Big bird has a lot of friends |

Big bird has a lot of friends

One of Kelly Harkins’ 4-H projects is plump, tasty and has an appreciation for fine jewelry.

No, it’s not a pig. This is the ’90s, and livestock has taken on a bit of a different face at the El Dorado County Fair. We’re referring to emus – a slightly smaller version of the ostrich which may just be the future of ranching on the West Slope.

“You have to take off any jewelry before you go into their pen,” explained Harkins, 9, whose family raises emus on their farm in Camino. One or more of their three adult birds will be entered at the fair, to be held June 16-20 in Placerville.

“They peck at anything bright and shiny,” Harkins said. “They’ll also try to untie your shoes, and look in your pockets.”

Pretty enterprising for one of the world’s least-intelligent birds – a large, flightless member of the ratite family. Pigs – which are supposedly quite intelligent – suffer by comparison. They just run around and grunt.

The Harkins also raise pigs, and both varieties of animals will be on hand at the annual event at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds – along with cattle, sheep, goats, and all manner of barnyard celebrities.

“Emu ranching has really come into its own over the past few years,” said Judi Harkins, Kelly’s mom and the 4-H emu research leader. “Kids in the Emu Project learn every aspect of hatching, raising, feeding and marketing emus.

“It has become one of the most popular livestock exhibits at the fair,” she said. “The emu market is slowly making a name for itself in El Dorado County. I like to say that in five years it will be an overnight success.”

Indeed, one may be surprised to learn that there are 25 farms and ranches in the county that raise emus. The biggest is the Chili Bar Emu Ranch in Somerset, where Tom and Sharyn Felts ride herd over 150 of the birds, which can reach 6 feet tall and attain a weight of 160 pounds.

“Ratites are the fastest growing agri business in the nation,” said Felts, who is known as “Mrs. Emu” to the hundreds of people who have visited Chili Bar Ranch over the past two years. “We feel like we’re pioneering a new industry, and there’s so much to do.”

Emus produce a healthy (97 percent fat free), red meat that tastes a lot like beef. Also produced from the bird is an oil that supposedly helps arthritis sufferers, and its skin is fashioned into leather products. The eggs and feathers are also used by artists and fly fishermen.

Emu farming is lucrative because the birds are fairly cheap to feed (about $7 a day), and they are relatively docile. All one needs is about an acre and two or three pens to raise a half dozen emus.

And they are resistant to predators: even a mountain lion would know better than to blunder into a pen of adult emus. The giant birds haven’t evolved much from their ancient beginnings, and they have been known to gang up on marauding pumas or bobcats and pummel the predators with their feet.

They are also quite territorial. Emus, natives of Australia, are colony breeders that are usually guarded over by the biggest adult male, which will act like a rowdy watchdog when trouble arises.

The leggy birds have become the hit of the fair. Last year, Josh Marker, 14, from Placerville, became the first 4-H member in state history to sell a ratite at a junior livestock auction. His emu fetched $750.

Do Kelly Harkins’ emus have similar ambitions? The birds in question – Mudpie, Boomer and Alfalfa – aren’t talking. Kelly, her brother, Corey, 8, and her parents have raised the emus with weekend help from friend Emily Burke, 12, of South Lake Tahoe. They are also raising two emu chicks, Moe and Curly, which are three months old.

“The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors is looking into the possibility of establishing an emu processing plant here in the county,” Judi Harkins said. “If that happens, this industry could really take off.”

Don’t tell the pigs.


What: El Dorado County Fair

When: June 16-20

Where: El Dorado County Fairgrounds, Placerville, CA

Information: (530) 621-5860

Web site:

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