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PASS THE OSTRICH, PLEASETHIS IS THE STUFFING OF LOCAL FARMERS' DREAMS

Just because Roy Lynch's dream sounds bizarre, that's no reason to bury your head in the sand.

Lynch, owner of the Arizona Ostrich Ranch, predicts that ostrich meat will soon battle to become a staple in the American diet, hogging a place at the table alongside chicken, pork and, yes, even beef.

"It ain't going to be long," says Lynch, "you're going to see a McOstrich burger."

The meat of the exotic, flightless bird from Africa reportedly tastes just like beef--but less fattening. Is this Arizona's next growth industry?

Some people are calling ostrich meat the gourmet health food of the future. Its virtues have gotten play in magazines such as GQ, which recently called ostrich meat "the latest trendy dish." The industry as a whole has been written up in the Wall Street Journal.

Because Arizona's desert climes are so similar to the bird's native continent, Lynch says, the state may surpass Texas as the ostrich's largest North American home. Lynch says his ranch near 41st Street and Bell Road, which sports 24 ostriches and some emus, is the biggest of about a half-dozen or so farms in the Valley.

"In a couple of years, I'd say there'll be thousands here in Arizona," he says. "The Valley temperature is basically exactly what they've got in Africa. It's hot and it's dry, few trees and scarce water. That's where Mother Nature intended them to live."

Chandler's annual Ostrich Festival, featuring races of the long-necked, stick-legged balls of feathers, has outdrawn the Iceberg Phoenix Grand Prix. But trying to find a place where you can get an ostrich sandwich in Arizona may be impossible. Lynch can't name any. Neither can the local restaurateurs' organization.

At the headquarters of the 650-member American Ostrich Association in Fort Worth, Texas, calls from people seeking ostrich meat tripled in the past three months, according to executive director Susan Adkins. Granted, the total number of calls only jumped from six last year to twenty in the past ninety days. Although Adkins doesn't yet know where to refer the callers, she still contends that the industry is about to boom.

"People are talking about it like crazy," she swears. "It's going to take off."

But the ostrich market itself still is controlled by investors who buy and sell the birds like gold, not game.

So far, the money is in breeding and nurturing ostriches, not eating them. A one-year-old bird can sell for $7,000; a pair of mature birds has gone for as high as $75,000. Fertile eggs are worth between $750 and $1,000 a pop. Lynch, who has paid up to $20,000 for a pair, has birds that lay 45 eggs a year.

For ostrich meat, the going rate is about $10 to $20 a pound, Lynch says. That makes slaughtering equivalent to cutting up a Van Gogh and selling it in pieces.

Adkins says the last Arizona breeder she knew of who actually sold ostrich meat was Alfredo Tulliani of Mesa. But she hasn't been able to reach him for several months. Fellow Valleyite Lynch says he's not sure whether Tulliani still sells ostrich meat. (Tulliani did not return calls from New Times.)

Six months ago, Lynch says, Tulliani paid $1,000 each for "non-perfect" birds (ones with crooked legs or uneven feet) and then sold the meat at $20 a pound. (From each bird, there is 100 to 120 pounds of meat.)

Until the current U.S. ostrich population of 15,000 to 30,000 increases, profits from slaughtering them probably won't. And one local bird farmer predicts that the price of ostriches will drop in a market that has been bullish in the past decade.

"In my opinion, that can happen at any minute," according to Damien Fairbanks, of the Roer Bird Farm north of Bethany Home Road on 27th Avenue. "The bottom is about to drop out. For a long while, they were an investment bird, like llamas or Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. But the market's been going up for the past five or ten years. It's going to glut."

If slaughtering en masse begins, Lynch expects to take some heat from animal lovers. But local animal-rights advocates say it's still too early to worry about.

"I should think that it would be an awfully expensive proposition," says Treva Slote, executive director of the Arizona Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Of course, I would hate to see it happen. Animal-rights groups don't want to see any wild animal slaughtered."

Slote takes that stance even though a car she was in was once attacked by a hen ostrich while on a trip to Kenya. The bird crushed the passenger-side door and almost injured the person in the front seat.

If animal lovers aren't concerned, the beef industry at least has an eye on the situation.

"We do keep a file on it," says Marge Anderson of the Arizona Beef Council. "We are aware that it's a growing industry."

Anderson insists that her industry won't oppose ostrich meat. Beef producers, who have seen their sales drop to 41 percent of the market in recent years, have gone diplomatic, encouraging what Anderson calls a "balanced" diet that incorporates "a variety of meats." Anderson says ostrich meat could be included in that variety.

But Lynch isn't so certain the beef lobby will lie low. "I'm sure the beef industry is going to fight this," he says. "All they need is a red meat that tastes just like their beef, but with less fat and less cholesterol. They're not going to like it."

An 85-gram serving of ostrich meat has 97 calories, 2 grams of fat, and 58 milligrams of cholesterol, according to the American Ostrich Association. The same portion of beef has 230 calories, 16 grams of fat and 74 grams of cholesterol. Ostrich also beats both chicken (140 calories, 3 grams of fat, 73 milligrams cholesterol) and pork (275 calories, 19 grams of fat, 84 milligrams cholesterol).

Health benefits aside, the question remains: Will people actually eat ostriches?

There's disagreement about that--even among bird breeders. "I sort of doubt it," says Fairbanks of the Roer Bird Farm. "Look how long it has taken sushi to get popular in this country. People just don't jump on the bandwagon. Besides, there's too much chicken around."

Lynch acknowledges that people may be reluctant at first to eat ostrich meat, but would be more willing once learning of its healthy qualities. And Slote tends to agree.

"The Homo sapien," says animal-lover Slote, "has been known to eat anything that moves, starting with termites. Why not ostriches?"

"It ain't going to be long," says Roy Lynch, "you're going to see a McOstrich burger."

"Look how long it has taken sushi to get popular in this country. People just don't jump on the bandwagon."

Local animal-rights advocates say it's still too early to worry about.

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Dave Newbart