P.E.I. mink industry barely hanging on in tough times

The farmed fur industry on the Island is just barely hanging on — low prices for mink have seen most fur producers go out of business just in the last couple of years and there are only four fur farms left, according to the P.E.I. Fur Breeders Association.

'You hate to just get up and leave everything, so you do what you can to stay alive'

A mink on the Peconi farm outside Charlottetown. (Submitted by Nick Peconi )

The farmed fur industry on the Island is just barely hanging on — low prices for mink have seen most fur producers go out of business just in the last couple of years and there are only four fur farms left, according to the P.E.I. Fur Breeders Association.

Although fur has been out of fashion in North America and Europe for decades, new markets emerged in the 2000s as the middle class in Russia and China became more wealthy. 

I know people are forced to sell houses to keep in business, but really nobody wants to talk about it.— Peter Peters, P.E.I. Fur Breeders Association 

"There's an oversupply of mink skins at the moment. The Russian market is not buying — the ruble is really weak," said Peter Peters, president of the P.E.I. Fur Breeders Association, adding there's been a downturn in Chinese luxury spending after stock market jitters. 

"They're selling, but for really low prices," Peters said.

Five years ago a mink pelt was worth $60 to $70, he said — that's plummeted to $25 or $30, less than half what it costs to produce.  

When prices were good, farmers used equity to expand their farms, Peters explained, but when the price crashed, more than half of P.E.I.'s fur farms folded.

'Rock bottom'

"I know people are forced to sell houses to keep in business, but really nobody wants to talk about it," said Peters.

A rainbow of baby mink from one litter on the Peconi farm near Charlottetown. (Submitted by Nick Peconi )
 

Peters has been in the business for 40 years and raises 20,000 mink per year, which he characterizes as a mid-size mink operation in Canada. He's been able to stay in the game by careful spending and not over-leveraging the equity in his farm, he said. 

"There's not a lot of money in it right now," said Nicholas Peconi, 23, who manages a mink farm on P.E.I. owned by his parents. 

He grew up in the business and decided to dive into mink farming full time about five years ago when his family expanded their operations. Prices have been poor ever since, hitting what Peconi calls "rock bottom" two years ago. But the Peconis own other businesses and also are able to make their own feed, which saves money.

Nervous buyers in China and a battered economy in Russia have meant fewer buyers for North American mink. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

"You hate to just get up and leave everything, so you do what you can to stay alive," said Peconi.

He believes prices, which have crept up by about five per cent a year the last two years, will further recover. 

The Peconis raise about 40,000 mink a year and have about 10 full- and part-time employees. 

Why stay?

"We're not sure if it's going to recover next year to break even," said Peters. "If not, then you lose another year, it's a lot of money, and you know the pockets are not that deep for farmers." 

Mink are soft and cute but can bite and are very smelly, farmers admit. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Farmers can "pelt out" or harvest what they have, then wait a few years for prices to recover before trying to re-enter the market — but then breeding stock is expensive and hard to get, Peters said. 

"It is a way of life and I enjoy the mink," said Peters, noting none of his children are interested in taking over his mink operation. "It's a really interesting business."

Like dairy farming, it's a 365-day-a-year, demanding business.

"It's an honest living, keeps you busy seven days a week," said Peconi. "It's a farmer's life." 

Foxy hobby

Only a couple of Island farmers still farm foxes, to Peters's knowledge. He pelted out of foxes in 1980, and there have only been a couple of profitable years since, he said.

A worker hangs bundles of mink in a store at a market in Chongfu township in China in 2013. Chongfu, home of 1,469 fur companies, is China's biggest fur designing, researching, producing and exporting centre. (Reuters)

China now farms 10 million fox pelts a year for their own use, Peters said, so he doubts the North American fox pelt market — which began in P.E.I. in the late 1800s — will ever recover. 

"A few people, just as a hobby, hope it will come back," said Peters of the couple of Island farmers who still keep raise foxes. 

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca