Emus provide friendship, livelihood for Leavenworth County rancher
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 in southern Leavenworth County. The farm 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."
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 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.
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 in Lawrence. 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."
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.
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."