N.J. farmers carving out a niche with exotic animals

HOLLAND TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP)--Dirk Milz, a ceramic tile installer who farmed on the side, started out with traditional beef cattle and sheep.

The allure of exotic animals soon grabbed him, though, and now Milz and his son raise everything from African porcupines to yaks on their 57-acre hilltop farm by the Delaware River in central New Jersey. The elder Milz, a native of Koblenz, Germany, started buying llama for his Edelweis Farm in the mid-1980s.

"I got in pretty heavy and we sold all the sheep," he recalled, and began breeding llama and selling them all over the country.

The family has since replaced the standard cattle with Highlanders, a low-maintenance Scottish cattle breed with long, thick hair, and has added about a dozen other animal species, including big-eared fennel foxes, wallabies, emus, Sicilian miniature donkeys and raccoon-like coatimundi.

Today, nearly half the farm income comes from displaying the animals at educational and special events, such as taking their reindeer herd to Christmas festivals and tree sales. The rest comes from beef sales and selling breeding stock from the different animals to petting zoos, other breeders and people wanting an unusual outdoor pet.

Like the Milzes, farmers across the country are raising exotic animals for everything from exhibitions to sales of their meat, hides, wool and other body parts.

Some are second-career farmers, while others were traditional farmers looking for a way to escape the squeeze of rising costs and stagnant commodity prices. Many are catering to health-conscious consumers looking for low-fat, high-protein meat from animals such as ostrich and bison.

"The exotic animal world is slowly growing," said Zoann Parker, a county extension director at North Carolina State University and former alternative agriculture specialist at Pennsylvania State University.

Parker sees the biggest growth in sales of "pocket pets" such as small foxes, wallabies and hedgehogs, on-farm exhibitions and commercial preserves where trophy hunters can take aim at white-tailed deer and elk much larger than those in the wild. Sales of meat from ostriches and bison also are growing, she said, with high-end restaurants, health food markets and even some regular grocery chains offering the products.

Promoting the leanness of bison is part of the marketing strategy for Erick Doyle and his father, Gerry, who run Readington River Farm, where they raise about 130 all-natural American plains bison on 235 acres in central New Jersey. They sell about 400 pounds of bison, known colloquially as buffalo, each week from a store on the farm, over the Internet and wholesale to area restaurants.

Erick Doyle was working as a cook in Colorado nearly a decade ago when his father, a chemist about to retire and looking for a second career, visited and the two had lunch at a restaurant on a farm raising bison, which were nearly wiped out in the late 1800s.

"We were eating buffalo meat and watching the buffalo. It was just an amazing experience," recalled the younger Doyle.

His parents, who lived on a "gentleman's farm" with a few cows, soon bought this farm when it came up for auction through the state's farm preservation program, and he moved back to help build up the buffalo herd from a 10-cow, one-bull "starter kit."

Now they sell bison cuts from steaks, roast and London broil to buffalo burgers, jerky and even ravioli. Unlike most crop, dairy and livestock farmers, they get to set their price for their products, rather than take what a commodities broker will offer.

"I'm really happy doing what I'm doing," Erick Doyle said. "I wouldn't want to work these long hours to have someone (a commodities broker) tell me what they'll pay."

Debi Kelly, project manager at the University of Missouri's alternative agriculture center, said sales of bison and elk meat, often sold as sausage, are up, along with rabbit and goat meat, fueled by popularity among some ethnic groups. Sales of milk and cheese from yak and goat also are growing, as is aquaculture--raising prawns and other food fish or fish for ornamental ponds and home aquariums.

"The little guy's got to do something different than what the big guy's doing" to survive, she said.

That's particularly true in densely populated New Jersey, where there's a large variety of exotic farms--mostly small operations run on the side by middle-aged people--producing everything from miniature draft horses to llama sold as guards for sheep herds, said Bob Mickel, a livestock agent with Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service.

While statistics on exotic animal herds and income are hard to come by, the U.S. Department of Agriculture deemed the farms worth tracking when it included them for the first time in 2002 in its twice-a-decade detailed survey of farm operations. That year, for example, the agency reported more than 4,000 farms with a total of 232,000 bison and nearly 17,000 farms with 145,000 llamas, as well as more than 48,000 emus and 20,000 ostriches, although experts say those numbers likely are undercounts. The next survey is due in 2007.

The number of bison processed in government-monitored slaughterhouses jumped 17 percent last year to more than 35,000 and is on pace to jump 20 percent to another record this year, according to the 1,200-member National Bison Association.

"Meat prices are starting to rise, so we're optimistic that more folks will get into the industry," said association spokesman Jim Matheson.

Meanwhile, there's a rebound in the ostrich industry, which collapsed in the mid-1990s after speculators pushed prices for breeding pairs as high as $100,000 even though there was only a market for their hides. Now, prices are more realistic and experienced farmers able to hatch the delicate eggs are also selling ostrich meat, according to Dianna Westmoreland of the American Ostrich Association. Farms can't keep up with the demand, she said.

The ostrich boom-bust, which also befell emus, should serve as a warning to speculators and new farmers, who need training to raise the animals and should be sure there's a market for end-products as well as breeding stock, experts warn.

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