The incredible, edible -- ostrich

      Their feathers have waved from humble household dusters and the heads of royalty. Their hide, properly tanned, makes the softest yet strongest leather available. Their eyelashes are used to make paint brushes whose silken texture is the envy of the art world.
But a town farmer is most interested in their flesh, which produces a dark, delectable filet lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than the leanest beef.  

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the incredible, edible -- ostrich?
The 22 barrel-chested, spindly-legged residents of the Blackwing Ostrich Farm on Gulf Road first arrived last summer, beginning what farm owner Dr. Alan Weinshel and his wife, Gale, hope is a bull market for their product.
Their modest -- for now -- flock includes a few adult roosters, used for breeding, and other stock of varying ages, including laying hens. They also expect that number will grow appreciably within a few years, as the farm operation develops.
"We have raised beef cows, sheep, pigs, you name it," said Dr. Weinshel, a cardiologist, who said he was looking for some way to keep his 103-acre property, also known as Pokanoket Farm, in agricultural use. "I didn't want to subdivide it into house lots."
Larry Brown found him a way.
Mr. Brown, a native of upstate New York, started working for the Weinshels a year and a half ago, as farm manager. He heard about the fledgling market for the birds and, after a little research, his interest was piqued.
He learned about the different breeds, so named for their wing color: the reds, from Tanzania, the blues, from Zambia, and the blacks, from South Africa. He found out what it took to raise them -- a little alfalfa, a fair amount of land, a temperate climate (20-80 degrees Farenheit).
It all added up, he came to believe, to a highly marketable animal in general and the African black in particular. More than 150 years of breeding for domestic use had rendered that ostrich a more even-tempered, if not wholly docile, variety of bird.
The next step was to try to sell the idea to the boss. Dr. Weinshel admitted he was lukewarm at first.
"I wasn't sure this was something I wanted to get into, but I would read things every once in a while and one day I just decided to find out what was involved."
He called Roger Gerber, president of Blackwing Ostrich Farms Inc., a Chicago-based grower with five farms across the country, and asked how to get into the business.
Mr. Gerber's business acumen, and his company's emphasis on quality, impressed Dr. Weinshel, and the two negotiated a contract.
"I knew I wanted to do more than buy a pair to put in the back yard," Dr. Weinshel said. Among the investment-protecting details he wanted spelled out was regional exclusivity to sell ostrich meat, which meant Mr. Gerber agreed not to authorize another Blackwing farm within a 90-mile range of the Dartmouth farm.
"And if somebody in our region calls him about meat, he sends them to us," Dr. Weinshel said. "We're his representative."
Blackwing Dartmouth also is developing its own market, as a source of breeding stock for area farmers.
"It's sad to think, how many farms are gone now, especially in this area, which used to have so many," Dr. Weinshel said. "This might be one way for them to hold onto their farms. They can get into it without a major expense. It's certainly less work than cows or sheep."
Mr. Brown said a pair of breeding ostriches, depending on their age and quality, cost anywhere from $2,500 up to more than $13,000 for a pair with a proven record.
A fertile hen, at about two years of age, can lay an egg every other day during her laying season, producing as many as 100 or more eggs a year.
"You can make a very good living off one pair," Mr. Brown said. "We know one farmer who made as much on three ostriches as he did from 75 dairy cows."
Part of the reason is that the birds use their modest diet efficiently.
"With an ostrich, the ratio is three to five pounds of grain to get a pound of meat," Mr. Brown said. "With a cow, that ratio is about 14 to 1."
Newly laid, an ostrich egg weighs about three or four pounds and is so solid an adult human can stand on it; its yolk is equal to two dozen chicken eggs.
In the wild, an ostrich hen will sit on her egg. Domestically, eggs are removed for incubation. After an initial 38-day incubation period, eggs are placed under heat lamps for another few days, until the young are ready to make their break. At this point, the egg weighs about a pound, or slightly more.
Dr. Weinshel's operation includes birds of all ages; the better, he said, for prospective buyers to see them at all stages of development.
There soon will be a lot of stock to choose from.
"We hope to have 700 birds, including 125 breeders, by the end of our third or beginning of our fourth year," Dr. Weinshel said.
"We will do whatever the buyer is comfortable with," Mr. Brown said. "If they want us to raise it up until it's ready for slaughter, that's fine. If they want to try to start with the eggs, that's all right, too, although we would try to make sure they understand what has to be done."
