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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Poultry Farm Hatches Big Dreams

A poultry farm in Russia's deep south recently introduced a new product it hopes will take off - giant, flightless birds from Down Under.

In a story that proves yet again that fact is stranger than fiction, 115 2-month-old emus are now the pride and joy of the Krasnodonskoye agricultural farm in the Volgograd region. The Australian birds came out of their shells this spring from a shipment of emu eggs donated by an American farmer.

The chicks may weigh only slightly more than a kilogram now, but in a year's time, if all goes well, the emus will be full grown, standing 1.6 meters tall and weighing up to 60 kilograms. And that, Volgograd farmers say, is when they intend to introduce emu meat to the Russian palate.

"We would like to see how this meat will sell after the birds grow large," says Gennady Chukunov, deputy director of the Krasnodonskoye farm raising the fowl.

The Russian-born emus, gray-green ostrich look-alikes, were hatched from 200 eggs that U.S. farmer Doug Moorer donated to the Krasnodonskoye farm in February.

"We did it mostly to promote the industry," Moorer said. "Everybody was surprised when the eggs arrived, even though it was expected,"

A fellow emu breeder, Moorer has 2,300 birds on his Alabama farm. He sells the birds for meat as well as their leathery skin.

"The skin is so strong we make belts, boots and jackets out of it," Moorer said, in a telephone interview from Monroeville, Alabama. Combining meat and skin sales, he added, one emu fetches $400 to $500.

The idea for the emu project was hatched by John Blake, an

associate professor at Alabama's Auburn University who has travelled back and forth to Russia over the last five years developing various agricultural projects.

The emu egg incubation project was Blake's most recent brainstorm. He got Moorer involved, and together the work as volunteers for ACDI/VOCA, the U.S. government-funded company administers the project. ACDI/VOCA fosters cooperative development in agriculture around the world, and they approached the Russians with the idea of raising emus.

Russia is certainly not the first country to flirt with emu farming - a relatively new concept.

Even though Australian aborigines have been eating the indigenous birds for years, emu farming was not legalized in Australia until 1987. But it did not take long for the emu farming fad to take off, as gourmands around the world in search of the next adventure meat took to the emu. The green eggs were flown around the world - to Singapore, England, the United States - where emu meat was raised to be fried, grilled, and wokked.

Some emu experiments went awry as the fad died down. Last year, for example, news agencies reported that emus were running loose in the streets of Houston, Texas, after farmers gave up on the birds.

Now it's Russian turn to give the idea a go, but they are not exactly counting their emus before they are hatched.

"This is an experiment and the farmers want to see whether emus can grow in our climate," said Lyudmila Shcherbak, a senior expert at the Agriculture Ministry.

For the time being, the Russian farmers will be breeding the birds only for meat, which looks like beef when it is cooked, but is high in protein and iron and low in fat and cholesterol.

The farmers believe the gamble might just work. Life expectation for emus is high - around that of humans - and the birds tend to lay 50 eggs per year, which take about 50 days to hatch, according to Chukunov.

"In the U.S. their meat is 7 to 8 times more expensive than chicken," Chukunov added hopefully.

Before the sounds of clanging cash registers can go off in Chukunov's brain, he has to educate the Russian consumer about the art of emu cuisine. Thus far the Russians have not conducted any market research to determine whether or not there will be a demand for this little-known bird.

But for now, the farmers in the Volgograd region are dead serious about the experiment.

"In two years we will see whether the Australian emu can live in our climate and grow properly on our forage," said Chukunov, whose farm, the second-largest meat producing farm in all of Russia, produces its own feed.

To impartial observers, emu breeding is a comical idea reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev's attempts to grow corn in Russia. Having visited the United States in 1960s, then first secretary of the Communist Party Khrushchev was enthralled by the productivity of U.S. farmers and urged Russia to cultivate its own corn.

His order was obediently fulfilled, but the crops were never harvested, as the climate turned out to be too cold for American corn.