Drifting amid the endless Texas prairie near Waco, the sky begun to grow strangely dim for mid-day. It was then that we pulled off of the freeway and saw the bobbing heads and flapping feathers of the eager emus at Willow Grove Ranch.
Dave and Kay Shriner are the adorable couple (married 50 years!) who run this property, from which Emu and antelope are just a few of the prancing critters around this trove of wild heritage grasses. Dave was a career decorated military man, the couple started their emu venture in the early 1990s. Their emus are prized for their nutrient-rich, lean red meat and especially their healing emu oil. Dave and Kay are the largest providers of emu oil in Central Texas; they have been extolling and enjoying the benefits (from easing arthritis pain to promoting extremely smooth and healthy skin) for decades. “These elbows have sold more oil than any sales pitches we could come up with,” Kay says with a wink as she shows off her soft, flawless arms. Emu oil is anti-inflammatory and helps to heal burns, cuts, and dreaded fire ant bites nearly instantly, a real and growing threat in this part of Texas. Dave described that the popularity of emu had grown so fast a few decades ago that when the trend dipped, a lot of people who were not passionate about the birds no longer wanted to raise them with the care they deserved — Many ended up abandoning their stock at Willow Grove where they could live and breed with great care. Dave took us out to the pasture where the first emu we came across (a long-term resident) met him with a gentle embrace. Dave and Kay stuck with emu farming and began experimenting with refining their emu oil to create a long-lasting and incredibly high-quality product. The American Emu Association has developed standards for the product and Dave and Kay insist that buyers be aware of this approval when selecting oil.
The birds are friendly, lively and inquisitive creatures. Kristina and I ran around with a few among the goats, chickens and turkeys in the Willow Grove pasture until a wicked Texas cold-snap rolled up on us, dropping the temperature about 30 degrees within minutes. At that point, Dave and Kay lovingly prepared a dinner of fresh emu steaks for us. The meat is dark red, delicate and rich. Best prepared near-rare it is melt-in-your-mouth delicious and we were very lucky to down about a pound and not feel too full. They say it is higher in nutritional protein that chicken, beef or buffalo – while still being the lowest in fat and caloric content. Emus have one of the smallest digestion systems of this size bird, chomping down on bugs, snakes and the custom feed Dave procures from his own mill. From a mature bird ready for processing, about 30 lbs of meat and 30 lbs of fat can be obtained on average. The third in the triumvirate of emu utilization is the skin. Emu leather is as tough as crocodile when tanned, ensuring this bird as a true all-purpose livestock. Not much goes to waste. “We call it the complete bird,” Dave says.
Dave has also spent years cultivating a veritable safari in the acreage. His Boer goats wander among the native Texas grass, antelope graze in the wheat and Indian grass on the acreage. Of course, no Lone Star ranch is complete without the iconic longhorn steer. The Shriners were happy to show us their amazing operation and treated us like family. They told us about their wonderful children and showed us Kay’s quilting projects (some made from the denim her children grew up wearing, so cute!), photos of the rare wildlife they were adding to the farm, they even offered to let us stay in the guest room as the weather turned surprisingly rough, the wind whipping branches onto the bus and dark clouds rolling low and sinister just overhead. We had to head out right away to get ahead of the storm and toward our next destination, but we were so thankful for their kindness. Emu is their specialty, and alongside their variety of rotationally grazing poultry and livestock, the Shriners have restored a native natural flow to this gorgeous piece of land. Willow Grove is a great example of the kind of life we are building for ourselves. What the Shriners showed us during our visit was a family and business grown with love, pride, and careful attention to the quality of their products and their life.
-David & Kristina-