Beyond a grassy field in Gill, the Connecticut River flows just behind a row of trees and the early evening air is cool and fragrant. From a pen nearby, I think I hear the sound of a timpani drum letting loose on the breeze: "Garoom, garoom, garoom."
I inspect the giant bird standing a few hundred feet away behind a wire fence, and he sizes me up with one eye on the side of his large, goofy head. Did that sound just come from an emu?
"Yes, that's the female's call," answers Geri Johnson, co-owner of Songline Emu Farm. The tall, awkward bird garooms again, and I look around for a hidden drum set.
"It sounds like the bass of a car when it's a long way away," Geri agrees. She tells me that the sound was a way of communicating with mates and enemies far across the hot, dry Australian outback where emus evolved. The sound resonates for many miles.
The flightless birds are a long way from their native land. But here in lush and humid (but mostly chilly and snowy) Gill, the birds seem right at home.
Johnson, her husband Stanley, and her sister Dee Dee Mares started Songline nearly 20 years ago as an experiment, to see if the breed was a good fit for them. They were looking for something agricultural to take them into their retirement years. Stan had grown up on a dairy farm in Vermont and wanted to raise livestock, but his many years spent milking dairy cows had tired him of that particular business.
"We spent a good 18 months looking at alternative livestock, and these birds just kept popping up here and there.," Geri explains. "We wouldn't pay much attention to them because they were a little too exotic. We'd say, 'What are we going do with them?'"
But the research showed that the birds' meat and oil products could be worth the strange looks from neighbors. The more they explored the ratites—a family of flightless birds including emu, ostrich, rhea, cassowary and kiwi—the more they were intrigued.
"Nobody knew anything," Geri says. "You had to go to Australia to find out about them. We didn't, but we went to the library at UMass and everywhere else." Geri and her sister, who both grew up in Leyden, had raised finches for many years and thought perhaps there was a crossover between knowledge about the big birds and about the little ones. "Not really," laughs Geri now, "but it gave us a false sense of confidence." In 1995, they went ahead and bought their first emus.
They learned a lot by trial and error, and found out that emus are (thankfully) quite hardy. They bought books for their vet, but after years with hardly any health problems for the emus, the vet gave the books back.
In their storefront and office on Route 2, Geri is no-nonsense and practical as she explains her family's history with these unexpected animals. Raising the birds is like any other farming business, it seems, yet she has a sweet spot for these creatures that have amused her for so many years. She describes the birds' first winter: "The first year we were like worried parents—it was snowing and we looked out and all we saw were white lumps out there, huddled down. I rushed out and I put my hand near them and their heads came poking up quick and sharp, on alert. They were fine!"
The farm has grown due to the Johnsons' and Mares' innovative experimentation. The birds' round plastic huts are built from discarded recycling bins from Windham County, repurposed by Stanley and Dee Dee. Their breeding program looks for the most docile birds with the most meat; the in-house selection process has quickly established a genealogical line that has won plaudits from emu societies locally and nationally.
The birds produce food—meat and eggs—but their most valuable product is their oil. The oil soothes burns, moisturizes dry skin, and is said to have anti-inflammatory properties that relieve arthritic pain. It's also used in cosmetics. "It has the same pH as our skin, so it's not an irritant," Johnson explains. The oil can be used as a supplemental source of Omega 3, much like fish oil without the difficulty of digestion that the fishy substance causes for some people. Songline offers a capsulated formula mixed with flaxseed oil that provides the correct ratio of omegas.
The FDA hasn't approved the health claims made for emu oil; there are some companies that offer products that contain less than 100 percent emu oil, or—even worse—incorporate non-certified oils, which may have contaminants. But Songline's oils are purified at a certified lab, and each bottle contains 100 percent oil. As Johnson points out, "Aloe vera has never been FDA-approved and everyone knows it's good for cuts and burns."
The farm's line of moisturizers, cosmetics, and healing balms and oils is extensive and can be found on its website or at the storefront in Gill.
The meat is lean, and while it makes a nice ground product for chilis and soups, the fan filet steak is the best eating experience, says Johnson: "If you eat it rare, it will just melt in your mouth like a filet mignon. It's amazing!" It's also said to be healthier than beef, providing omega oils that are good for the heart.
The farm harvests about 400 pounds of meat a year, but it goes quickly. It's sold at the Greenfield farmers' market, but is usually only available from June, when the birds are harvested, until late summer. Burgers are available at the Wagon Wheel restaurant in Gill.
The giant eggs have a similarly limited local market, but can be found for a short time in November and December at River Valley Market in Northampton. They make a great scrambled egg and a fabulously fluffy quiche, but between the need for eggs to hatch and the diversion of some for research, not many make it to local breakfast tables.
Through some of its eggs, the farm has provided research centers like Tufts and Harvard with opportunities to study everything from feather development to oxygen use in the muscles of these strong creatures. Their prehistoric organisms have inspired zoos and natural history museums, too; every year, a flock of Songline's emus are hatched at Springfield's Forest Park Zoo and grown out during the summer so that students and visitors can see animals that are virtually unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs.
For various reasons, the emu industry never grew the way investors thought it would in the 1990s. When the Gill farm started, there were over 50 startup emu farms in New England. Most have since closed, but Songline has done just fine. Geri Johnson explains why she and her family persevered: "We never went into it for the quick buck, we went into it for retirement—something to do." She attributes most of their success to the popularity of the oil. Songline is now the only New England emu farm that is raising the birds commercially for meat and oil, though there are a handful of other farms in Massachusetts and Vermont that raise the birds on a smaller scale.
It's surprising, given how adaptable these birds are, that there has been a dip in the number of producers. In addition to their hardy nature, the emus' appearance is bizarre yet captivating. As we walk out to the meadow behind the storefront, we see young chicks (already two feet tall) covered in endearing black and white stripes. Farther back in the long runs, the bottom-heavy ruffled weirdness of the adult emus suddenly becomes apparent.
They sit on the ground in bundles of feathers, their knees turned backward on the dirt. When they turn their heads, the absurd tufts on their heads waggle around, following their beaks nearly 180 degrees as they peer behind themselves. The attractive coloring on their heads and faces doesn't seem to fit at all on the chunky, fluffy bodies beneath. Their gait is halting and jerky, like a chicken on stilts.
As their gigantic, bony legs remind us, these birds have survived in pretty much this form—basic, savage and pterodactyl-like—for 8 million years. This adds to the ease of raising them: the eggs themselves are fairly foolproof. The Johnsons collect eggs every morning and store them in the farm's refrigerator until they're ready to hatch them. Then they pull the eggs out and put them in a computerized incubator, hatching a batch every other week throughout the year.
Although the fierce-looking birds are naturally docile, they're a bit stubborn when it comes to breeding—which happens often, as they are, according to Johnson, one of the only animals she knows that breeds recreationally. "When they stand right up, they're magnificent. They fill out their neck and chest," she says. "I stand up on my toes and wear a big puffy coat to act like a male, but they'll do their best to try and breed with you. They're not fussy!"
It seems there's every reason to believe that—unlike the species—the emu industry will take off in flight. The birds generate delicious and healthful products, amuse their owners, and are tame, for the most part. As we walk back to the office, the eerie drum-beat sound follows us, and the quirky birds trot along next to us in their pen. "It's relaxing," Johnson smiles.
She says the birds have even been known to show affection: "Stanley is out there all the time with them, and they'll come up and put their heads on his shoulder. They're his babies."
For Songline Farm products and to learn all about emus, visit allaboutemu.com.