Sticking His Neck Out
Brent Jones is not ready to give up, although the Ojai ostrich rancher has faced serious obstacles since buying a breeding pair of the giant, flightless birds in 1993.
Prices for breeding pairs have plummeted, making it harder for Jones to get a good return on his investment. Slaughterhouses are few and far between, and getting the birds there can be a hassle.
Many people still get that strained look when asked to sample an ostrich burger, and those who dare to try it, find themselves shelling out up to three times as much for a pound of ostrich meat as for regular ground round.
And for Jones, 33, there is the added possibility that if demand for the birds picks up, his small operation will have a harder time keeping costs low enough to make a profit and compete with larger and leaner ostrich ranches.
“It hasn’t reached my expectations,” said Jones, whose B & L Ostrich ranch is one of at least three ostrich farms in Ventura County. But, added Jones, “all the pieces are coming together.”
Jones’ two-acre ranch just south of Ojai sits on a long piece of land at the end of an extended driveway. Visitors driving up find one or two ostriches trotting alongside in their run.
Visitors may also feel they are being watched and, sure enough, dozens of heads on long necks turn toward newcomers. Approach the huge birds and they scatter gracefully, which is amazing for an animal so ungainly in appearance.
The California Ostrich Assn.--a statewide organization of ostrich ranchers--lists more than 120 breeders and brokers. Association President Art Stehly estimates that there may be many more unaffiliated ranches across the state.
But the ostrich business is not as hot as it was a few years ago when breeding pairs were selling for $20,000 and many investors were getting into the game.
A lawyer and entrepreneur with multiple income-generating ventures, Jones got the idea of opening an ostrich ranch in the late 1980s after taking a liking to a pair of cowboy boots made of ostrich leather.
“When you’re a lawyer, you sit on your butt,” Jones said. “Sometimes it’s good to get out.”
Jones, along with a partner, sunk thousands of dollars into opening his own ranch with a hope of making a profit while also spending time outdoors and doing something unusual.
The idea was a perfect fit. After all, Jones was no city boy. He grew up in Miramonte and raised a steer as a member of the local 4-H Club. After graduating with a business degree from Cal State Northridge, he went on to get a law degree from Pepperdine in 1991, hoping to give himself a boost as an entrepreneur.
“I’ve always had the idea that I didn’t want to be a 9 to 5 guy,” Jones said.
Jones and his business partner bought the breeding pair for $20,000. They also made a fair amount of money brokering other breeding pairs. Today, with his partner out of the picture, Jones has about 45 birds.
The ostrich industry began to change about two years ago. At that time, breeders abounded, causing the cost of a breeding pair to drop to about $5,000, which is the current price.
“People were making good returns at the time,” Jones said of his initial investment. “I didn’t anticipate the prices coming down so fast.”
According to Stehly, the ostrich industry has gone from an investor’s game to a genuine agricultural business--and is on the cusp of intense growth.
“We need more real farmers and ranchers, and to look at ways to be more efficient,” said Stehly, who is raising about 200 birds at his ranch in Chowchilla.
Stehly also said small producers such as Jones need to band together and specialize in segments of the industry.
For example, Stehly suggest smaller producers could concentrate on incubating the eggs or raising chicks, then selling them to larger “grow-out” ranches. The ranches, in turn, could sell the birds to slaughterhouses for processing and, then, sale to restaurants and supermarkets.
Agricultural expert Curtis Sayer has been watching the industry for 10 years and has noticed an increased interest in the meat.
“I think that once they overcome a few obstacles, they’ll be doing quite nicely,” said Sayer, who is supervising agricultural biologist at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Santa Barbara County.
One of those obstacles is the lack of certified slaughterhouses, Sayer said. Another is the low demand for the unusual meat, which has a fat content similar to chicken with even fewer calories. While more restaurants than ever are offering ostrich getting people to try the meat remains a problem.
Still, Pavilions supermarkets have carried ostrich steaks, ground meat, patties and sausages since March, according to spokesman Doug Hendrix.
“It’s been pretty popular,” Hendrix said. “Once people taste it they’re hooked.”
Frank Garrow, associate manager of Whole Foods in Thousand Oaks, said his store sells about 12 pounds of ostrich meat a week at about $6 a pound.
The meat tastes like beef, but convincing potential customers is not easy.
“It may be just the word,” said Sherry Merriman, a Camarillo resident who regularly eats ostrich burgers served at Port Hueneme’s A.M. Cafe. “I like it. I like hamburgers and I’m trying to cut down on fat.”
Peter Brough, the cafe’s owner, started serving ostrich burgers to have something different on the menu. Now, he goes through about 70 pounds of ground ostrich meat a month and another 30 pounds of ostrich steak.
Brough said that ostrich meat is almost selling better than his regular beef burgers.
As meat sales increase, Jones is looking at ostrich pelts as yet another means of making a profit.
Jones has an arrangement with a slaughterhouse which enables him to sell the meat, pelts and feathers himself. His mother, a custom clothing manufacturer, is using those pelts in her designs to make leather jackets and other clothing now being sold locally.
Jones said that if he can continue selling the meat and his mother’s clothing items, he might be able to make some money at raising ostriches.
“They’re exotic,” he said. “They’re different and they don’t take up a lot of land.”