Kila farmers find their niche raising emus
Don Collins is a fourth-generation Montanan who has always had a knack for sidestepping activities often associated with residents in Big Sky country.
When he casts a line, he’s only ever in search of bass, not trout.
He hauls his boat with a Volkswagen Touareg instead of a pickup.
And he raises emus instead cattle, sheep or other livestock.
What started as raising a few emus for hobby back in 1992 with Don’s wife Penni on a 4-acre farm near Whitefish Stage Road quickly grew into a 200-bird operation - a somewhat kismet career change that cued a move to the couple’s current 40-acre farm in Kila.
“We didn’t really plan to do this,” Collins said with a laugh. “We had planned to raise a few birds to supplement our incomes, but plans change, I guess.”
The emergence of their sprawling ranch was a natural transition from their careers at the time, with him working in food and beverage sales and Penny working in the motorcycle parts business.
“So with my knowledge of how to get products to market and her knowledge of inventory control and management we created our own little company,” he said.
Years later, that company has grown into one of the largest producers of emu in the Northwest, with some 300 chicks produced every year. In Montana, they are one of only a handful of commercial producers of emu, according to Collins.
At first blush, the mobs of emus bobbing around their ranch look like siblings, if not distant relatives to ostriches. By definition, the common emu is classified as a bird and is an omnivore. They can reach heights in excess of 6 feet and can weigh right around 100 pounds.
“Some researchers say emus are about as close as we can get to prehistoric animals,” Collins said. “I joke that we should get a dinosaur stamp instead of a poultry stamp.”
At this point in the year, during mid-to-late spring, the staff welcomes hundreds of baby chicks hatching from deep teal speckled eggs, and even at birth, two hands are required to support the whole body and wobbly legs. The newly hatched emus will spend the next 16 to 18 months on the ranch.
“People need to understand it’s not all cute and fuzzy chicks,” Collins said. “We are running an agricultural operation here just like a lot of other farmers.”
Collins, 62, said he has never known how many hours he works in a week and doesn’t care to. Some days the job is easier and some days the staff will be gathering eggs in a snowstorm into the wee hours of the morning.
Since the ranch’s inception, the Collinses have made emu oil products the backbone of their business. From herbal lip balms and body lotions to soap and shampoos and conditioners, the company offers more than two dozen products.
He said many people got into the emu industry a few decades ago with the idea of offering breeding stock to other farmers interested in getting into the industry. However, he said while that might work with an animal such as a llama that produces one offspring a year, mature emus can produce as many as 60 offspring in the same time.
“The market was flooded in just a few years and no place to market the emus to,” Collins said. “So we got into it with the whole idea of using every part of the bird we can and building the market for skincare products and other things.”
In recent months, the company has also begun dabbling in various over-the-counter products that can assist with ailments such as psoriasis and arthritis. For example, the new line, which has been dubbed Emugency, offers muscle rubs. The company’s skin and hair-care line can be found in more than 2,000 health stores nationwide and they ship off about $1.5 million in products a year.
Even at that capacity, Collins said he and Penny can barely keep up with the demand from their manufacturers in Tennessee, where they send rendered oil to be made into the various products. There are a good number of emu ranches in the Spokane area and throughout Idaho, he said, but other than his, the other prominent emu ranch in Montana is in Hamilton.
He said he hopes other farmers and ranchers in Montana might consider getting into the emu market - one that has proven lucrative for him and his staff.
“There aren’t enough producers to fill the current need,” he said. “My hope is that others will get into this business.”
Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org