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Emu Goes Indian

Tukaram Walke has been growing onions,potatoes and sugar cane on his eight-acre farm in Chakan district of Maharashtra for many years.

Written by Afsha Khan | New Delhi |
April 22, 2012 12:45:13 am

Tukaram Walke has been growing onions,potatoes and sugar cane on his eight-acre farm in Chakan district of Maharashtra for many years.

Tukaram Walke has been growing onions,potatoes and sugar cane on his eight-acre farm in Chakan district of Maharashtra for many years. Like all farmers in his vicinity,he thought his earnings from his harvest were enough to fund the education and marriage of his two daughters,despite the vagaries of weather and erratic prices. But three years ago,the prices of onions — his harvest’s mainstay — plunged,and he “got nothing from the crops that season”.

So,he decided to “insure” himself against such “suffering”. That insurance came in the form of a tall,feathered and flightless bird,foreign to India. It was the emu. “I had heard that the birds are bought cheap,but give very good returns,” says Walke. He bought 50 pairs of emus,for Rs 18,000 a pair,from a nearby hatchery,and put them in a small pen.

Three years on,Walke has no regrets. “Even if my crop season is catastrophic,the returns from the birds will help us get by,” he says. Every year,he sells the eggs laid by the emus for Rs 1,000 each,to hatcheries. This mating season,which ended in March,his 50 female birds laid 20 eggs each,earning him Rs 10 lakh.

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Emu farming isn’t new to India,but has grown over the last five years. Entering the industry are farmers like Walke,who have been growing crops for generations and battling nature and market forces to keep their produce going,in addition to urban Indians with land in rural areas to spare. Depending on the size of the land,farmers invest in as few as four pairs and as many as 250. The returns come in the form of sales of eggs,valued between Rs 1,000 and 1,800 each.

While in India,farming is mostly limited to sales of eggs and livestock multiplication,in several countries,emu meat is a delicacy and emu oil a healer. This aspect of the bird has also begun to trickle into the country. A few premium restaurants have begun to offer emu dishes on their menu. For example,Olive Bar and Kitchen in Delhi offers on its winter menu sous vide — emu meat placed in a plastic packet and slow-cooked in warm water— and prepares it on demand for parties. Mumbai’s Aurus restaurant offers a special emu dish every couple of weeks through the year. Its preparation keeps changing — head chef Vicky Ratnani has prepared it in various ways,including a Continental-style emu steak with pink peppercorn sauce and an Asian-style diced emu in Thai green curry. At Rs 1,200,it is expensive,and only occasionally appears on the menu “due to erratic supply”. In Mandawa,Rajasthan,the Thar Heritage Hotel serves an “emu special” dish,prepared like a beef or mutton steak,seasoned with salt and pepper,and served with vegetables.

Most people demanding emu dish at the Thar Heritage Hotel are foreigners. Similarly,raw emu meat,which is red like beef but is 97 per cent fat-free,and is sold at gourmet stores like Dolce Vita in Mumbai for Rs 750-Rs 900 a kilo,is mostly popular among expatriates,says Rohet Khanna,owner of the store at Phoenix Mills,Lower Parel. There are also few Indian takers for Aurus’s emu preparation. “Not too many diners go for it,as it is niche and people don’t know much about it,” says Ratnani.

However,home-grown demand seems to be picking up. Delhi Emu Farms,in Noida,which was set up two years ago and supplies emu meat in NCR,“sells about 50 kilos of emu meat a month”. Proprietor Akash Angral,an architect before he switched to farming,says,“Most of our customers are individuals,mostly Indians,who purchase the meat for private consumption. Restaurants order only occasionally.” Ajay Chopra,executive chef of The Westin Mumbai Garden City,says,“As Indians are travelling more now,they’re not just open to trying out different cuisines,but also exotic meats.”

Emu is known for its oil too,which has medicinal properties. Farmers in India,like Ajay Kumar Chahar,who owns Karmi MaaEmu Farm and Hatchery,in Churu,Rajasthan,are tapping into this potential and making profits. Chahar has his own brand of emu oil,Karni Maa Emu Oil,which he supplies to “companies” that he doesn’t name. Sunny Agarwal,who grows medicinal plants on his farm in Kashipur,Uttarakhand,invested in 100 pairs of adult emus,and 50 pairs of chicks six months ago because he sees potential in the oil of the bird. “Emu oil has a lot of medicinal properties and is used to cure coughs,colds and aches among other ailments. It also sells for Rs 5,000 to 6,000 per litre,” he says.

But there’s still a long way to go. Chahar is not taking international orders because he doesn’t have enough birds to meet them. Agarwal is facing a similar problem. “The idea right now isn’t to make profits but increase the population in India. Once there are enough birds,we plan on using emu oil for medical purposes.”

The demand for emu meat and oil is not met primarily because of insufficient livestock. “We don’t cater to demands by cosmetic firms and restaurants,because we can’t meet them. Our main aim is to multiply livestock so that we can be ready in five years to meet the demand,” says Tambatkar Sami,who owns an emu farm in Jejuri,Mahrashtra,and a hatchery in Chakan,and is a partner with several farms in Rajasthan,Karnataka and Uttarakhand.

Last October,28-year-old Agarwal brought together 70 farmers in Kashipur for a talk on promoting emu farming. “Sometimes,farmers struggle to make an income from cultivation. They can breed emus,which are steady birds and don’t cost a lot to keep — around Rs 8,000 per year for a pair. If you take proper care of them,they really flourish,” he says. Walke has assigned his 16-year-old daughter the task of tending to the 100 emus,even as he concentrates on vegetable farming. “They’re good birds,resistant to changes in weather,and not difficult to take care of,” he says.

In India,emu farming is most widespread in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu,and is becoming big in Maharashtra,Rajasthan and Uttarakhand,according to Sami. “Emus can survive in any climate,scorching heat as well as sub-zero temperatures. Farms are now emerging in Kashmir and Dehradun as well,” he says. Originally native to Australia,the breed currently found in India has come from the US,as exports of the bird and its products is ­prohibited in Australia.

At Sami’s hatchery,the chicks are hatched in a machine that can accommodate 900 eggs at a time. Once they’re out,they are placed in a special enclosure,measuring up to 150 feet. When they’re old enough,they’re sold in pairs to different farmers around the region. Once they turn a year old,they start mating and laying eggs. What’s more,the birds live up to 30 years,and can lay eggs until they turn 25.

“In India,we have around 15-20 lakh birds in total. But it still isn’t enough to harvest the bird for commercial purposes,” says Sami,who is giving himself five years to multiply enough livestock through his hatchery and network of farmers to start investing in slaughtering.

With inputs from Shantanu David

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First published on: 22-04-2012 at 12:45:13 am

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