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Ostrich market fails to take off

Not once in 15 years of raising ostriches has Skip McEachin seen one bury its head in the sand.

"They don't do that," he said with a smile. "That's a myth."

Nor should anyone be fooled, he said, by the long eyelashes, the big bashful eyes, the graceful necks or the fancy plumage.

Ostriches are powerful creatures with tiny brains and high-strung personalities that turn nasty during breeding season. Their legs may look like sticks, but they are fearsome, almost prehistoric, weapons.

"They have one toenail on each foot," said McEachin, 51, once the proud owner of 3,000 ostriches and now a reluctant caretaker for the 45 that remain after the little-noticed crash of the Florida ostrich business.

"With that toenail," he said, "one bird can kill two tigers or two lions or two leopards."

So much for the beasts portrayed as pets in The Swiss Family Robinson, the classic tale in which boys rode ostriches for fun. But this isn't the first time people have been fooled by these strange, flightless birds.

McEachin is one of scores of Floridians who bought into an ostrich craze that took hold in the late 1980s and continued until the bottom fell out about two years ago.

The trend grew from the idea that Americans would clamor for the tender and lean red meat found on the upper legs and backs of ostriches. It has less cholesterol and fat than beef, but with a nearly identical taste.

Investors paid tens of thousands of dollars for mating pairs with African or Australian bloodlines. They in turn sold the eggs or the chicks at similarly high prices to subsequent investors.

"In some cases, it was almost like a pyramid scheme," said Henry Wilson, an animal sciences professor at the University of Florida who has researched non-chicken poultry species.

It wasn't until the mid 1990s that enough ostriches were available in Florida to justify a slaughterhouse. When the facility opened in Ocala in late 1996, the meat went to supermarkets and restaurants. The beaks and toenails were sent to Japan and ground up for aphrodisiacs. The hides sold for $500 to $1,000 for use in boots, clothes, even furniture. And the always popular feathers were worth $200 a bird.

"Everything was broken down. We were being paid a lot of money," said McEachin, owner of Triple SSS Ostrich Farm, a remote patch of 16 acres near Gainesville.

Closed for business

But several factors conspired against the ostrich industry: The Ocala slaughter facility was sold to an out-of-state group and later burned down. Ranchers were unable to market or distribute the meat with any efficiency, and the public never developed a taste for it anyway. Slaughterers had to work by hand because the automated systems that had been invented for chickens, pigs and cattle could not accommodate a bird of such size.

As a result, the cost of ostrich meat never came down.

At the Delimania delicatessen in Carrollwood, owner Bruce Spivak started offering ostrich meat sandwiches in 1996 but took it off the menu about six months ago. He said he paid $12 to $13 a pound for the meat, compared with $2.45 a pound for roast beef.

In the early days, he sold about 20 ostrich sandwiches a week. More recently, the orders dropped to one or two.

"I didn't sell enough of it to keep it on hand for that price," Spivak said.

As for the taste: "I thought it was fine, but I wouldn't go out of my way to get it," he said.

State records are littered with the wreckage of defunct ostrich corporations. Companies with names such as Ostrich Emporium Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Ostrich Depot of Stuart and Ostrich Unlimited Inc. of Fort Myers all crashed on the shoals of consumer indifference. In most cases, the companies were dissolved between 1995 and 2001.

So it hardly mattered when state senators vowed recently to eliminate the special sales tax exemption on ostrich feed. The Legislature approved the exemption 10 years ago as a favor to Sam Mitchell, then a Democratic state representative from the Panhandle. This year, it became the quirky emblem of a tax system gone mad.

Asked last week to recount how the exemption came about, Mitchell, 72, said he couldn't remember.

"I just quit fooling with it," he said from his home in Vernon. "I don't know anything about it now."

Taking a gamble

From the porch of the one-story home that McEachin built himself, the evidence of a once-sophisticated operation is everywhere.

There are empty ostrich pens as far as the eye can see and a hatching house with $20,000 worth of dormant incubators that still look new. McEachin picks up a plastic vial containing microchips that were placed inside ostrich chicks _ back when they were worth stealing.

McEachin said he got into the business when a well-heeled friend, whose farm he maintained, was looking to invest some money. She settled on ostriches and asked McEachin to run the operation.

"I saw it as something that was really going to take off," he said. "I don't play cards or nothing, but I'm a gambler. If I think there's something that I feel good and strong about, I'm going to try it, come hell or high water."

The partners got their start paying $170,000 for a male ostrich and two hens. Fifteen years later, the male still lords over a pen at the center of the farm. Long gone are the two hens, which he stomped to death during the frenzies that occur when male ostriches start to breed.

To illustrate the power of an ostrich's legs, McEachin points to a chain-link pen that is bowed out 2 feet at the spot where an ostrich kicked it.

Nearby, a 9-foot-tall, 350-pound male warily eyes visitors. He paces and fluffs his black-and-white feathers. He thinks humans have come to steal his food or have their way with an ostrich hen he dominates inside their grass pen.

Eventually, the farm's ostrich population rose to 3,000 and money was made. But McEachin figures the original male bird came nowhere near earning back the money he cost.

"We're just surviving'

Today, with no market and no partner, McEachin struggles to pay for the $1,000 worth of grain pellets it takes each month to feed the remaining 45 ostriches.

To make ends meet, he does carpentry work an hour away in Gainesville. His wife, Kim, works at the local school cafeteria. She also blows out the ostrich eggs produced on the farm and sells them to crafters. Melon-sized eggs that brought as much as $1,000 in the early 1990s now sell for $15 each.

"We're just surviving," said McEachin, an affable man with a gray ponytail, two Harley-Davidson motorcycles in the barn and memories of combat in Vietnam, where he fought as an Army Ranger.

He's not sure how to divest himself of the last few ostriches.

He could raise calves in the smallish pens once inhabited by ostriches, but he's morally opposed to veal. Friends have suggested killing the birds and burying them.

"But if I did that, the Humane Society would tear me up," he said. "And I'm not going to do that to an animal anyway. That's not right. I mean these (birds) didn't ask to be here, so it's my responsibility to take care of them."

That leaves a third and more time-consuming option: McEachin occasionally slaughters an ostrich for his own consumption.

"I've raised cows and I've been in the hog business, and the worst piece of meat on this is better than your best piece of prime rib," he says with the kind of promotional zeal that launched the ostrich craze more than a decade ago. "You can cut it with a fork, and it's lower in cholesterol than fish or chicken. And it's the most healthiest meat you can eat."