the states in the 1950s], then llamas [largely introduced by William Randolph Hearst’s importations for his private game park in Big Sur],” Lou said, “And in the 1980s, it was all about ostriches.”
At an investment level, the demand for ostrich skyrocketed in the States, even while farmers struggled to create a consumer demand. In the early 1980s, as a recent Modern Farmer piece reported, the market value for a pair of birds was estimated to be between $30,000 and $50,000. What they didn't report is the extent to which these numbers caused the market to collapse: “In the 1990s, there were at least 100,000 birds in the U.S.,” Alex estimated, compared to 20,000 today, “with over $1 billion invested to bring the industry to that state.” Investors would sell birds to farmers for these exorbitant amounts with the promise that the ostrich industry would develop like the beef industry did decades before; and in turn, those farmers would sell the ostriches to other farmers for even more, sort of like an avian Ponzi scheme.
“The people involved in the ostrich boom of the ‘80s and 90s were drawn to this ‘miracle animal’… they started making so much money flipping birds with the promise of future success,” Alex wrote in an email. As a result, more and more farms began popping up in the United States, and it was at the tail-end of this boom that Lou’s neighbor started a farm, too: Roaming Acres (previously Fossil Farms).
The owner of Roaming Acres, Todd Appelbaum, said many people entered the business for the same simple reason he did in 1997: “Ostriches require less land than beef.” While cattle need ample land to graze, Todd said he was able to raise 1500 birds comfortably on just 100 acres of land—one of the reasons for their reputation as a “miracle animal.” The same amount of land, by USDA estimates, is enough to hold maybe 500 cows for a year. Alex McCoy echoed that ostriches require far less land than cows, per pound of meat: “When I did a comparison of the land needed to produce a pound of protein from each animal, I found ostriches only require 2% of the land cattle do,” he told me.
We did the math: A 1995 study by the the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the United Kingdom pointed out that the yield of ostriches sky rockets compared to cows when you also take into consideration their gestation time and years of fertility. While a cow’s pregnancy lasts around 9 months, ostriches, largely due to the fact that they are not mammals, can produce around 40 chicks per year (with 42 days of incubation). The average cow can produce eight calves in her lifetime. Over an ostrich’s fertile life, about 40 years, she has many as 1,600 chicks, which translates to 64 tons of meat, conservatively (full-grown ostriches yield about 80 pounds of retail cuts). If a cow has eight calves, each of which yield roughly 430 pounds of retail cuts, she’ll only yield 1.72 tons, total. As Alex estimated, that’s roughly 2.7% of what an ostrich yields.
Not only that, but ostriches require significantly less water than cattle. Alex said, “They drink less, but also much less water goes into making their food.” A chart on Alex’s website, made from information gathered from the Water Footprint Network, claims that the water footprint of ostriches is roughly a third of cattle’s, per pound of meat.
But the greatest claim Alex made was one that, according to him, is a “monster to believe:” He told me that depending on the report you look at, cows account for 18% to 48% of all greenhouse gas emissions. “The methane gas [cows] produce is really bad stuff,” he said, “but since ostriches are a single-stomach animal, they produce virtually no methane.”
Back at the greenmarket, I purchased the cut of ostrich leg from Lou (they reserve the most tender part of the ostrich, the back or “fan cut,” for chefs because it’s so coveted—it can sell for $35 to $45 per pound), then headed over to another stand, Sun Fed Beef, to buy a comparable cut. I settled on the leanest piece they had (a cut of tenderloin), then headed into the office to sear them both to medium-rare.
Placed side by side, the cuts were difficult to tell apart—a very slight yellow color gave away the ostrich (on the right, in the photo above)—and an informal, blind taste test confirmed that the flavors of the meats were almost indistinguishable. The ostrich was described as having “more flavor,” but six of the seven brave Food52 volunteers who tasted the meats couldn’t tell the difference.
Despite ostrich’s benefits as a more sustainable and leaner alternative to beef, ostrich farmers in the United States have all but vanished. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), by 1992, 95% of ostriches raised for meat were processed in South Africa and as little as 20% of the ostriches that existed in the 1980s exist today. When I asked Alex and Todd how many farms still exist in the States, Alex estimated that there are close to a thousand, most of which have fewer than ten birds. Todd could only name three farms.
