Canadian Mink Farmers Work Through Uncertainty

Canadian Mink Farmers Work Through Uncertainty

Farmers in Canada would benefit as a direct result of any mass cull of mink in Denmark. However, Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association president Matt Moses says the industry globally would be poorer for that loss.

A plan to kill up to 17 million mink in a mass cull on farms in Denmark, the world’s largest mink fur producer, was announced earlier this month. It has hit up against fierce objections, with Reuters reporting this week the government is being challenged on the legality of its order.

From a market perspective, the removal of the dominant Danish stock is expected to quickly lead to higher per-pelt prices.

“Some of the places like Canada will continue to grow their volume and be a global supplier to the industry. But in the short term, there’s no country that has the ability to produce such a significant volume in the short term,” Moses said.

Canadian farmers have friends in Denmark and, Moses said, are not interested in celebrating gains obtained as a result of any devastating, personal losses of colleagues.

Denmark is a recognized, international leader in the industry. That includes farms and secondary producers being a source for significant investments in marketing, research and development, with benefits beyond the nation’s borders.

While the fur industry may be considered low tech by outsiders, everything from on-farm practices to advanced genetics for breeding purposes has been subject to new developments over the years, Moses said.

“Some of the research and innovation has given us great benefit,” he said.

With a need now for the government to help farmers and farming communities persevere financially and then meet demands in rebuilding mink stock with any cull, he believes there could be a pull back from those other industry-supporting activities.

Canadian industry rebuilding

Hammered in recent years by global oversupply and low prices, Moses said many Canadian farms just aren’t in a position to aid in any recovery from a cull, even if they could benefit as a supplier of new breeding stock to the Danes or other farmers – in Spain, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, or the United States – where animals have been lost to coronavirus.

“The Canadian industry is right now at a small fraction of what it once was, so most farms will be looking to grow within, prior to being able to supply other jurisdictions,” he said.

“There will be a great deal of time before there is a great volume of mink available in any jurisdiction, because there’s been such an attrition that we’ll all be looking to start to rebound our own numbers and that will limit available stock.”

Not too long ago, farmers were receiving record prices of over US$100 a pelt, after a sharp rise in prices over a relatively short period, driven by new demand in the Asian luxury market. A high price led to many new farmers and a climbing product supply.

“Sure enough what you get is oversupply and then the economy slowed down,” said Alan Herscovici, executive vice-president with the Fur Council of Canada and producer of TruthAboutFur.com.

He said prices landed under US$40, or under production cost.

“That’s been causing hardship for Canadian producers,” he said.

There’s also been criticisms of losses in public funds as farms where public investments were made went bust. Nationally, according to Statistics Canada, the value of pelts was just over $44 million in 2018 (with just under half the value coming from Nova Scotia), down from about $168 million in 2013.

The latest available census on farm numbers shows 98 mink farms in Canada in 2018, with 57 of those in Atlantic Canada. The pre-COVID damage of oversupply and lower prices is reflected in annual counts, with farm numbers dropping for several years now. In Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia leads the way with 43 farms in 2018, but that’s down 63% from the 116 farms in the province in 2014.

There are currently six farms operating in Newfoundland and Labrador, with pelt production at 180,000 to 200,000 annually. Production is valued at $8 million to $10 million to the province, depending largely on market prices.

Genetics concern

In production, Canada’s industry is a small fraction the size of Denmark, at roughly one and a half million mink compared to as much as 17 million mink being farmed across the pond. But the stock elsewhere has offered the world unique features in colours, quality and animal health.

“That’s the sad part for the Danes. There are families there who would have developed their genetics in some cases for generations (of farmers). So they’re going to get compensation, but they’ve lost their genetics,” Herscovici said.

If there is any cull, he expects there may be some ability for Canadian farms to supply breeding stock, but agrees the price for pelts is likely the first and most obvious change that would come.

Canadian mink can be sold from farms in a direct-buy scenario, but producers have also sold at the large, international auction houses. The world’s largest is Kopenhagen Fur, owned by 1,500 farmers in Denmark.

On Oct. 1, an online post to the auction’s home noted 40 million mink skins were sold by producers through fur auction houses in 2019, with a drop to 19.65 million skins so far in 2020. Of these, 12.4 million passed through Kopenhagen Fur for sale, with an average price of US$23.81 (150 DKK).

Finnish response

The other, essential international player when it comes to Canadian – and particularly Atlantic Canadian – mink is Finland’s Saga Furs. That company views better days on the horizon for local mink farmers.

“We have been present for almost 10 years (in Canada) and continue to invest as we see there is specific demand for the North American mink,” said Saga CEO Magnus Ljung.

Canada’s auction house for farmed fur, the North American Fur Auction (NAFA), was forced into creditor protection in 2019. Ljung told Atlantic Business Magazine his company saw potential in Canadian mink and decided to take on the North American grading team from the auction house, “to secure that all pelts are graded as they always have been and to lift up the characteristics of the Nova Scotian Blacks as well unique pastels produced in Canada.”

The company is currently investing in an effort to reduce up-front costs for mink ranchers in North America – signing a long-term lease on a new grading facility in Wisconsin and maintaining staff in Canada and the United States, with plans to increase marketing specifically of North American mink this season. The company is also interested in building the market for additional mink products, in manure, feed and biofuels.

“We see that the market now turns and start to climb towards profitable levels again, though it will take some time to reach it and only I can guarantee is that Saga Furs is here to support the Canadian and American Ranchers,” Ljung said.

Decisions during COVID-19

Various animal rights groups have called for the shutdown of mink production globally, hoping to see the new COVID-19 strain and mink culls mark the beginning of an end to the industry.

“A decline in the public demand for fur fashion has led to a significant drop in pelt prices and stockpiles of fur skins going unsold at auctions. Although the death of millions of mink – whether culled for COVID-19 or killed for fur – is an animal welfare tragedy, fur farmers will now have a clear opportunity to pivot away from this cruel and dying industry and choose a more humane and sustainable livelihood instead,” said senior director of public affairs for Humane Society International in Europe, Dr. Joanna Swabe, as the initial cull announcement was made.

Prices are driven by supply, the sheer availability of furs, but also by demand for fur products after secondary manufacturing. In the midst of COVID-19, the industry is watching to see the level of demand for fur coats and other products through the holiday season, including the Chinese New Year. The demand could also add to the price offered to Canadian farmers.

“Of course the priority right now among Canadian mink farmers is keeping the herds safe,” Canadian fur proponent Herscovici said.

Mink farms in Canada are all expected to operate with biosecurity plans. Among other things, the plans include measures for controlled access to farms, veterinary care and disinfection protocols. With COVID-19, producers have been ordered to monitor for signs and symptoms of animal respiratory illness. Restricting guest access to animal housing, staff masks, gloves, increased handwashing, staff screening to keep any potentially infected staff away from the farms are all part of efforts to protect Canadian mink.

On Nov. 7, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported available evidence on the strain of the virus found in Denmark, “so far has not indicated any changes in the (COVID-19) virus affecting transmissibility, or disease severity.”

COVID-19 has been shown capable of moving between mink and humans, but there is also evidence of movement between humans and dogs, domestic cats and lions.

The cull in Denmark was ordered in response to findings of the State Serum Institute (SSI). Since June, to middle of last week, 214 people were found in Denmark with a strain of the virus associated with farmed mink, including 12 cases with a unique, mutated strain. Lab tests suggest it could mute the response to vaccines and raise the risk of reinfection, but the WHO has stated there must be further study.

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