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Ostriching

Hey, remember when ostrich farms were the next big thing?

Over the last few years, there’s been renewed interest in ostrich farming in the United States, particularly in Texas. The industry peaked in the 1990s, before inflated prices for birds and eggs exposed it to corruption and market instability. By the end of the decade, it was in steep decline. Today, the American Ostrich Association, headquartered at the Birminghams’ ranch, claims both legitimate ostrich growers and demand for meat has increased noticeably in recent years. And Texas, once home to more than 250 ostrich farms, is still at the heart of the industry.

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Originally from Africa, ostriches were brought to the United States in the late 1800s, their feathers used in the fashion industry. American “feather barons,” as they were known, gambled on a notoriously fickle industry. Some made their fortune; others watched the market collapse when feathers became last season’s fashion news. Joel Brust, president of the American Ostrich Association and an ostrich farmer in California, told the Observer that one of the things that killed the industry was the arrival of the automobile (feather hats just didn’t work in open-top cars). The economic upheaval following the advent of World War I also precipitated the industry’s decline. The business resurged in the 1980s after breeders discovered that ostrich meat tasted like beef but was lower in fat. At that point, the world’s biggest producer was South Africa. Then in 1986, the United States passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which banned trade with South Africa. The subsequent short supply of ostriches jacked up prices. American farmers decided to get in on the act, and Texas and Oklahoma became dominant in the industry. In the late 1980s, Fort Worth farmer Tom Mantzel founded the American Ostrich Association.

After the anti-Apartheid act was repealed during the first Bush administration, the United States once again permitted South African ostrich imports. Both supply and demand increased, giving rise to what media described as an ostrich-breeding boom. Americans were jumping into get-rich-quick schemes based on breeding and selling live birds. The Dallas Morning News noted in a 1990 article that the money was “in the mating,” partly because the population of ostriches needed to increase before it could sustain a meat production industry. A pair of adult breeding birds could command up to $50,000 — an increase of 500 percent in four years. “It was crazy,” Brust said.

People were buying chicks and eggs and raising them for a few months to sell to other people interested in high-profit breeding. Or they bought adult birds only to turn around and sell them at a profit shortly afterward. It was a breeder’s market, in theory until there were enough ostriches to supply the meat industry. Brust said people got into the industry with no intention of creating long-term ostrich farming businesses. Instead, “they acted more like brokers,” he said. “All they had to do was get a few chicks to hatch, since the price of birds as they got older just escalated beyond anything that made any sense.”

And just like Dutch tulips back in the day, what went up did indeed come down. This story is about the people who are raising ostriches now – a much smaller group – and who are trying to make something more sustainable out of it. Worth a read.

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