Pat McFadden jokes that he's the president of the American Ostrich Association because "when I was a kid, I was in 4-H and I know parliamentary procedure pretty well."
He's also an enthusiastic ambassador for ostrich farming, pointing out that it's a growth industry.
"Last year, there was 73,000 pounds of ostrich meat imported because the supply just isn't large enough to meet the demand," he said. "More and more people are eating ostrich these days because they're becoming health-conscious and nutrition-conscious. Ostrich is red meat, but very low in fat and cholesterol."
McFadden and his partner, Bob Johnson, operate as Kansas Longnecker Products. Their ostrich farm is on 30 acres northwest of Augusta.
"We actually are one of the largest ostrich suppliers in the nation," McFadden said. They sell ostrich meat locally at the Kansas Grown Farmers Market in west Wichita and at Satchel Creek Steaks in east Wichita. But most of it is sold through brokers in Nebraska and New Jersey. Most of the hides go to Mexico.
McFadden, who got into ostrich farming 15 years ago, has been a full-time farmer since January, when he retired from Spirit AeroSystems. He and his wife, Jalene, have three grown daughters.
How did you get into the business?
"I've always been in some kind of farming. I bought this land out here.. (and) I wanted some kind of a project. I just happened to run into a guy who was in the business. I bought a breeder pair and got started."
How big is your operation?
"We have only about 180 birds that will be slaughtered this year, which sounds like not a very big thing, and it isn't — but there aren't that many (ostrich farmers) left. If we had 1,000 birds, we could sell them."
Do the birds run wild?
"We have them in pens. You need a large enough pen that they can run — get full speed. They run fast, and they can run a long time. My pens are 300 feet long. The bigger the pen, the better."
Do they fly?
"No. And it's a good thing. They can climb a fence, and I've had them knock a fence down.... The ostrich doesn't have a breastbone like a chicken or turkey. They say that's why they can't fly. They don't have a keel bone like a chicken or turkey. That's why there's no white meat."
What's a year like for an ostrich farmer?
"The hens quit laying in the wintertime. Probably in October they quit. And they start again in March. Then it takes about six weeks for them to hatch.... All of those that hatch during the summer, we feed them."
"About mid-April or the first of May, we start hauling birds in. We weigh them, and if they weigh 250 pounds or more, we put them on the trailer. If not, we put them back out in the pen and we feed them some more. We haul them to McPherson, to Krehbiels (Specialty Meats for processing.) We're really lucky to have them so close because they are so good, not only with the meat but with the hide, the skin. That's the tricky part."
The whole bird is used?
"We do not do anything with the feathers because we have not found anyone who will pay us enough to bother with them, to keep them. But the ostrich gives us three superior products. The meat. The leather — ostrich leather is the toughest hide you can buy.... The third product is another health-promoting product, and that's the oil. Not very many people know about it. We have a lot of oil to sell. It's used mostly for skin care. It's great for dry skin or burns or eczema."
Don't ostriches have a reputation as mean birds?
"Uh-huh. There's a reason for that. They can get pretty aggressive, especially the older ones. Now, most of the ones we have are young birds. And even then, there will be one every once in a while that gets a little frisky. They peck at me. But it's the kick you don't want to have. They kick straight forward, and it can be pretty disastrous."
So how's business?
"The price has almost doubled since last year because of the demand. So maybe we're going to make some money this year. And truly, there have been years where we don't make money. But we do most of the time."