WHERE milk cows and sheep used to roam on the rolling acres of Bill Kipp's Lake Champlain Valley farm, emus now trot in long pens. Australia's first cousin to the ostrich is the newest twist in Vermonters' search for alternatives to their shrinking dairy industry.
Mr. Kipp's interest was sparked a few years ago when a friend told him of the investment value of emus. Kipp worked as a nutritional and financial consultant to dairy farmers in the state.
Commercial use of emus - large (about 125 pounds when full grown), flightless birds with feather-duster bodies and legs that can propel them at 40 miles per hour - is more a future possibility than a present option. Emu meat, hide, feathers, and oil are all believed to have commercial value, but they are not produced in any quantity in the United States as yet. Some emu meat is imported from Australia, and an emu ranchers' cooperative in Texas has put out a line of cosmetics made from oil rendered from the bird's fat.
The Southwest, in fact, is the center of America's emu industry, and Kipp's Green Mountain Emu Farm is one of its few northern outposts. From 200 members in 1988, the American Emu Association now boasts a membership of 5,500, most of them in Texas.
What's driving this fledgling industry is the ``breeder's market.'' Seated with his wife, Deborah, in their office on the second story of what used to be a milking barn, Kipp explains that in May 1991 he bought six emu chicks for $800 apiece. Two years later, the birds had grown in value to $2,000 each, and his small flock, with some additions and changes, was worth about $20,000, he says.
The Kipps have added birds and hatched many of their own chicks to bring their emu flock to more than 100 birds, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars at current prices. Individual birds are priced according to age, with breeding pairs fetching top dollar. A female chick hatched last February is valued at $5,500 on Kipp's price list.
The income to a breeder like Kipp comes primarily from investors - individuals or partnerships - who want to buy a bird for later sale. They often pay Kipp to care for their birds on his farm. About half his emus are investor-owned.
How long can the breeder's market last? Kipp estimates at least another five to eight years. By then, he hopes, the number of birds in the US will be at a point where commercial production of emu products can begin.
Pierce Allman, director of the American Emu Association, estimates that if every person in the US consumed only a quarter-pound of emu meat a year, that would require an annual processing of 2.5 million birds. ``At this time, there aren't that many in the world,'' he says.
The industry is encouraged, however, by signs of international interest in the birds, particularly in France and China. Australia, where the emu is the national bird, has a processing industry but prohibits the export of live birds or eggs. (Emus in this country were bred from zoo stock.) Most emu meat or oil available in the US comes from Australia.
``It strikes me there is a niche for a red meat that is remarkably fat-free,'' Mr. Allman says. ``It tastes exactly like beef,'' Mrs. Kipp says, ``like flank steak or London broil.''
The Kipps, however, don't view their birds just as two-legged flank steak. They're very appealing animals, Bill Kipp says, as he reaches his hand through the fence to gently tap the beak of a full-grown male, one of their original chicks. He mentions that some of the young birds even let his daughters comb their feathers. Unlike ostriches, which are also raised commercially in the US, emus are even-tempered.
The eggs, about the size and color of a large avocado, are carried to an incubator in a room once used for milk storage. Mrs. Kipp, who, like her husband, has a degree in animal science, monitors them over the 50 days before hatching. Soon after they emerge, the chicks - fluffy creatures with black and brown stripes from neck to tail - are put in indoor pens that run the length of the barn. To identify each bird, a microchip is inserted in its tail. The young emus are separated by age, and are eventually transferred to 96-by-30-foot outdoor cages with high wire fencing.
While these birds are native to arid Australia, they seem to weather Vermont's icy winters quite well, Bill Kipp says. They stick to the shelters and cut down on their water and food intake a bit, he says.
Commercial emu production has drawn protests from animal-protection activists. Karen Davis, head of United Poultry Concerns, a Maryland-based group, says that penning the naturally nomadic birds deprives them of needed exercise and can lead to serious leg problems. She also decries the destruction of the birds' family lives, such as the male emu's role in incubating the eggs.
Ms. Davis foresees the possibility that emus, like chickens and turkeys, could someday be subject to factorylike breeding conditions and mass slaughter.
The emu industry itself has not as yet promulgated standards of care for the birds. ``Right now, if you asked 5,000 breeders, you'll get 5,000 answers,'' Allman says. As far as space goes, pen sizes vary widely, and some breeders let their birds roam in open pasture, says Joan Jeffrey, a poultry specialist at Texas A&M University's extension service familiar with the industry. She notes that large companies, such as Bluebonnet and Ralston Purina, are competing to develop feeds for ratites - a group of birds that includes ostriches, rheas, and kiwis, as well as emus.