SHEBOYGAN FALLS, Wis. – A decade ago, fur rancher Bob Zimbal had about 34,000 mink at his three southeastern Wisconsin farms. He was in survival mode, struggling to compete with farmers producing cheaper pelts overseas. Then the recession hit and prices tumbled again.
But Zimbal came through the hard times and prospered. These days he’s got 54,000 breeding females, 26 miles worth of cages and an on-site feed plant that towers over the snow-covered fields along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
His business is no longer about serving the rich and famous in Hollywood and New York. Now the main market is China, where demand for higher quality furs among the newly wealthy has helped push pelt prices to record levels and shielded U.S. farmers from the sluggish economy.
“The international market has protected U.S. producers,” Zimbal said. “Right now, in China, their consumption is growing faster than the supply. … They’re driving the market right now.”
The U.S. fur industry has been a volatile one over the past 15 years. Mink pelt prices sank to about $25 each in 1998 and hovered around $35 over the next few years as farmers in other countries found cheaper ways to produce fur.
Dozens of American fur farms went out of business. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 440 farms were operating in the United States in 1998; by 2005, there were 275. In 2011, the year for which the latest statistics are available, there were 268. Of the 3.1 million pelts they produced, a third came from Wisconsin farms.
Zimbal, a third-generation mink farmer, scrimped through the hard times. Some workers quit for better-paying jobs after he couldn’t afford raises, and members of his family took over their chores, feeding the mink and cleaning cages. Zimbal nursed old equipment instead of replacing it, and when he had to swap something out, he bought used instead of new.
Prices rebounded in 2006 and 2007, but then the recession struck. Americans struggling to hold on to their jobs and homes stopped shopping for furs. U.S. retail prices hit a 10-year low in 2009.
Enter China. The nation has become the largest fur producer and processor in the world. Chinese consumers flush with cash bought more than half of the fur coats sold globally in 2010, according to the China Leather Industry Association. Chinese fur retail sales for 2012 haven’t been officially tallied yet, but the China Chamber of Commerce of Foodstuffs and Native Produce predicts they could top $6 billion.
The country’s homegrown furs, however, have been marked by low quality resulting from in-breeding, high feed costs and ensuing poor nutrition, according to a 2010 report from the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Survey.
As a result, Chinese manufacturers have turned to foreign farmers for high-quality pelts. China imported nearly $126 million worth of U.S. mink pelts last year, making it the second most lucrative mink export market for American fur farmers behind South Korea, according to FAS. The North American Fur Auction, which touts itself as the largest fur wholesale auction house in North America, said nearly three quarters of the 700-plus buyers who attended its Toronto auction in February were Chinese.
Shoppers in Asia have helped send U.S. wholesale prices surging; mink pelts averaged a record $94 in 2011, up from $41 in 2008, according to the USDA.
The boom has attracted the attention of animal rights activists, but the anti-fur efforts haven’t had much effect thus far. Industry groups predict robust growth in China, perhaps by as much as 14 percent per year, in the near future.