The three-toed flightless native of Australia is called "the most useable bird" by emu aficionados. About 95 percent of an emu can be used — for meat, for oil touted as a cure for everything from eczema to earaches, or for artwork.
Rodney Holzkamm, president of the North Dakota Emu Association, said North Dakota had more than 100 emu ranchers about a decade ago. Now there are just three, including Holzkamm, who runs an emu ranch near Reeder, in southwestern North Dakota.
The number of emu ranchers nationwide declined dramatically in recent years, said Myra Charleston, a spokeswoman for the American Emu Association.
"There used to be thousands and thousands, but it's not like that anymore," said Charleston, who raises emus in Trezevant, Tenn. "Our industry is kind of in a transitional stage and probably will be for a few more years."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2002 census — the most recent available — showed 5,224 emu farmers nationwide, in every state but Alaska. Texas led the nation with 1,106 emu ranchers, the Agriculture Department said.
Emus are classified as a ratite, a family of flightless birds with small wings and flat breastbones. Ratites have been around for about 80 million years. Emus can live to be more than 30 years old and can run up to 35 mph.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, emus and other nontraditional livestock were touted as a way for farmers to diversify, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson said.
"Lots of farmers were really struggling to make it back then because prices were so rotten, so they branched out and diversified — and in fact, the state encouraged it," Johnson said. "Those were tough times."
North Dakota saw an influx of farm-raised bison, llamas, potbellied pigs, rabbits, deer, elk and the emu's two-toed cousin, the ostrich. Few of the new animal industries really got off the ground, Johnson said.
"Emu ranching was one of the industries that grew very rapidly for a time but declined just as rapidly," Johnson said. "We heard reports of people simply turning them loose because the market got so bad."
A breeding pair once could fetch more than $20,000. Today, emu ranchers say, breeding pairs can be bought for a few hundred dollars. Sometimes, people give them away.
"A lot of people got in it and thought it was a get-rich-quick kind of thing where they would buy some birds and become millionaires," Holzkamm said. "The reality is, nobody did their homework."
"It was a breeders market," said Dean Aasand, an emu rancher in Carrington, in east central North Dakota. "Nobody had really turned into marketing the bird or bird products. Once you get too many birds and nothing to do with them, they get pretty useless."
Dale Mueller, of rural Bismarck, said he had one of the biggest emu ranches in North Dakota, with several hundred emus in the mid-1990s. Now, he keeps about two dozen emus on his ranch as pets.
He said he invested about $1 million in the operation.
"I never made a dime," he said. "But that's the way it is, sometimes."