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Tending to the Flock

ON THE JOB: A look at working in and around Sussex County

By Bruce A. Scruton
Originally published in The New Jersey Herald on February 25, 2008

ANDOVER - While some farmers grow fruits and vegetables or milk cows, Todd Appelbaum's crop runs around on two legs, has stubby wings and lays an egg big enough to make an omelet for 20.

The also kick, hard

On the hillside off Whitehall Road is Appelbaum's ostrich farm where, on an average day, you might see 700 to 800 of his birds running in the pastures.

Appelbaum, 36, who lives in Fredon, started the farm with his brother, Lance, owner of Fossil Farms, which sells farm-raised game and all-natural meats. While much of the game products Fossil Farms sells are raised by other companies, the ostriches are all Todd's.

"Lance takes care of the office. I get the fun job," said Appelbaum who spends most of his time tending to the flock.

I used to raise them when I lived in Pennsylvania, but could only do it part-time and on a small scale because of the commute," he added. "Three years ago, we moved over here, and it's become full-time.

While there is the financial side, as with most farmers, there is also a love of the land or, in this case, the product. As Appelbaum talks about his routine, which doesn't even include a day off, there is an excitement in his voice.

The birds are raised mainly for their meat, although part of the flock is kept as breeders. In the spring and summer months, the females lay their eggs, usually between 5 and 7:30 p.m., and usually on the ground in a depression dug by the male. Appelbaum makes an evening round to collect the eggs, then stores them until he gets a week's worth.

The eggs are incubated on the farm and the chicks raised until they are full-grown in just over a year. On average, a full-grown ostrich will be about 250 pounds and yields about 75 pounds of meat for human consumption.

And here he becomes a pitchman for his animals, as much as his product: "It's a very low far, high protein red meat. More and more people are becoming aware of the health benefits.

What doesn't go for sale to restaurants or through the farm's Internet site (www.fossilfarms.com), is sold to all-natural pet food manufacturers. The animals' hides are made into high-grade ostrich leather.

"We really can't keep up with the demand," he said. Plans for the immediate future call for an increase in production to where the farm is producing about 2,000 birds a year.

Appelbaum said there are about 40 ostrich farmers across the country, but only two others, one in Texas and one on the West Coast, as large as his operation. Most of the farmers, he said, are hobbyists, raising a handful for the fun of it.

"It's very interesting," he said. "It's a challenge but rewarding. And, really, they aren't very bright.

While the ostrich is native to the sourthern African plains, Appelbaum said the birds easily acclimate to northern New Jersey weather. "They like being outside, except when it gets icy or high winds. We have shelters (in the pastures) and on real bad weather days, we try to keep them inside."

And, he also doesn't worry much about predators. "I've heard coyotes around, but never seen them in the fields," he said. "I did spot a bear one day. He was running way with two males chasing him. I haven't seen the bear since."

group shot of Fossil Farms ostriches
Todd Appelbaum is an ostrich farmer in Andover Township. He raises the young ostrich for their meat, feathers, eggs and skin, which is made into boots.

Todd checks the ostriches
Todd Appelbaum walks the fence line as he checks on his flock.

ostriches near their shelter
There are about 150 breeding roosters and hens at Fossil Farms in Andover.

Photos by Kelly Hill - The New Jersey Herald

images of ostriches