KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) -- Tucked against a hill west of Kalispell is a picturesque farm dotted with red barns. Sheep once kept this property afloat, but the fuzzy animals have long been replaced by feathery emus.
These prehistoric-looking creatures stalk across their pens on three-toed feet whenever Don Collins approaches, emitting the occasional eerie drumming call common to their species.
Collins, a fourth-generation Flathead Valley resident, has owned and operated Montana Emu Ranch Company along with his wife, Penni, since 1993.
"To the Aborigines, the emu was like what the bison was to Native Americans," he said. "It provided them with food, medicine, clothing and tools."
What was a necessity for the Australian Aborigines became a novelty for Americans in the early 1990s. At that time, emu farms cropped up across the nation and the animal was poised to become America's other red meat. Ironically, the flightless birds that once faced extermination in their native Australia were going for up to $40,000 a pair. Yet despite the promise and hype, emu burgers and steaks never found solid footing on the American palate.
When the market fell through, many emu farms went bankrupt, having spent thousands to stock their pens. For a time, the situation looked dire, until emu farmers, including the Collinses, stumbled upon a lucrative bird byproduct: emu oil.
While it sounds far-fetched, devotees say the oil, taken from a large camel-like hump found on the birds' necks, works as a first-class anti-inflammatory, heals burns, lowers cholesterol and soothes eczema, among other maladies.
Besides its purported therapeutic properties, emu oil has been hailed by the beauty world as a line-smoothing and wrinkle-erasing miracle product.
Vogue called it "the world's next cosmetic rage" while Harper's Bazaar said it gives people "a more youthful, healthier appearance."
"It's endless what can be done with this product," Collins said.
With the addition of ingredients like essential oils, shea butter and beeswax, Montana Emu Ranch produces around 30 products including cleansing lotion, soap, skin cream, wound salve and nutritional supplements. Yet 100 percent pure emu oil remains the company's most popular product and Collins estimates it accounts for 40 percent of the farm's product sales.
Collins says the magic behind the product is that emu oil works as a transdermal carrier.
"It has the ability to lock onto nutrients and carry them through the skin," he said.
Although a relatively new product, emu oil sales are picking up steam in an age where more and more people are leaning toward organic products. A seal of approval from Oprah didn't hurt it either.
"The natural food industry is on an incline," Collins said. "People are worrying about what they are wanting to put into their bodies, so they don't have to go to the doctor and worry about being able to pay for it."
While Collins notes that some have written emu oil off as a newfangled snake oil, he points to recent research funded by the American Emu Society and conducted at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Tests on mice concluded that emu oil has anti-inflammatory properties and is a superior treatment to fish oil. That being said, human clinical trials have yet to be completed and the FDA has yet to evaluate emu oil.
Collins said the business of conducting medical studies is often very expensive, political and time consuming. Meanwhile, the farm, with its hundreds of birds, needs to be looked after.
"It's very labor-intensive, a lot more than people think and that is why many of them get out," he said. "It's not a hobby, it's a business."
Besides the Collinses, six employees work in the onsite office, bottling and packaging orders. Collins estimates an additional "1.5" work outside. This doesn't include Spike, a giant white Akbash who keeps coyotes at bay from the pens.
UPS stops daily at the farm to pick up products ordered online. Besides its web presence, Montana Emu Ranch products are also retailed in 24 states.
"The sales end of it is pretty consistent," Collins said, noting that the downturn in the economy hasn't had much of an impact on the business. "It's grown to where we have distribution across the United States and sales worldwide."
While the business is a success, Collins never foresaw that his future would lie in agriculture, let alone in the cosmetics industry. After working 15 years for a local beverage company, Collins decided a new career path was in order.
"I wanted to do something different," he said. He and Penni were in their mid-30s at the time and had built up a nest egg for financing.
"The opportunity came along, so we gave it a shot," he said.
Although they had envisioned themselves working primarily as breeders, the Collinses decided to tap into the oil market. In 1998, the Montana Emu Ranch Co. began offering its range of cosmetic and health products.
In 2000, they moved to their present location west of Kalispell after their brood outgrew the original farm. Around 250 chicks hatched this spring and the total number of emus reached 600 in early summer.
In addition to its health and beauty products, the farm sells emu meat to several health food stores in the valley. This year, it is also featured on restaurant menus in Glacier Park.
Collins says future plans include expanding the operation. The farm has 40 acres but only five are currently used to pen the birds.
"I keep hearing about five-year plans but it seems to start over every two," he said.
As for its product line, the company plans to roll out a line of shampoo and other hair products this fall.
"We hope that emu oil will one day be where aloe vera is," Collins said. "Once you couldn't find it and now it's everywhere."