Most of us have delighted in the taste of a really good steak. But few can say that a piece of delicious red meat literally changed their life. But that’s exactly what happened to Andrea Romero, the founder and owner of Tall Foods, a New Mexico-based company that provides, as Romero says, “A healthier, more environmentally friendly and tasty alternative to traditional red meat (beef).”
Romero is referring to ostrich meat. Yes…ostrich meat and don’t be tempted to call an ostrich just a big giant chicken because ostrich meat is actually red meat.
Chuckling, Romero recounts the very moment she was first struck by the idea of raising ostrich as livestock.
“I had this beautiful ostrich steak that was seared in front of me on a granite-heated griddle, and it was apparently life-changing,” Romero said.
Romero’s educational background in food security and international development from Stanford University was the catalyst for her eventual creation of Tall Foods. At one point she found herself working for the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington D.C. which became an experience that left her feeling unfulfilled.
“It was so detached, that I was kind of having a crisis of interest because we were talking about how we should talk about talking about food security, and that wasn’t working for me,” Romero said.
Romero eventually moved to Mozambique where she worked to develop food programs for rural villages to improve nutrition for local communities. She has fond memories of her work in Mozambique.
“I was farming, we had a teaching farm, we had a tool library and we had people participating in this community farm learning how to grow their food better.”
It quickly became apparent to Romero that in addition to learning better food growing practices, many of the rural villagers she worked with were interested in converting their new expertise into jobs.
“I was like, I don’t know how to do that, I only know how to do non-profit work, that’s not gonna work,” Romero said (chuckling).
Trying to kill two birds with one stone, Romero returned to her home state of New Mexico to look for business opportunities that could also capitalize on her farming and food development experience. She found in ostrich farming a way to not only invigorate her own community but establish a model which could be used on a global scale and enable international communities to provide a better food and economic alternative for their people.
Romero described how her beloved state was also a good candidate for the development of the ostrich industry.
“New Mexico is land rich and cash poor and we have a rich farming and ranching heritage,” Romero said.
Beyond building a financially viable model for both domestic and international farmers, Romero emphasized the positive environmental and health effects of raising ostrich as livestock. She contends that ostrich farming produces six times less methane than cattle, requires a third of the water per pound of edible meat and the animal produces many more offspring per year.
As for the meat itself, the taste is often compared to the flavor of beef, has less fat, fewer calories and is as high in protein as beef and even bison.
Romero addressed the question of animal treatment and quality of life.
“By design, the animal itself must be free-range and in open space. They will die if they are sheltered in an uncomfortable way,” Romero said.
The entire venture is new territory, not only for Romero personally but from an industry standpoint as well.
“This is a brand new form of farming. In the last sixty years, ostrich has been farmed for its meat, so it is very new. It is not like cattle or chicken where you have entire institutions dedicated to optimal production of chicken and beef,” Romero said.
This uncharted territory makes it necessary for Romero and her partners to experiment with technology to enhance their livestock production. Romero was introduced to the concept of ‘smart-farming,’ and she actively seeks out ways to implement technology into her farming practices.
Romero uses off-the-shelf fitness tracking technology, surveillance cameras and data tracking software in order to monitor the health and habits of her herds. Farming with such modern technology is a concept not widely known and Romero believes this should change.
“You can be hyper ‘techy’ and excited about technology and farming, and I think those things have been stereotypically incompatible. If you knew the technicality of the farmers we have talked to about the technologies they have invented…the engineering required of a farmer is incredible,” Romero said.
Romero hopes introducing new technology will create a support network for other farmers who are looking to break into the industry.
“There is a huge opportunity for us to help educate farmers about the opportunity as our business continues to grow. We want to be, by design, a decentralized operation providing the knowledge for people who want to raise animals,” Romero said.
By utilizing digital technology and tracking software, someone like Romero could offer consultation on other farmers’ herds based on the information presented in the data and ultimately aide in the growth of the industry and herds located anywhere in the world.
A technology-based industry may also bring in a new wave of young people interested in farming.
Romero expressed concern with the traditional trend in farming.
“The average age of the farmer in the United States is something like 58 or 60, and no one is replacing those jobs. Factory farming and subsidies have been the solution to that equation,” Romero said.
She addressed the concern of inhumane treatment of animals as part consumer awareness but also a faster-paced society that demands instant production.
Humane practices and treatment of the animals are of vital importance to Romero but she also believes that there is a lack of understanding on the part of the consumer with regard to production demand.
“Three times a day, when we plan a meal, we are so detached from where [the food] comes from. When we ask why is everything so processed and why everything has corn in it, these are things that are not really discussed as much. I think there is so much room for opportunity in technology and the future of how we farm and I think I am more optimistic because of the potential. I am having so much fun dreaming up all these crazy ideas,” Romero said.
Crazy or not, Romero has put her own optimism into action and is shedding light on an industry that is often criticized but rarely addressed.