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Ostrich

An Acton company is gung ho for ostriches. Less than one year old, International Ostrich Corp., has purchased 45 acres of land and is leasing an additional 341 acres to breed, rear, process and sell ostrich meat. The company expects production to reach 40,000 birds by the year 2001, up from 2,000 ostriches this year. IOC is depending on the public’s romance with low-fat, low-cholesterol meats to propel its ostriches onto tables across America. “We’re poised to take it to the next level, to dominate the entire U.S. market,” said Steven Di Pressi, IOC’s chief financial officer and secretary. “I think we can pull it off.” But is America ready for all those ostriches? “There’s a high cuddle factor. To convince somebody to eat what looks like an affable big bird is not easy,” said Francine Bradley, extension poultry specialist at UC Davis. “Americans don’t have that adventuresome a palette.” Though ostrich production brings in some $300 million for South Africa, which also exports the meat worldwide, the business here is still in its infancy. Some butchers polled at random at Ralph’s and Gelson’s Markets around L.A. said ostrich hasn’t caught on with their customers, perhaps because of its price about $18.95 a pound for steaks. “We have a reasonably loyal clientele that buys it,” said Brian Reff, owner of Reff Brothers Food Co. Inc., ostrich meat distributors based in North Hollywood. But he adds, “It’s a hard sell with a lot of places.” Demand has lagged behind supply mostly because of lack of concerted marketing, said Daniel Gezahegne, president of the California Ostrich Association. But a commodity market is emerging, he said. The industry is going through a shakedown a lot of ostrich producers have gone out of business or been absorbed by bigger operations. “The serious people are staying in business, putting money where they need to,” Gezahegne said. There are about 4,000 ostrich farms in the country, down from 8,000 a few years ago, and less than half a dozen producers nationwide comparable in size and resources to IOC, Di Pressi said. IOC’s strategy calls for vertical integration covering all phases of ostrich production incubating, hatching and eventually, processing the ostriches. Starting in April, the company will process about 2,000 birds, which Di Pressi expects to yield $1 million to $1.5 million. In addition, between 3,000-5,000 birds will be bought this year. The company will initially process and package fillets, ground patties, netted roasts and other cuts and smoked products like ostrich sausages. Di Pressi, who had been in the property management business in L.A., made the career switch after seeing a report on ostrich farming on television. In the early ’90s, he plunked down $50,000 to buy his first pair of breeding birds and founded Cal-Pride Ostrich Farms, with a partner, Theodore Loeschner. Cal-Pride has about 2,000 birds, each bringing $700 to $900 for its meat and hide. IOC is now processing Cal-Pride’s birds. IOC raised $500,000 from private investors and incorporated last April and, in November, went public. The stock, traded on Nasdaq’s Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board, has hovered at $1 to $1.50 per share since then, DiPressi said. To build its business, IOC intends to educate the public about the healthful benefits of ostrich meat. Though it tastes like beef, DiPressi said, it competes more with seafood and lobster because of the price and fat content. The company plans to target high-end restaurants, specialty food stores, resorts, country clubs and individuals through catalog sales. “People love it,” said Juan Alonso, chef and owner of Le Chene, in Agua Dulce, which goes through about 50 pounds every three weeks. IOC is also working with investment bankers to infuse more capital into the company. It has plans to raise an additional $2 million through private investors to retire some short-term notes, buy more ostriches, eggs, equipment and cover other expenses. IOC is also trying to merge with another ostrich ranch in the state, Di Pressi said.

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