Wisconsin has held its lead as the nation’s top mink-producing state, even though the number of mink ranches has dropped by nearly half in the last eight years, the latest agriculture statistics show.
Teresa Platt, executive director of the California-based trade organization Fur Commission USA, attributed the decline to consolidation and automation.
“You have people coming under one corporate umbrella instead of being sole proprietor as they were 20 years ago,” Platt said. “And, if you’re going to compete, you’re automating.” Last year, 65 mink ranches produced 672,000 pelts, according to Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service figures. In 1993, 110 ranches produced 661,000 pelts in Wisconsin.
Nationwide, 324 farms produced 2.5 million mink pelts in 2001, a 4 percent drop from 2000, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Mink production is a $23 million industry in Wisconsin, said Tom Thieding, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation spokesman.
“It’s more than cherries, but it’s small compared to livestock or crops,” Thieding said. “It shows how diverse agriculture is in Wisconsin.”
All farm commodities in Wisconsin, including milk, crops, vegetables, fruit and other segments, generated $5.8 billion last year.
Although the number of Wisconsin mink ranches dropped 69 percent in the last eight years, the pelts’ value was the same in 2001 as it was in 1993 at $22.5 million.
Michael D. Mengar, president of the North American Fur Auction in Stoughton, said U.S. mink ranching has not been extremely profitable in the last 10 years.
“Many years ago the U.S. was the leading producer of mink. Today the leading producer is Scandinavia, specifically Denmark, because of the strength of the U.S. dollar and their ability to produce a mink for less,” Mengar said.
The average price of a mink pelt in 1993 was $34.10, compared with the 2001 price of $33.50. The price has risen as high as $53.10 in 1995 and as low as $24.80 in 1998.
“A lot of it is purely supply and demand,” Mengar said. “But it (price) can be affected also by the value of the dollar. Ninety percent of what we sell is exported.”
Several years ago, one of the bigger threats to mink farmers’ livelihood was criminal activity committed by animal rights activists.
The group Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the release of mink at farms across the country. In August 1999, a fire at United Feeds, a mink feed mill near Plymouth, caused $1.5 million damage and followed the release of 2,000 mink at a nearby farm.
Agriculture statistician Carrie Schneider, who tracks mink farming in Wisconsin, said in some cases the release of mink was financially devastating to a breeder. Even if the animals are recaptured, the genetics are lost because, other than color, the mink are indistinguishable.
“If they’re released, even if they get them back, many years of genetics are down the drain,” Schneider said. “They need the genetics to create the color classes they want.”
Mink breeders are still wary even though animal rights attacks have dwindled at mink farms, Platt said.
“We started to pull together in neighborhood watch groups. The system worked,” she said. “It seems to have shifted away from our industry.”
One of the major issues for today’s mink breeders is keeping disease off the farm.
Robert Zimbal, who runs the state’s largest mink farm near Oostburg, tests his mink three times a year for Aleutian disease, which has no cure.
“If you do get the disease, you have to eliminate it and basically start over,” said Zimbal, whose farm produces about 100,000 pelts annually.
Zimbal said mink farming is strong in Wisconsin because of the connection to the dairy industry. Mink are fed many of the byproducts from the dairy industry, including cattle parts, cheese waste and inedible eggs.
The Zimbal farm uses 2 million pounds of cheese waste each year and 1 million pounds of inedible eggs.
Other leading states in mink pelt production in 2001 were Utah with 80 farms and Minnesota with 36.