Choose the right livestock and everything else falls into place. If you’re considering starting your own farmette, this is a valuable lesson, one that Joylene and Michael Reavis learned through experience.
Joy and Michael both had full-time jobs when they purchased a postcard-perfect, 10-acre farm outside Brodhead, Wisconsin, complete with a rambling old white barn. The couple wanted to take advantage of the land, but they didn’t know what they wanted to farm or raise. Joy had been a dairy farmer before with her first husband, who had passed away in 1989, but that wasn’t an option. It was way too much work.
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So the couple bought some sheep, but shearing them was more trouble than they were worth. They tried goats, but they were hard on the fences. They raised some steers for beef, but too often they bought the cattle high in the spring only to sell them low in the fall. Then one day Michael came across an article in the local newspaper about emus.
How About Emus?
When Michael asked her about the possibility of raising the large Australian flightless birds on their small farm in the middle of Wisconsin, Joy was more than a little skeptical. “I told him to take some aspirin, lay down, and that he’d feel better when he woke up,” she recalled.
But Joy agreed to visit a nearby farm that had a few emus, and, over the next year, the couple researched the birds and visited emu farms all over the country. Emus are raised for their incredibly lean and nutrient-rich meat as well as their omega-rich fat, which is turned into an oil that’s used as a highly sought-after skin care product.
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Eventually, Joy agreed to get into the emu business. During an early summer tour of her 12 adult emus—six husbands and six wives—she chuckled and said, “I always blame it on my husband.”
Joy and Michael got the emus in the summer of 1995, naming their business Sugar Maple Emu Farm. They started out with three-month-old birds, and their first breeding couples were named Fred and Wilma and Betty and Barney after characters from The Flintstones. Each couple can lay as many as 25 fertile eggs. “We’d incubate the eggs and 52 days later we got the chicks,” Joy said.
Emus are relatively easy to care for. At Sugar Maple, the adult emus live in large chain-link pens with tall domes for housing, and they eat a specialized ration made from local grains that’s scientifically formulated to provide the birds with all the necessary nutrients. The business grew slowly. They added a seasonal farm store where they sold emu meat, oils and other emu-related products, including painted eggs. The farm began to attract local shoppers and tourists.
Joy, having served as president of the Wisconsin Emu Association, is able to talk at length about the health benefits and beef-like flavor of the meat, and the unique properties of emu oil. “It’s one of the few natural oils that will penetrate human skin, allowing the nutrients to reach the tissue,” she said.
Michael passed away last year, but Joy continues to raise emus, and sell emu meat and emu-oil products. During the summer months, the farm is open for tours. School kids, tourists from Chicago, Christian motorcycle groups and many others have visited the farm. The newborn chicks, in particular, are always a hit.
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Today, two big fluffy Akbash dogs roam the property, keeping away raccoons that can bring in parasites that are lethal to the emus, and there is a herd of Katahdin sheep, a breed developed in Maine with hair-like wool that falls out naturally, meaning that they don’t have to be sheared. They graze the farm’s small pastures and are sold for their meat in the fall.
The Perfect Mix
The mix of animals and lifestyle proved perfect for Michael and Joy. “We finally found the right combination,” she said.
Joy has been able to carry on the business, hauling the 50-pound feedbags and 10-pound buckets of water herself every day. She gets help from time to time from her brother-in-law and kids, but is mostly self-sufficient. She is planning to wind down the farm—she’s 67, though she credits the emu oil for keeping her looking much younger—but she still enjoys the emus.
The females, she pointed out, make a booming sound like bongo drums—a byproduct of the unique air sacs they use to vocalize. “On a hot summer night, it’s nice to hear,” Joy said. “The sound will carry for miles.”
To her, it’s like being in the Outback in the middle of Wisconsin. To learn more about Sugar Maple Farm, the medical benefits from emu oil and how to prepare the meat, please visit sugarmapleemu.com.
A Few Emu Factoids
Emus are flightless birds native to Australia, where they’ve lived for over 50 million years. Some researchers believe their ancestors may have roamed the Earth with the dinosaurs 80 million years ago. Adults are between 5 and 6 feet tall and weigh as much as 140 pounds. They can run as fast as 40 miles per hour and have the same skeletal structure as a Velociraptor dinosaur, though they are docile, relatively harmless creatures. Just beware of their powerful legs.
“They only flail with their feet trying to get away, when they are caught,” Joy said. “We always handle them from behind to avoid getting kicked with their powerful legs.”
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.