By KEVIN WALKER
MEDFORD, Ore. — Despite a fickle world economy, zigzagging fashions and ferocious animal rights campaigns to make fur unfashionable and undesirable, the industry has survived and often thrived.
In fact, mink farming could be said to be doing pretty well in the United States. Over the past 20 years domestic mink production has held more or less steady, according to statistics from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
Although U.S. pelt production is about half what it was in 1969, the figure has ranged from about 2.5 million-2.8 million pelts per year between 1994-2010, according to NASS. In 2011, that figure rose to about 3 million. In 2013 it rose even more, to 3.5 million.
The average price for a pelt in 1994 was $33; in 2013, it was $56. In 2011, the price jumped to about $94, according to the latest NASS report on the mink industry. Though there was no report for 2012, U.S. Fur Commission (USFC) Executive Director Michael Whelan said that year saw an average pelt price of about $100.
“Then, it was a kind of perfect storm,” he said. “The high prices earned at the 2013 auctions prompted Chinese farmers to basically double their production. Estimates of about 35 to 40 million pelts flooded the market.”
Additionally, a warm winter in China meant a slowing of garment sales and a huge drop in prices, he added. In turn, low prices in 2014 put many Chinese fur farmers out of business. According to Whelan, Chinese fur farmers typically produce low-end, commercial quality fur.
He said U.S. mink prices have since recovered, though not to the highs of 2013. A “cooler, early winter in China this year got rid of inventory and the buyers are back at the auction table.”
China is the largest pelt maker in the world, but perhaps more important is its status as the largest buyer of American mink. Were it not for the surge in Chinese prosperity, the American fur industry would be much smaller than it is today. According to a recent report on CCTV America, U.S. mink sales to China reached a record high of $215 million in 2012.
There is a fur industry in Michigan, though it’s not as large as in some of the surrounding states. The USFC lists Ohio as No. 10 in the United States for production, and Wisconsin is at the top, by far. There are an estimated 9-10 mink farms in Michigan.
The largest mink operation in the United States is the Zimbal mink farm in Sheboygan Falls, Wis. A March 2013 article in The Milwaukee Sentinel stated Zimbal’s had 54,000 breeding females.
In addition to the mink farms, an animal rights webpage managed by the Animal Liberation Front lists a handful of fox farms in Michigan as of 2007. It’s not clear how many of those operations are still running. Mink and fox farmers keep a low profile, mainly because of the small but real possibility they could become the victim of an animal rights “terror action.”
At least, Whelan calls them terror actions; so does the federal government. Today, these animal rights activists are sometimes prosecuted under the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act; however, the law is being challenged in court as unconstitutional.
“They say it isn’t terrorism, but one of those guys reportedly was carrying a machete,” Whelan said, referring to Victor Vanorden, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2012 after pleading guilty to releasing an animal from an animal facility and attempted third-degree burglary.
According to an article in The Sioux City Journal in February 2012, Vanorden and his partner, Kellie Marshall, were found near an Iowa mink farm in dark clothing, possessing two-way radios, a stun gun and a knife. Fencing at a nearby fur farm had been cut, although no mink had been released. Marshall later pled guilty to the same crimes and was sentenced to 60 days in jail and probation.
“These animal rights handlers brainwash these kids into doing criminal activities,” Whelan stated. “You don’t see (Humane Society of the United States chief) Wayne Pacelle out there vandalizing people’s property and businesses.”
Michigan State University professor and the chair of Animal Behavior and Welfare Dr. Janice Swanson said MSU has had its buildings vandalized, offices broken into and sometimes burned in recent history by animal rights activists and others who’ve had a problem with a professor’s research. But she said, the university has a reputation for going after such people and seeing they are prosecuted and punished for their crimes.
Swanson said North American mink are considered the crème de la crème of mink. Their skins and animals for breeding are sought all over the world.
“Mink are very much an international commodity, especially here in the States,” said John Easley, a veterinarian who has long served the mink industry out of Wisconsin.
According to Easley, last year in the United States mink farmers produced 4.3 million pelts, with Canada producing an additional 3.5 million. By contrast Denmark, one of the largest mink producers in the world, produces 15 million mink pelts per year.
Mink are on a yearly cycle, with breeding females giving birth at the end of April. There are an average of 6-8 kits per litter. Black mink are traditionally the most popular, but right now lighter mink are more valuable because the fur can be dyed.
“There’s a lot of different characteristics of fur that determine their value,” Easley said.
Mink pelts are gathered in bundles of 150-250, with one pelt kept aside for potential buyers to examine. Bundles of pelts are sold at one of four major auction houses worldwide; those are in Seattle, Toronto, Helsinki and Copenhagen. A bundle of pelts can be sold in as little as five minutes, Easley said. Pelts are going for $60-$70 each right now.
For more information about the fur industry, including frequently asked questions about animal care and welfare, go online to http://truthaboutfur.com