Kuna's American Ostrich Farms Pioneers the Next Big Thing in Protein 

Here are a few things you may not know about ostriches:

• An ostrich egg is equivalent to two dozen chicken eggs, and makes one heck of an omelet.

• Ostriches are polygamists—the alpha hen tells the betas where to sleep at night.

• Unlike most other poultry, ostrich meat is classified as red, not white.

• Nearly 1,000 of the long-necked birds live just half an hour from Boise.

American Ostrich Farms is 30 minutes from just about anywhere, unless your destination is the Idaho State Correctional Institution. I made the drive from Boise just after a February snowfall had turned the fields luminous and coated the road with mud that splashed up around my SUV's tires. When I arrived at AOF's iron gate, a half-dozen ostriches peered curiously at me over a nearby fence.

click to enlarge Alexander McCoy is the man behind the meat at American Ostrich Farms. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Alexander McCoy is the man behind the meat at American Ostrich Farms.

Let's get this out of the way up front: Ostriches are intimidating birds. The average specimen at AOF stands about 7 feet high—tall enough to have to duck through a door frame—and weighs more than 200 pounds, with a few outlier birds towering near nine feet. But AOF founder/owner Alexander McCoy walks right up to their enclosures, reaching through the fencing to stroke their feathered backs.

"Ostriches are very friendly," McCoy said, pointing out the difference between the slightly smaller taupe-colored female birds and the larger, darker-feathered males. "...They're like any other livestock. When you domesticate them, they're not running around kicking lions like you see in National Geographic videos."

Still, the birds are omnivores and will chomp down on any fingers that come near them. Luckily they don't have teeth, but take my word for it: Being gnawed on by a beak feels like getting a sandpaper massage.

"They're just curious. They're like, 'Oh, what's that?" said McCoy, wiggling his fingers in front of a nearby hen, who promptly darted her head out to snag them.

With his unlined face, bright blue eyes and aviator sunglasses, McCoy looks more like an investment banker than a farmer, even in boots and an oversized jacket. And that's probably because he was one when he discovered the wonders of ostrich meat while training for an Ironman triathlon in South Africa. He was immediately attracted to not only the taste of the protein—which he compared to high-quality beef—but also the sustainability of ostrich farming, an industry that's almost entirely undeveloped in the United States.

click to enlarge At AOF, young ostriches are housed together in large enclosures until they're old enough to move to breeding pens. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • At AOF, young ostriches are housed together in large enclosures until they're old enough to move to breeding pens.

"The feed conversion ratio is so good. They just don't need to eat that much feed to grow, and animal feed is where all of the environmental impacts come from. [And they take] so much less water and so much less space. The more I learned about this animal I was like, 'Oh my god, this is the perfect livestock,'" said McCoy, leading me down a snow-covered track between dozens of pens, each of which housed a breeding group.

When McCoy returned to the U.S. six years ago, he barreled full-speed into ostrich-raising, buying up birds from smaller operations across the country and building a high-tech incubation facility that he has since honed on 120 acres with the help of John Pender, an ornithologist and veteran of the fish hatchery industry. More recently, McCoy also brought chef Mark Coates on board to fill out his staff of eight. When we ran into Pender and Coates outside the chick barn, their passion for the project was immediately obvious. Pender said that when he first heard about AOF, he couldn't wait to get in on the ground floor of a new industry.

"I actually hunted [McCoy] down and blew him up with phone calls," he said.

Coates had a similar reaction.

"I wanted to get more in touch with the whole farm-to-table concept, and that's really what we're doing out here," he said. "...I met with Alex once and was instantly hooked. I came out and checked everything out and instantly fell in love with it, and walked away from a 15-year career [at restaurants like Fort Street Station and Barbacoa] to try something totally new that I'd never done before, because I really believe in it."

click to enlarge LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson

While giving me the tour, McCoy spoke extensively about his attempts to mimic ostriches' native habitat, diet and social preferences. He said that he and his wife, who was a vegetarian when they met, wouldn't have it any other way—plus, it makes for tastier steaks.

"The lower stress that the animal has, the better the meat quality is. So actually what's good for the bird, the less stress this bird experiences in life and the happier their lives are, the better the end product," he said.

McCoy's operation and philosophy recently caught the attention of a giant in the ethically raised food arena: Chipotle. In late January, the quick-service restaurant chain selected AOE as one of the first companies to participate in its Chipotle Aluminaries Project, a seven-month mentorship commitment that kicks off with a boot camp for company founders in late March. McCoy hopes the accelerator program will serve as a launching pad for AOE's expansion, beginning with restaurant partnerships (which Coates said are already in the works) and more birds, and eventually extending to an entirely new meat supply chain nationwide.

Folks looking to get their hands on ostrich burgers, steaks and fillets can order them through AOE's website, americanostrichfarms.com, where McCoy also offers egg shells from infertile eggs, ostrich oil (comparable to emu oil, which is popular for cosmetic and medicinal purposes), ostrich oil soap and a line of ostrich dog treats, all in pursuit of using the whole animal. All of it ships in fully recyclable packaging, and McCoy said ostrich leather and ostrich jerky are in the works, too.

"We want this to be a movement," he told me earnestly, sitting behind his desk in the farmhouse, which doubles as a distribution center. "We don't want it to be just AOF being this ostrich empire, that's not it. ...We want everyone to get involved, we want everyone to raise ostriches and be a part of this."

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