My friends have an ostrich farm in the middle of the desert. Jodie and I visited there on Saturday, surprised that the middle of the desert was much closer to our home than we had imagined. The El Hayaen Ostrich Farm is located near Ofakim, not far from the Gaza Strip. Once there were 22 such farms in Israel, exporting 20,000 ostriches a year to Western Europe. El Hayaen is the only farm still operating today.
Ostriches were once an indigenous species in Israel, but they disappeared from the desert landscapes in the 1920s. I had previously seen ostriches roaming in the Hai Bar Nature Preserve near Yotvata, and on a visit to Kibbutz Ha'on near Lake Kinneret many years ago.
Ostrich meat reportedly cooks faster, has richer flavor, and contains less than half the fat of the chicken. Other ostrich products include feather dusters and decorative eggs.
Mike van Grevenbroek, a Dutch immigrant to Israel, and his wife Tsophia, established the El Hayaen farm on a barren hillside at the beginning of the 1980s. For many years, the farm supplied the chicks and know-how for the industry in Israel, which reached its peak in 2000. Rising expenses, a drop in prices, difficulties in raising the birds, stiff competition, and changing laws led to the closure of the other Israeli ostrich farms.
In November 2011, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority decided not to renew regulation allowing commercial ostrich and crocodile farming. At the time it was stated that this change was due to come into force in 2012, but it's not clear to me if this will affect the El Hayaen farm.
Mike and Tsophia have recently opened the Ostrich Coffee Bar, where it is possible to eat light meals and enjoy musical performances in the evenings. It's an interesting experience to relax under the desert sky in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by such strange exotic birds.