Joe and Clover Quinn have 15 grandchildren who know a thing or two about the healing powers of the emu.
“Whenever they come over here, invariably someone gets hurt,” said Clover at the couple’s Wild Rose Emu Ranch on the eastern outskirts of Hamilton. “I tell them to come here and let grandma give you a kiss and make it better.
“They tell me no,” she said, with a smile. “They say they want emu oil. They know that emu oil works a lot better than a grandma’s kiss.”
Emus have been part of the Quinns' lives for almost as long as they’ve had grandchildren.
The couple was in their 50s when they visited a neighbor who happened to have a couple of the large, flightless birds that are native to Australia.
It was love at first sight for Clover.
“What wooed me was when I first saw their stately strut,” she said. “They seemed so proud. They were regal and then something would spook them and they would jump and skitter about. And a few moments later, they would be back to strutting and looking at us like ‘what’s wrong with you? Why are you looking at us like that?’
“It just stole my heart,” Clover said.
About the same time the emu market was going through a large upheaval. Back in the early 1990s, emus were rare in this country and breeding pairs were being sold for upwards of $45,000 or more.
While those who got on the bandwagon early made some money, the prices were too high for anyone interested in raising the birds for their fat-free meal, valuable oil, beautiful eggs and luxurious feathers. And so the breeder’s market crashed and prices fell.
“We were never interested in getting in on that breeder’s market,” Clover said. “We knew right from the start that wasn’t the place that we wanted to be. We wanted to create a product that people could use and enjoy.”
They purchased their first emus in 1996. Today the number on their small emu ranch fluctuates depending on the time of the year. They typically top out at about 120 just before they take birds to be sold or processed for their meat, oil, leather and feathers.
The couple's emu ranch is one of two that remains in Montana. The other is larger and located in the Kalispell area.
“It’s worked out really well for Joe and I,” Clover said. “He’s the silent worker. I’m the talker. I get to meet and talk with people who are interested in our products and emus.”
This time of year, the couple is busy gathering eggs for the incubator, keeping close watch on Joe’s hand-built hatcher and caring for baby emus that seem to grow right before their eyes.
Emus lay about one egg every three days for a three- to four-month period.
“This year, we’ve had the best hatch we’ve ever had,” said Joe as he shuffles a tray of the large green eggs between the whirling incubator and hatcher that he built himself. “We are at 53 birds right now. We should hit 80 to 100 before it’s all done.”
In a typical year, the couple will have somewhere between 60 to 80 hatchlings.
People also buy the eggs for both food and art.
“They make a great omelet,” Joe said. “It’s about the equivalent of a dozen chicken eggs. One emu egg will feed six people really well.”
Some of the birds will be sold as breeding stock. Others will go to the Kalispell farm. The couple will keep others to raise for their meat, oil and feathers.
They sell the meat at local stores including the Hamilton Market Place, Rainbow’s End, Burnt Fork Market in Stevensville and the Good Food Store in Missoula. The oil products can be purchased at Bitterroot Drug, Hamilton Gifts, Rainbow’s End and Health Care Products in Hamilton, Valley Drug in Stevensville and Lolo Drug.
“God had fun when he made the emu,” Clover said. “Its fat and meat are completely separate. There’s no meat in the fat and no fat in the meat. Each bird produces about 20 to 25 pounds of fat.”
Every two years, the couple sends about 2,000 pounds of frozen emu fat to a plant in Tennessee, which renders it into an oil that people from all over the country purchase to treat a variety of skin health issues.
Clover can talk for hours about the medicinal qualities of emu oil, which can thicken skin for the elderly, ease the suffering for those with burns and stop some dreadful itching.
Raising emus isn’t for everyone. They won’t sell a bird to anyone without first sitting down and learning about their plans.
“They don’t make real good pets,” Joe said. “They are wild birds. There’s nothing worse than one that wants to be a pet. They are always in your back pocket. They always want to be with you.”
Clover had done a lot of different things in her life before the emus arrived. She worked as a registered nurse, was a stay-at-home mom, taught school at Hamilton Christian Academy and worked to help people earn their GEDs.
At 75, she still works almost full time filling internet orders, doing tours, delivering products to stores in the Bitterroot and Missoula, manning a booth at the farmer’s market and telling anyone who will listen about the virtues of the emu.
“I think I have the most wonderful life in the world,” Clover said.
As she walks between the pens holding some of the very first emus the couple purchased — the birds can live over 30 years — the air is filled with a drumming sound.
“That’s the adult females,” Clover said. “I think it sounds a little bit like a Congo drum, low and melodious. It’s such a beautiful sound to wake up to.”