The saga of a “rhea” bad investment scheme

The saga of a “rhea” bad investment scheme

It seemed like a great investment. If you owned acreage in the South in the 1990’s, you were most likely made aware of the opportunity by a wide-eyed friend or neighbor. Many rushed to get in on the ground floor. It wasn’t too hard to see how there were three or four great ways to make money raising ostriches.

Breeding pairs were sold for thousands. The meat was poised to compete with beef as a leaner, healthier red meat. Ostrich hides make valuable boots and purses, to say nothing of the commercial demand for feathers.

What could possibly go wrong?

In a University of Florida paper published in 1997, the situation was described as follows:

Ostrich farming came to Florida around 1990. Early on it was a highly speculative business that had much in common with get-rich-quick pyramid operations. People who owned outrageously expensive breeder birds sold hatchlings to others who sold hatchlings to still others, with those on the ground floor capitalizing on the highest bird prices.*

The article wasn’t entirely negative; it seemed to portray ostrich farming as an industry at a crossroads. While the market had become saturated and was entering a shakeout period, there were also positive indications that held out hope for the eventual maturing of the supply chain. There were plenty of young ostriches, rheas, and emus ready for market, and a specialized slaughterhouse was opening in central Florida to meet the demand.

Any ostrich farmer reading this article was already aware of one thing: If they had gotten into the ostrich business with dreams of making a lot of money, it was clear that that their investment was going to be a long way away from paying off…

As the new century approached, ostrich farming quietly creaked towards oblivion. It happened with so little fanfare that nobody even bothered to chronicle the plight of the many people who paid top dollar for birds that now weren’t worth the feed they were costing. An internet search of ostrich farming activity in the U.S. brings up not a single news item any later than the above-referenced UF story.   The ratite slaughter facility mentioned in the article processed birds for a few years, and then shut. There are a few farms here and elsewhere in the country that still offer meat by mail order, but when you attempt to make a purchase, you find the meat is out of stock.

“We were fortunate because we had other means of income to live on than just the ostriches,” said Barbara Furman, the co-owner of a family-run farm that still raises ostriches in Milton, FL. “It was extremely exciting at the height of it,” she said, but the boom also attracted many naïve and greedy entrepreneurs who hurt the prospects of the hard-working, honest farmers. She also suspects the Beef Lobby worked behind the scenes to make it more difficult for ostrich meat to gain any kind of foothold in the grocery business.

“We had three breeding pairs, and never got even one fertilized egg,” said Ben Willems, a Lake City gentleman farmer who got out of the ostrich game many years ago. Willems compared notes with other farmers and found that they, too, had lower than expected fertility rates in their eggs. “I would have been happy with lower than expected fertility,” Willems said, “but I didn’t even get one good egg.” He remembers giving up and selling his last ostrich for $25.

Dr. Gary Butcher, a professor of the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, watched the rise and fall of ostrich farming from a safe distance. Despite being encouraged to play a bigger role in the industry by his administration, he said he refused to become involved.

“I felt this was a scam in the making and my belief was demonstrated to be true in time,” he said. Despite appearances, Butcher felt there was very little potential for demand to meet the supply of the products—feathers, meat or leather.

As for the meat, it has certainly never risen above an occasional appearance on restaurants that specialize in exotic meats. It had been touted as a healthy, lean red meat that was delicious when prepared properly. One wonders if it really is as good as all that, why it never managed to gain any shelf space next to turkey in the supermarket. America’s eating habits change slowly, but they do change when a healthier alternative proves itself. Why not ostrich meat?

Those who have stuck it out through the years retain their optimism. They are either visionaries or unable to admit defeat. They still believe that raising ostriches can become profitable.  Barbara Furman noted the price of breeding pairs has been slowly climbing back to favorable levels. It may simply be an opportunity waiting for enough diligent, patient people like Barbara Furman to create the synergy needed to see it through to its success.

 

*University of Florida News (Friday, March 21, 1997): Ostrich Farmers Enter Shakeout Period For Industry, UF/IFAS Expert Says 

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