Living in Green Bay, Wisconsin, you must be ready for cold winter weather. During the 1970s I attended college there and regularly shopped the used clothing stores to find bargains on warm clothing. My best find was an old, full-length mink coat that I bought for $15. My roommate, who grew up on a mink farm in Wisconsin, got very excited and informed me that the coat was indeed mink.
The industry has been on a roller-coaster the last year when COVID-19 was found infecting mink in Europe. Denmark, number 1 in mink, produced 17 million pelts per year. Starting in June of 2020, veterinarians were finding mink that were coughing and not eating. Blood samples revealed the animals had the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The country reacted swiftly and took extreme measures to stop the disease spread. All 17 million animals were slaughtered, wiping out the entire mink industry. Danish lawmakers quickly passed a $3.1 billion compensation law, for lost mink farm revenue through 2030.
With Demark leaving the market, the way is clear for the U.S. and China to fill the demand for fur. The Chinese are the biggest buyers of furs representing 80% of the fur trade. Surveys of high-income Chinese residents show that demand for fur is high. Russian, U.S. and South Korean buyers are also a big part of the demand.
Fur production in both the U.S. and China started out as small, family farms, but over time the approach to fur production has diverged, and the struggles on the European farms are providing opportunities for both Chinese and U.S. growers.
The Mink Industry: a U.S. Family Business and a Chinese Economic Strategy
In the U.S. mink is sustained by family farming, where generations have raised and cared for the animals since they were toddlers. In 2020 the U.S. had about 120 mink farms producing about 2 million pelts per year, positioning it fifth in the world with Wisconsin being the leading mink-producing state. In 1989, the industry published standards and guidelines for mink farms that includes animal health, environmental quality and biosecurity. Nearly all of the U.S. mink come from farms certified and inspected before they receive the humane care merit award. To grow a beautiful, soft coat, mink need to live in a comfortable, stress-free environment with access to clean water and a balanced diet. The Fur Product Labeling Act is the only Federal law that applies and requires that products contain a label with the animal and country of origin. Besides this, little federal law applies to mink farming and the industry gets no government support.
Meanwhile in China, historically, very few mink were raised on family farms to feed trash fish from their aquaculture ponds. Mink were called the ‘precious water animal’ as their fur could be made into coats. The skins were sold and the meat was fed to pigs – nothing was wasted. However, a strictly fish diet was poor, lacking necessary amino acids, and resulted in low fur quality.
Fur production in China changed in the last 20 years. The major mink farming areas are in north China: Jilin, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Hebei, Henan and Jiangsu provinces. The industry shift started in 2007, as smaller farms were impacted by high feed cost and low pelt value. Larger farms started to import European animals to improve genetics and prepared western feed formulations.
Fur production is an important poverty alleviation strategy and is providing employment for laid-off industrial workers. The industry also supports other parts of China’s agriculture. USDA estimates that 1.5 million metric tons of Chinese animal feed are fed to fur animals, supporting the growers in the surrounding region.
COVID-19 Strikes Mink Farms
With the early warning signs from Europe, the U.S. took a wait and see approach to the mink population. By August, the first infected mink were found on a farm in Utah. By the end of November, 16 mink farms in four states – Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin and Michigan – were infected with COVID-19. Several hundred mink died in Wisconsin, 644 mink farmers and 338 mink pelters were infected with Coronavirus. In the U.S. farmers isolated infected mink, rather than kill them and the farm workers donned PPE. No indemnity programs are in place for U.S. mink, where the government pays for the losses to keep the farm viable. U.S. mink farmers had to pay the cost of testing, composting dead animals, their manure and feed to avoid further contamination.
In China, no COVID-19 cases have been reported among mink. Before the COVID crisis, China was the second biggest mink producer behind Denmark, with about 8000 farms and 5 million animals, earning about $50 billion per year. After the European outbreak, the Chinese government started providing COVID-19 tests for mink. When Denmark started to slaughter infected animals, the price of China’s mink increased 30 to 50 percent.
The initial Danish outbreak of COVID-19 could spell the end of Europe’s mink industry. Mink farms in the Netherlands, France and Ireland are closing starting in 2021. International efforts are in play to stop the spread of coronavirus in animals. The Finnish Fur Breeder’s Association and University of Helsinki are developing a corona vaccine for mink. However, the vaccine may come too late to save European farmers.
European mink furs have long held the world’s recognition of being of highest quality, but with European farms closing, the U.S. growers can focus on quality over quantity and move to take over the international luxury market. The Chinese are focused on volume, price and benefit from the Chinese demand for fur. Half of the fur coats sold worldwide in 2010 were bought by the Chinese.
Fashion trends come and go, but for people who live in very cold areas, fur is unmatched for warmth. It is a natural product and some are embracing fur over plastic and polyester fast fashion. Grandmothers pass down their beloved fur to mother then daughter, since well cared for furs last for many decades. I still enjoy checking out the old furs in thrift and antique stores. As the market is shifting, I expect to see fewer labels from Denmark and more that read “Made in China”.