The Chronicle Herald (Metro)
Tough times in the mink industry
Mink farmer Peter Hill, one of the last in the beleaguered industry in Nova Scotia, is pinning his hopes on higher pelt prices and a trade mission.
Hill was raising 32,000 mink in his 27 barns and producing about 26,000 pelts per year in 2013, bringing annual revenue of roughly $2.6 million when pelts were selling for $100 apiece.
In 2019, pelts were fetching $19 apiece, far shy of the break-even price.
“It's been a real rollercoaster,” said Hill. “We're losing money.”
In the past year, there were indications prices were starting to climb, but recent sales events proved disappointing, with demand apparently dropping again.
“It's like they didn't really want them anymore,” said Hill. “Is September going to be any better, or worse? It's getting kind of depressing.”
Matt Moses, president of both the Nova Scotia and Canada Mink Breeders associations, said strong demand in the early 2000s led to a boom in production capacity as farmers grew operations. That caused an oversupply and prices crashed.
From 2014 to 2020, mink pelts, which cost about $40 to produce, sold for less than $30. The number of Nova Scotia pelts produced annually dropped from 2.4 million to about 200,000.
Operators were forced out due to insolvency, said Moses. Today, 18 mink farmers are left in the province.
Hill's farm now raises about 11,000 mink and produces about 8,000 pelts per year out of 25 barns.
In the past five years, he estimated, his farm has lost about $500,000 despite financial aid from governments. It operates with only Hill and two other men. Those employees work about 10 months of the year.
During the pandemic, Hill tapped into the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy to help cover salaries and got two interest-free loans totalling $60,000 through the Canada Emergency Business Account program.
The biggest government aid, though, has been the Agristability disaster relief subsidy funded by the provincial and the federal governments.
“It allowed me to break even for one year or two and then it dropped,” said Hill.
In a bid to stay afloat, he has logged about half his land, roughly 10 hectares, and sold the wood.
His farm operates with a lower cost for feed because Hill makes his own. He gets fish products from a processing plant in Digby, chicken from Eden Valley Poultry in Berwick, and red meat past its expiry date for human consumption from Sobeys.
“Most of us that are left are the ones that make our own feed,” he said. “I've done that my whole life.”
With farmers being forced out and production dropping, the glut of mink pelts on the market is gradually dissipating. But there are still a lot out there, enough for part of next season. Then, prices should start to firm up, said Hill.
Agriculture Minister Keith Colwell said in an interview this week that the province is planning a trade mission to Asia to allow mink farmers to strike up deals with buyers in China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, all big markets for the fur industry.
Along with that would come online marketing of products to potential customers in Asia using e-commerce platforms, said Colwell.
“That is something we've been working on now for quite some time,” he said. “We had a trade show all set up to do that ... one of the biggest in the world, and COVID-19 came along and put an end to all that.”
The Haining International Leather, Fur, Fashion Fabric & Accessories Expo usually takes place every March, a department spokesperson said in an email.
The opportunity to sell pelts directly to buyers in Asia would go a long way toward helping farmers in Nova Scotia, said Hill, but it's about more than that.
“When the auction houses take the mink pelts, they grade the mink, they size the mink and they colour them,” said Hill. “There will have to be an awful big team of people on hand to do all this. It's not as simple as filling out a sales form.”
Building that capacity is something he thinks could be done in Nova Scotia, with costs covered by the farmers.
“It could be done at the 340 Rancher's Co-op (in Weymouth) because we would save money on the commissions to the auction houses,” said Hill. “With enough workers, that could be set up.”
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