Ostriches are among the hardier of species, Mr. Brown said. But they have an extremely high mortality rate between birth and three months of age, when their immune system is nonexistent.
"That's why we like to keep them up until then," he said.
There is some debate, however, about exactly how resistant the birds are to disease. Mr. Brown, during a recent lecture in Dartmouth, said ostriches were considered to have the most foolproof immune system in the animal kingdom, besides humans.
"Their blood is being spun, to find out what makes them so healthy," he said.
Other claims about the bird include its potential value as donor for corneal transplants and as potential savior of the nearly extinct white rhinoceros; the ostrich's toenails are being touted as a substitute for the rhino's horns in a popular Chinese aphrodisiac.
But Dr. Joan Jeffrey, an extension poultry veterinarian at Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine, said she has yet to hear anything that convinces her such claims are more than folklore.
"It's an interesting interpretation, about the mortality rate," Dr. Jeffrey said. "So many of them die before they reach the age of six months, but if you can get them to that age they're relatively healthy. But they can get diseases like salmonella. Everybody can get salmonella."
As for ostriches' potential as corneal donors, Dr. Jeffrey said there are possibilities.
"They have a similar eye structure. They see in color. But if you can have rejection with a human and a baboon heart, which is as close to a human as you can get, I have a hard time understanding how there would not be rejection with an ostrich cornea."
The local ostrich farm is not yet an incubator-to-grave operation; ostriches planned for slaughter are sent to Ohio or Missouri, where Mr. Gerber has plants.
"We expect there will be one in the Northeast within the next 18 months," Dr. Weinshel said.
The birds are electrocuted to render them unconscious before slaughter, Mr. Brown said. "The animal-rights people have really made a difference in the industry in that way. The animal doesn't feel anything."
Blackwing Dartmouth sells birds for slaughter and is paid a flat rate. Currently, the farm sells only meat, not feathers or leather.
Mr. Brown said the meat sold at the farm does not necessarily come from the birds raised there.
"But we expect that will be the case within the next year or so. We have come to understand that 'New England raised' means something to people here. We are trying to negotiate a plan where our birds are done on a certain day, for example, so we would know."
Ostrich meat comes from the animal's thighs and flank, not its puffy breast, where its organs are located. The meat is prepared as any red meat, Mr. Brown said.
"There is steak, filet, stew, sausage and ground, which you would use like hamburger."
Raised, slaughtered and prepared properly, the meat tastes nearly identical to beef; diners waiting for a gamey aftertaste usually give up and keep eating.
And while the idea alone of eating ostrich might be too exotic for some palates, more than a few locals have found love at first bite.
Ostrich currently is the second-biggest seller on the menu at Worden's, a South Dartmouth restaurant which promotes locally produced foods. Mr. Brown rolls his eyes heavenward while describing a recent meal at the gourmet restaurant.
"He does it with this cranberry glaze," he said, referring to chef Stephen Worden. "It's absolutely incredible."
Kerry Romaniello, executive chef at Westport Rivers Winery, is a big fan.
"I love the taste of it. It reminds me of a very tender flank steak, and it has that deep color," she said.
Ms. Romaniello said she prepared an ostrich meal last October for a group of foreign agricultural attaches.
"I followed Larry's advice," she said, referring to Mr. Brown, "and did a very simple preparation, grilled medium rare so it was pink and tender. It doesn't really need anything because it is so flavorful. I served it with Macomber turnip and cranberry relish, and they loved it."
The meat also is sold at Village Market in Padanaram, Lees Supermarket in Westport and East Side Market in Providence.
In its 96 calories for a three-ounce serving, ostrich provides two grams of fat and 58 miligrams cholesterol. By comparison, the same-sized serving of chicken is 140 calories, three grams of fat and 73 miligrams cholesterol. Lean beef's numbers are 230, for ground, with three fat grams and 74 miligrams cholesterol.
But while ostrich is decidely heart-friendly, it is not yet as kind to the food budget. At around $15 per pound for steak and $5 per pound for ground ostrich, an adventurous family of modest means would find it a challenge to put it on the table even once a week.
That, Mr. Brown said, will change once the market expands.
"The more product we can get out there, the lower the price is going to get," he said. "We've already seen that happen. Just two years ago, steak went for $50 a pound and ground for $15."
Dr. Weinshel said he hopes area farmers will be willing to take the plunge into the ostrich market -- with his farm as the broker -- to meet area demand if the product becomes wildly popular.
"I can't imagine it's going to replace cows," he said. "But I can certainly envision second place."