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Ostrich could revolutionize the meat industry. But will Americans eat it?

Located on a 120-acre farm in Boise, Idaho, American Ostrich Farms (AOF) is working to provide an unexpected source of protein to American consumers. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Alexander McCoy, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of AOF.

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    An ostrich (Struthio camelus) stands in his enclosure in the zoo in Berlin (May 11, 2012).
    Andreas Prost/dapd via AP/File
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Located on a 120-acre farm in Boise, Idaho, American Ostrich Farms (AOF) is working to provide an unexpected source of protein to American consumers. Ostrich meat is both high in protein and iron and low in fat and cholesterol. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Alexander McCoy, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of AOF.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to start an ostrich farm? What goes on in a typical day there?

Alexander McCoy (AM): I was living and working in South Africa in 2012 and became fascinated with this incredible protein source; one that is delicious, environmentally sustainable, and extremely healthy. What I could not figure out was why Americans were not eating ostrich at any scale. I decided if I were ever going to start my own business, its goal would be to bring this great red meat into mainstream American meat consumption. After spending time abroad working in international finance, I was ready to make a change and head back home to make the largest positive impact I could.

No two days on our ranch are ever quite the same. We are growing quickly and plowing a lot of new ground, so to speak, and I spend most of every day working on solutions to new opportunities and challenges that crop up! One challenge was the high cost of propane and electricity to make our small, growing birds (and we humans, too!) more comfortable during the cold winter months. Idaho receives a great deal of sunshine throughout the year, so we installed a large hot water solar system that controls the temperature in all of our ranch buildings and facilities using radiant heat. Another project we are currently undertaking is the construction of an indoor fodder feed system, with which we will grow the majority of the feed our ostriches require. The system we are building is a hydroponic one, creating a nutrient-dense barley fodder from seed alone; a remarkable growing process requiring only a fraction of the water and other precious resources needed to grow crops outdoors on a large amount of land.

You can learn more about the background information on our family, what has inspired us, and our vision on our website

FT: One of AOF’s goals is to increase production in 2016. Can you tell us about your vision after reaching this goal?

AM: One of the great attributes of this animal is its potential for sustainable farming to scale. At AOF, we are planning to grow to a size that will not only profitably capture existing demand for ostrich, but also increase the product's availability on the scale that it will be at an accessible price point for more people than it is currently. The positive environmental impact that we could achieve if consumers traded ostrich for just a portion of their beef purchases is incredible. Ostrich is the only red meat with the potential for commercial production at scale in a way that is sustainable for the environment. It requires far less water, land, and feed than other red meat animals and produces a mere fraction of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—a shocking fact that consumers are not aware of, but hopefully soon will be.

FT: Your farm provides options for buying ostrich related goods, other than meat. Can you tell us about what kind of other products ostriches can provide? Are you also looking to bring these products to the market in the United States?

AM: While meat is our primary product, another fantastic aspect of ostrich production is that there is virtually no waste from the rest of the animal. We turn the skins into some of the finest leather in the world and the fat into lotions and oils with excellent moisturizing and healing properties. We sell bones and organs for gourmet dog treats and food and even send parts of the animals to research universities to study the unique biology of this animal and learn more about anatomy and health. Additionally, we currently sell several types of leather products and the largest eggs in the world—equivalent in size to 24 chicken eggs! Further information is available on the store page of our website.

FT: Ostriches are noted to be environmentally friendlier than other traditional farm animals. Can you tell us how ostrich farming can be used to address pressing issues like climate change?

AM: We made these charts, which represent the relevant statistics visually, and I think they say it all. The biology of the ostrich allows us to transcend nearly every single traditional criticism of animal agriculture. They are better for consumers of red meat (97 percent fat-free, lower in cholesterol, and higher in iron than beef), for the environment, and to conserve our finite natural resources (dramatically less land use, water use, and GHG emissions than any other red meat protein). It is a little-known fact that a sizable portion of the global total of GHG emissions emanates from livestock animals, and ostrich is by far the lowest emitter of any red meat. Many cite the latest figures from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization that estimates livestock is responsible for 14.5 percent of all GHG emissions (more than the entire global transport sector!), but other studies have estimated livestock's ill contributions to be considerably higher, with beef responsible for about 65 percent. These are devastating numbers that clearly make it more impactful for people to cut back on traditional red meats before going out of their way to drive cars less, take fewer plane rides, or purchase carbon credits to offset those emissions. Switching to ostrich would make a much more positive impact in a variety of ways, including water use. It takes 1,847 gallons of water to make a pound of beef while a pound of ostrich requires less than one-third of that number. This comparison brings into stark perspective the real impact of common water saving measures, such as taking shorter showers and turning off the faucet when brushing, compared to the protein sources we choose to put on our table.

FT: You worked in investment banking and venture capital before making the move to farming. Do you have any advice for young farmers wanting to make the transition but who may be hesitant to start?

AM: While starting a first generation farm or ranching operation is very challenging, it has already become our most satisfying achievement. My wife and I had to work and save for a long time to make this dream a possibility, and only after a lot more hard work, we were able to turn it into a reality. For our family, it has been a lifelong love of animals and the outdoors and a profound passion for living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others to make the same healthy choice—both for our families and the planet we will leave to our children and their children. Transforming the way Americans think about the meat they put on their plate is a generational challenge, and you don't have to start a farm to make an intentional choice every single day. For those who do have an interest in farming, the evolution of the animal agriculture industry in the last 50 years has made scale an imperative for profitability. With that understanding, the best way for families to transition to the business of farming is probably best alongside others. Teaming up with like-minded individuals in local communities will not only distribute the startup risk of a capital intensive business, but it will provide valuable learning opportunities for both new and experienced farmers to learn from each other the many aspects that must be considered to achieve lasting business success in agriculture.  This type of innovation and camaraderie is a much more dynamic sector of the economy than understood by the average consumer. The U.S. will need many more entrepreneurial farmers to find more sustainable ways to keep raising the bar on the quality and quantity of food that Americans demand in the 21st century.

This article first appeared in Food Tank.

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