Franklin, Idaho was, at one time, well-known for its mink farms. Jeff Hobbs, a fourth-generation fur farmer in Franklin, said he was told there were over 40 mink ranches in his tiny hometown when he was a child. Today, there are old empty mink sheds scattered throughout the county.
The mink industry is a fairly young in the U.S., Hobbs said.
“It started in the early 1900s,” he said. “It was a little different than the large scale mink farms they have today.”
People had mink in their backyard, maybe a 100 mink, and still had to milk their cows, raise chickens, feed their steers, plant their fields or work at the local cannery.
The reason for the decline in the small farms was technology, Hobbs explained.
“It’s like the rest of agriculture, you have to produce more units,” Hobbs said. “There is a lot more technology you need to be successful in farming. Technology is expensive; you have to have the production to make it pay for itself.”
Western fur farming may have got its start in Idaho, today Utah leads the country in mink farms, said Michael Whelan, Executive Director of the Fur Commission USA. And Idaho is right behind them. However, Wisconsin produces the largest number of mink in the country.
More than 85 percent of pelts used in the world’s fur trade come from small, family-run farms. There are approximately 275 mink farms in 23 states across the United States. In 2013, those farmers produced about 3 million pelts annually, with a value of more than $300 million, Whelan said.
Raising mink is a generational thing; their fathers and grandfathers did it as a way of life, he said.
Prices have been low the past couple of years. There are a good share of mink ranchers that have empty cages, some owners have found other work.
“There were a few years when the prices were good and more farmers were producing more skins than the market could take,” Whelan said. “We have to stay within the demand, or prices will fall through the floor.”
The industry spokesperson said the market was depressed due to over production.
“Retail sales are as good as they have ever been. We do see light at the end of the tunnel,” Whelan said. “At its peak, there were 80 million pelts on the market. We are down to 40 to 50 (million) pelts this year, more in line with the demand.”
A lot has been said about California cities – like Los Angeles, San Francisco and West Hollywood – trying to ban furs. He said it was a ploy by animal rights people. Those same people are showing old and manipulated videos of animals being mistreated in China or other places.
“We’ve encouraged animal rights people to check us out, not judge the industry by one bad actor,” Whelan said. “Animals are these peoples’ livelihood, if they aren’t well taken care of they won’t do well at the market.”
It’s really hard to battle misinformation. Whelan said those cities never get cold enough to justify wearing fur, it is more of a luxury.
“Los Angeles is warm, it’s in the 70’s all year round,” he said. “Banning fur wouldn’t fly in colder parts of the county.” Hobbs pointed out that China buys 80 percent of the world’s fur. If cities in California ban fur it is a minute part of the market.
Whelan said the mink fur raised in the U.S. is top quality because their care is top quality.
“America is known for the best quality fur. You can tell how well an animal is taken care of by the quality of the fur,” he said. “The animal’s health shows up in dogs, cats, horses and cows by the quality of their fur.”
Most mink farmers are reluctant to talk about what their ranches produce because of animal rights activists, and they go to great lengths to protect their investments with high tech security measures.
Animal Rights Activists have attacked fur farms across the country.
Preston mink farmer Lew Palmer had his farm attacked by animal rights activists in October of 1997. The activist released more than 4,000 of Palmer’s mink. Some of them got run over on the nearby highway; some were confused and just sat there. Friends and fellow mink farmers helped catch all but nearly four dozen of the thousands of mink animals released.
The attack devastated Palmer’s mink and it took years to rebuild it. The last few years Palmer and other mink farmers have beefed up high tech security systems to protect their investments.
For Hobbs, fur production is only a piece of his bigger farming picture. He uses mink manure to fertilize his vegetables, corn to feed his beef herd.