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FEBRUARY 2019 • COUNTRY LIFE IN BC


Ostrich industry takes flight with


big plans Vertical integration could avoid past challenges


by MYRNA STARK LEADER


EDGEWOOD – Dave Bilinski is optimistic about the prospects for BC ostrich producers, 15 years after the industry collapsed and most breeding stock for the bird was exported out of Canada. He knows the world’s


largest flightless birds are well-suited to BC’s climate, and particularly small-lot farms. The companies he’s involved with are proving that BC can produce high- quality birds generating a host of products, from high- end medicinal oil through red meat rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (and less fat than a skinless chicken breast) and eggs (whole and blown out for artists) to skin for leather, feathers and manure popular with gardeners. He and business partner Karen Espersen are determined that their vertically integrated companies will create a viable industry here. The pair own Universal Ostrich Farms Inc., which supplies breeding hens to about a dozen independent BC growers from the Fraser Valley to the Peace. Growers sell yearling ostrich to Omega Ostrich, also owned by Bilinski and Espersen, which finishes and processes them and markets the meat. Oil from the birds is made into medicinal products sold by another company the couple own, Onu Body Care Inc. A fourth company, Bizarre Bites, is a joint-venture partnership that uses ostrich components for pet treats and food. Bilinski’s interest in the bird traces its roots to the 1980s, when he and his family had 750 beef cattle and a logging business at Edgewood. One


day, his son came home and said they should diversify into ostriches.


“I said to him, go back and


study it for three months and tell us why it won’t work. It turned out in two months I was on my way to Africa to look for breeding stock,” says Bilinski, who partnered with Calgary geneticist Bob Church and Steve Lilford, a third-generation farmer in Zimbabwe.


The trio built quarantine stations in Zimbabwe, Namibia and England for their selected ostrich genetics. In 1993, they chartered DC-9s to fly the ostrich to England where, after a month in quarantine, the birds were flown to Canada and an additional month in quarantine. Today, through their various companies, Bilinski and Espersen have about 400 birds on about 60 acres at Edgewood. The birds represent about 80% of Western Canada’s breeding flock, while Omega is the region’s biggest processor of the birds. “Everyone has a long-term


contract with five-year terms where our company, Omega Ostrich, purchases all their production, now $3 a pound live weight. This gives them a guaranteed market and it keeps all the progeny with our genetics going through the system so we have quality control and consistency of product,” he explains. Omega finishes the birds on the same diet for about 90 days, ensuring the birds’ meat and oil are uniform. The arrangement ensures farmers receive better prices and


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Ostrich whisperer: Karen Espersen has a way with the birds, which can reach nine feet in height. SUBMITTED PHOTO


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