This lack of farms seems unprecedented when you take into account the demand for ostrich, at least at a small production level: Lou told me that they sell out early each day and completely run out of ostrich by June or July (the chicks are hatched in the fall). But several obstacles, like misperceptions about ostrich meat and push-back from beef lobbyists, have kept ostrich meat from ever fully taking off, beyond a few farm stands.
Alex, whose own year-old ostrich farm, American Ostrich Farm holds 120-acres just outside of Boise, Idaho, spends a lot of time thinking about the obstacles that have stalled the industry. “The primary issue,” he told me, “goes back to the lack of a vertically integrated industry and supply chain.” To put it in layman’s terms, it's that Todd, the New Jersey farmer, interacts with only three farms, when hundreds more exist. Unlike industries like lamb and meat, which have their own (very powerful) lobbyists, the ostrich industry lacks unity, and therefore lacks the power to grow. As it is now, Alex explained, “It’s too disjointed and disintegrated to be commercially successful.”
As Lou tells it, to understand the disintegration of the ostrich industry, you have to consider the 1980s. “Back when many people were raising ostrich,” he explained, “you had to go to a USDA inspector facility. Most of these were run by independent owners who faced pressure from the beef industry: If they touched ostrich, they wouldn’t see anymore beef coming through.” As a result, according to Lou, several facilities in the southwest—where the majority of ostrich was raised at the time—stopped accepting ostriches. This forced farmers to seek inspection facilities elsewhere.
Many farmers were forced to drive across the country to get their meat inspected, but the problem with this is that it’s illegal to transport livestock like ostrich across state lines unless it’s alive—or already inspected. Farmers resorted to carting truck-loads of live ostriches to inspection facilities in Kansas, where facilities faced less pressure from meat lobbyists. “And what do ostriches do when they get stressed or nervous?” Lou asked me, “They just sit down. And what are you going to do with a 200-pound animal sitting in a truck in the middle of the country?”
It wasn’t much later, as Alex puts it, that “the music stopped.” He explained, “No more buyers could be found to pay those those uneconomical prices for the live birds, and prices dropped almost to zero as a bunch of clueless investors realized they were holding onto ostriches they couldn't sell to any producers or couldn't profitably turn into meat and other products.”
Today, as small farms like Alex’s are beginning to rebuild the ostrich industry, the largest challenge is the public’s perception of the meat, which farmers widely ignored the first time around. “People don’t know what to do with it,” Lou told me. Even in New York City, where he says his clientele is pretty educated about food, people will confuse ostriches with flamingos or, at the very least, have no idea how to prepare it.
Alex compares ostrich meat to American bison meat, which years ago was treated with the same kind of trepidation. But a unique challenge that faces ostriches is that they aren’t native to this country. “Because ostriches come from Sub-Saharan Africa, we don’t think ostrich is food—we think of it as a zoo pet, or something curious.” He wants to get people to just try it once: “Once you’ve had it, it’s really easy to understand, and next comes consumer adoption.”
Ostrich meat, for the time being, is expensive, mostly because of the high demand from the few farms there are. Alex sells ostrich steaks for $90 per three pounds, and my own half-pound filet from Roaming Acres was $13 (so $26 per pound). Ground ostrich meat is less expensive—Alex sells it for $85 per five pounds (that’s $17 per pound). It's a problem that could be solved by scaling (just think of the beef industry, where in January 2015, the average price for ground beef was just over $4 per pound).
By this time next year, Alex hopes to have 400 birds, up from 150. And by 2018, he plans to have over 4,000. He hopes that getting ostrich into the hands of interested early adopters who care about healthy and sustainable food will be worth more than spending money on marketing in the long run.
“I’m trying to create the entire industry’s blueprint over time,” he told me, “which is the only way we can make this work.”
If you’re lucky enough to live close to a local ostrich farmer, contact them about their ground meat and fillets. Otherwise, here are a few farms that offer the bird: