By Tom Collins
INKERMAN — Everyone loves a new idea and many would pay $15 for an ostrich egg — the equivalent of two dozen chicken eggs — just to try it and show off the roast-sized egg. But how do you get anyone to go for seconds?
That’s what niche markets, such as ostrich farming, are up against. But building your way to full-time ostrich farming can be done, says Brian McIntosh, who figures he’s the only ostrich farmer in Eastern Ontario. You need to have marketing savvy, put time into it by knocking on restaurant doors, and sell meat, eggs, hides and cosmetic oils through the internet, McIntosh said. At 57, he retired from working at the Kemptville College farm and has no online presence. “That’s my downfall. If you love marketing, you can do it. You don’t need too many birds to get into it fast.”
He’s raising nine 20-month-old ostriches for breeding stock at Inkerman, 20 minutes east of Kemptville. He was at his peak with 47 ostriches in 1998.
“Interest dwindled (in the ostrich industry) and I’m not great at marketing,” he said. “People say ‘oh yeah, I’ll try that’. They’ll buy it once. But I need the market that is going to be there every week. I need the stores, I need the restaurants, and I don’t feel comfortable walking in and saying ‘this is what I have, are you interested?’ I’m not that type of person. It’s all a marketing thing, and you’ve got to push, push, push.”
Much of his sales now are from customers who see his farm sign on the county road. He used to have a buyer from Iowa who would come buy the hides, but that buyer went out of business years ago. McIntosh sold 100 eggs two years ago and 60 last year. He cautions buyers that opening the thicker shell requires a drill or a hammer. He also sells steaks, pepperettes and lean ground meat that tastes like beef.
Ostriches were one of the many new ideas to diversify the farm in the 1990s. Others tried bison, goats, llamas, emus and wild boar. McIntosh got interested while visiting a Kentucky farm show in the early 1990s. U.S. breeders could sell a pair of birds for $40,000, and were pushing for new customers. McIntosh, already a beef and cash crop farmer, decided to give ostriches a whirl in 1994, but purchased his first birds for cheaper.
The ostrich industry was booming 20 years ago. According to a Business Edge magazine, in the mid-1990s, there were as many as 14,800 ostriches on 788 Canadian farms. Groups such as the Canadian Ostrich Marketing Export Team, Canadian Ostrich Association and the Ostrich Producers of Ontario were promoting the bird. None of those associations exist anymore — the Ontario group took its web site offline last month — and Statistics Canada no longer keeps track of ostriches. There were too many farms selling breeding stock, and not enough farmers selling or marketing the end uses, he said.
It took until 2000 until McIntosh was able to find a commercial market for his products. During those years, he saw many ostrich farms come and go.
“A lot of people got into it and thought this is going to be a quick buck and they got out,” he said. “People just didn’t want to work hard for the money they thought they were going to make. Being a farmer, I decided to stick it out through hard times.”
There are about 10 ostrich farms in Ontario now, with a few just starting up in Western Ontario.
If a farmer is looking for a niche market you can actually get training. Rock Ostrich Farm, just west of Mississauga, in business for 16 years, offers a full one-day training package. The cost is $800.
You can start with two trios of one male with two hens. Farmers need to ensure there’s space for the ostriches, as they can’t be contained in a barn 24 hours a day, McIntosh said. Ostriches, the world’s largest bird, can reach speeds of up to 70 km/hr, and maintain that speed for 15 minutes. An ostrich can be about eight feet when they stand tall, and the males can weigh as much as 400 lb. They can live to age 75 and hens can produce eggs until age 40. They are also about as dumb as they look. “As dumb as turkeys,” he said.
An average hen could conservatively lay 40 fertile eggs in a year. That means 10 hens, with a 75 per cent successful hatch, gets you 300 ostrich chicks a year. An average hen in an average year would lay about 70 eggs.
McIntosh said farmers wanting to raise ostriches full-time need to look at all the end-use opportunities. Each ostrich can produce about three litres of oil, which is then rendered into massage oil, hand creams, foot creams, soap, scented oils and lip balm. The hides can be used to make boots, purses or wallets.
“The meat will pay for a lot of things,” he said. “But the profit will come from the byproducts.”