AAPEX -- Madeleine Calder didn't stick her head in the sand when it came to seizing a new business opportunity more than six years ago. Now, her Blue Heaven Ostrich Ranch and Bed & Breakfast is turning others' heads.
The combination breeding farm and inn was written up in the April issue of Southern Living magazine as one of several B&Bs in the region that put people and animals in close proximity.
A veteran real estate agent in New York City who hobnobbed with political figures including ex-New York Mayor Ed Koch and former first lady Barbara Bush, Calder visited an ostrich farm in New Jersey back in 1990. She came away with plans to work with "a different type of animal than I was used to dealing with."
Calder quickly assembled two breeding pairs of the tall, long-necked birds at her country home in Connecticut and set about building her herd. But after surviving a severe winter storm, she decided to move south.
"I was afraid that they would slip on the ice and break their legs or their necks," she said. "When you're seven feet tall, it's a long way to fall."
After monitoring the Weather Channel for weeks, Calder selected the Triangle for her new base. She packed up eight blue-neck ostriches and moved the entire operation to Apex in early 1992.
The 16-acre farm had to be outfitted for the birds, so Calder spent the first couple of years constructing fences, sheds and hatching areas and laying water lines. Now, breeding pairs roam about their own pens, and the males quickly defend their territory when visitors approach, pushing the females back from the fence. In a separate area, more than a dozen younger ostriches crowd together to greet Calder and guests or prance about to show off.
In addition to constructing the farm, Calder has had to work with other ostrich ranchers across North Carolina to build a market for their products. Ostrich meat is seen as a lean alternative to beef, but it remains a delicacy that rarely appears as a regular item at restaurants.
"I'd like to meet those turkey guys who took a once-a-year food and made it into a year-round thing," Calder said.
The ostrich growers have attacked the market one step at a time, from finding slaughterhouses that could process the birds to teaching restaurant chefs the proper way to cook the meat. They also have tried to coordinate production so that not everyone is sending their birds to market at once.
"It's like the old chicken-and-the-egg problem," she said. "You have to build the market to the extent that you can support it. You can't expand too quickly or too slowly."
As a breeder, Calder focuses on getting her ostriches to produce offspring that she can sell for about $3,000 a pair to larger farms that raise birds for slaughter. A female ostrich can lay 20 to 40 eggs a year, but Calder said she tries to be selective about her customers because the fast-growing birds can easily die of stress.
That choosiness prompted her to start the bed and breakfast out of her house about 18 months ago as a way to supplement her income. Calder often entertains guests in her two suites filled with ostrich minutiae. Feathers and eggshells abound in the house. Rooms rent for $90 or $110 per night.
The business has grown as a weekend-getaway spot by word of mouth. "People love to interact with the birds, and it's very peaceful here."