In the early 1990s, emus were billed as the next big thing in Australian farming.
With wool prices in the doldrums, merinos were swept from many farms across the continent — replaced by these large flightless birds that most farmers had previously regarded as a pest.
The proponents extolled the emus’ many virtues: lean red meat, valuable oil, large decorative eggs and distinctive scaly leather.
The more cautious observed that for most Australians, emu meat would never be more than a niche novelty.
When Qantas briefly served the meat in meals on some flights, such was the public backlash about eating one half of the nation’s coat of arms, the airline quickly removed it again.
Others warned that setting up emu abattoirs and developing overseas and domestic markets for emu products was a difficult and high-risk venture.
By 1996, there were an estimated 500 emu farmers across Australia. Some had several thousand birds.
Most had expensive infrastructure such as incubators and extra-high fences, and many had expensive feed bills.
But emus are prolific breeders — each pair can produce up to 25 chicks each year — and Australian marketing could not catch up with the production.
Soon, farmers were forced to lay hundreds of tonnes of emu products dormant in cold storage.
The bird flu scare stifled fledgling markets to Asia.
Predictably, investment schemes promising fabulous financial returns collapsed.
Bitter investors tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to claw their money back — in some cases, from overseas tax havens.
Emus are prolific breeders, with each pair producing up to 25 chicks each year. (ABC Landline: Tim Lee)
Today, there are less than 12 emu farmers left.
At The Rock in southern New South Wales, career soldier-turned-hobby farmer, Ian Marston, is one of them.
When the crash happened, he almost sent his entire flock to be slaughtered.
For about eight years, Mr Marston merely collected the eggs which he sold to hobbyists for carving.
He simply hoped that one day the industry might recover.
But in central Victoria, Phil Lacey never lost faith.
He first got his start as a grower, then took over an emu abattoir and later built a factory to render emu oil.
Mr Lacey worked with Professor Michael Whitehouse, a medical scientist who specialises in analysing the properties of oil.
Professor Whitehouse examined emu oil, and found there were “vital active biological ingredients in emu oil that should be investigated”, Mr Lacey recalled.
Over time, research discovered the oil was very high in omega-3 fatty acids and had anti-inflammatory properties.
In the early 1990s, it gained registration with the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
Mr Lacey’s pharmaceutical-grade oil began to find favour among people with ailments such as arthritis.
In 2017, a laboratory in the United States found that emu oil was high in a compound called K2 MK4 — one that many medical scientists regard as extremely beneficial to human health.
Phil Lacey (left) took over an emu abattoir and built a factory to render emu oil. (ABC Landline: Tim Lee)
That finding was great news for Mr Lacey.
“That’s a very important one for wellbeing, health, to fight off diseases,” he said.
“So we’re rapt about that. Really rapt.”
The oil extracted at Mr Lacey’s central Victorian factory is made into soluble capsules.
Half of his production is exported — mostly to North America, though China is a new and growing destination.
Professor Whitehouse and the remaining farmers would love to see more independent scientific analysis of emu oil. He has a swag of testimonials from arthritis sufferers declaring the oil has brought them relief.
“Some people find it very helpful in treating asthma because that’s a very powerful inflammation in the lungs, and they found that putting this in their diet miraculously helps reduce inflammation,” Professor Whitehouse said.
Ian Marston is “happy as Larry” to see the emu farming industry taking off again. (ABC News: Rosie King)
Mr Marston finds these curious large bush birds equally fascinating. He admits he can happily watch them for hours.
“It’s good to see something that you’ve worked on for 25 years finally coming to fruition,” he said.
“Like any industry, we’re still learning, but our learning curve is not as steep as it used to be.”
“We’re as happy as Larry to finally see it going,” added Mr Lacey.
“We all are.”
Watch the story on Landline at the new time of 12:30pm Sunday.