Photos by Sara Stathas
In the fall of 1997, Peter Daniel Young and Justin Clayton Samuel drove around the state of Wisconsin in a red Geo Metro toting a list of fur farms, ski masks and bolt cutters – which the pair used to open wire fences and cages, and free thousands of mink. They then drove past Zimbal Minkery in Oostburg. Linda Zimbal, the wife of third-generation farm owner Bob Zimbal, recognized the car from a trade group list and called 911. The men were later arrested and became the first to be charged with animal-enterprise terrorism. They served two years in prison and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution.
That raid would have been the third on the Zimbal farm. The first happened in January 1996, when 400 mink were released into the night. In 1999, Gerry Krieger, who owns Krieger Farms in Bristol, was a target when 3,000 of his mink were released. “These animals are domestic,” says Michael Whelan, spokesperson for Fur Commission USA, a trade group representing mink farmers nationwide. “Within 24 hours, they die of dehydration. They die in the road because they confuse the sound of cars with feeding.”
Soon after the raids, many mink farmers went underground, so to speak, rarely talking to reporters and keeping a low profile in their communities. Few have a Web presence, and some opt for no signage outside of their farms.
But the industry remains, and it’s thriving. The price of mink pelts is at an all-time high, and the number of pelts produced each year has been steadily increasing. What’s more, a strong demand from China and other Eastern countries is reinforcing the foundation of this largely family-owned industry with strong (albeit hidden) roots in the community.
John Pagel, who owns Pagel Mink Ranch in Campbellsport, remembers hundreds of mink ranches existing when he was a child. “But a guy would have 50, maybe 100, mink,” he says, calling his farm a “bigger-small ranch,” producing 10,000 pelts annually. “The ones that are still here today, they really had to know what they are doing.”
Wisconsin’s mink-farming roots go back to the frontier days and are intertwined with other industries (meat packing, for example), similar to other mink pelt-producing states such as Utah and Idaho. “Wisconsin’s heritage with meat manufacturing creates a lot of scraps that are not fit for human consumption,” Whelan says. But they’re perfect for feed.
Every day, Krieger makes about 15,000 pounds of mink food (containing chicken, eggs, beef and chicken livers, cereal and cheese) and stores it in freezers until mealtime. He jokes his mink get fed better than his three children. High-quality scraps, Whelan says, yield mink pelts of a similarly high quality.
The Zimbals are a prime example. Third-generation farmers, theirs is the largest farm in North America, and their products are highly coveted. “The Zimbals have always produced the top quality in the world,” Whelan says. “People come to them to buy breeding stock.”
The mink are bred in March, and 40-50 days later, litters are born. In December or January, the mink are killed, and the pelts are removed, cleaned and shipped. All told, according to Pagel and Krieger, it costs about $35 to raise a mink. With the average price of a pelt hovering above $90, the profit potential is huge. The value of Krieger’s 33,000 pelts last year, for instance, would’ve been more than $3 million.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the average price of a mink pelt shot to $94.30 last year. It was $41.60 in 2008 and as low as $23.80 in 1992. The total value of mink pelts produced in the U.S. last year was $292 million, and Wisconsin produced a third of them. “The economic ramifications for Wisconsin are huge, probably close to $100 million last year alone,” Whelan says. “The people that work in the local Wal-Mart get a piece of that.” And the impact could get bigger. As the price per pelt increases, so does the number of pelts produced – up 19 percent in Wisconsin between 2010 and 2011.
When Krieger bought Krieger Farms from his father seven years ago, the farm had a mink herd of just over 12,000. Krieger has almost tripled that number. “Back when I was a teen, working on the farm, there were thousands of mink farms all over the U.S.,” Krieger says. Today there are 268. “The smaller farms are becoming larger. The growth is within the industry.”
Support for the farms remains strong from the surrounding communities, where they’re stitched into the fabric of rural areas as vital components of the economy. Whelan recalls chatting with a hardware-store owner in Medford who said if it weren’t for neighboring mink farms, he’d have gone out of business 10 years ago. The state’s mink farms cluster near Medford and Sheboygan, and others are scattered in places like Spring Green and Kenosha County.
Bob Zimbal experienced that care first hand after one of the raids on his farm. “It’s surprising the support you get from the community,” he says. “When we had the releases, neighbors came to catch them.”
Still, the threats of animal-rights groups and raids are ever-present, despite farmers’ attempts to stay hidden. The opposition to the fur industry comes from a belief that the animals are treated poorly and that wearing fur is morally wrong. “Animals are simply not ours to wear,” says Laura Wilson, a campaign manager at the Norfolk, Va., headquarters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
But the farms have remained for decades, passed down through generations. Unlike many agriculture industries, mink farms are largely family-owned. Farmers are born into it. And Whelan maintains that’s why farmers stay in it. “They don’t do this to get rich,” he says. “They do it because it’s always been done.”
But could the end of the inherited farm be near? “As one generation passes on, other generations don’t want to continue the family business,” Whelan says. Although Krieger has three kids, no child has shown interest in continuing the tradition his grandfather started in 1946. Krieger says he’ll probably sell to an employee when he retires.
Pagel doesn’t have children but continues what his parents started in 1955. His father died in 2005, and Pagel took over. “He had left home and worked with mink from the time he was 15,” Pagel says of his father. “It was interrupted only by World War II. He was a prisoner of war. He never wanted to work in a factory.”
And even when times were tough, his parents would vow to hang on for “one more year,” Pagel says. They never gave up. Shortly after his father’s death, Pagel remarked, “If we don’t make this place bigger and better, we didn’t do anything at all.”