Mostly Trapping

Finnish auction house takes over Stoughton mink trading hub
Jan 20, 2020 08:01 ET

(Reprinted from above link)

TOUGHTON — Under the harsh light of fluorescent bulbs in an unadorned warehouse, Claudia Manzanilla picks up a stiff mink pelt and runs her fingers along the silvery fur.

In less than a second, she assesses the length of the fur, sorts it and grabs another seemingly identical pelt from a pile of stiffened animal skins.

The evaluation is one step in an elaborate process to grade the furs provided by American mink farmers before they’re sold — a step that almost didn’t happen this year.

Last fall North American Fur Auctions, a 350-year-old Canadian company with offices in Stoughton, entered court-supervised restructuring, closing one of the primary market portals just as Wisconsin mink ranchers were beginning their harvest.

But a Finnish competitor has stepped in, breathing new life into the state’s oldest industry. NAFA, a corporate descendant of the Hudson Bay Co. and the largest fur auction house in North America, was the primary outlet for American fur farmers.

The closure created uncertainty about where they would sell this year’s crop and whether they would be paid for previous years’ consignments, said Michael Whelan, executive director of Fur Commission USA, the fur farmer’s trade association. (Mink farmers contacted by the Wisconsin State Journal declined to comment.)

According to court documents, NAFA has almost $25.8 million worth of consigned pelts in warehouses around the world and has been fielding calls from farmers and producers trying to get them back. Records list more than $300,000 in unsecured debts to Wisconsin farmers.

However, NAFA worked out a deal to sell its American business to Saga Furs, a publicly traded fur auction house based in Vantaa, Finland.

Charles Ross, general manager of Saga Furs North America, said the company’s strong financial standing allowed it to provide a “soft landing” for NAFA and a seamless transition for farmers, who will be able to work with many of the same buyers and graders.

Saga buys furs from across the Northwest — including Washington, Oregon and Idaho — as well as Canada and as far away as South America. But it’s not by chance the grading operations are in Wisconsin, which for years has been the nation’s top producer of farm-raised mink and where Saga had a ready workforce of skilled graders.

Nearly half of the nearly 3 million U.S. pelts produced in 2018 came from Wisconsin farms, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection estimates fur exports that year were worth nearly $227 million.

Brian Balaam, who spent about 20 years with NAFA before being hired as Saga’s product manager, said ranchers in Europe and China can’t raise the same quality black mink as U.S. ranchers, who have mastered the art of breeding and have access to higher-protein feed.

Ross said he’s excited to introduce the products to overseas buyers unfamiliar with North American mink. “I think they’re the best in the world,” Ross said.

2 million pelts
Saga moved into the Stoughton offices just after Thanksgiving and has hired about 40 workers, including many former NAFA employees, who are busy preparing some of the 2 million pelts that business manager Chris Vaughan expects to sell this year.

Saga, which deals exclusively in farm-raised mink, did not take over NAFA’s processing facility, which remains vacant.

The company takes in pelts — dried and stretched to about three-feet long — that will be sold at auctions in Helsinki before being passed on to dressers and dyers who turn the stiff “raw” hides into the supple material stitched into coats and other fashion accessories.

Pelts are sorted by size, nap length and quality of fur — gold, silver or VSL (very slight damage). Each is handled by multiple graders, some who’ve spent decades honing their skills.

Manzanilla, 27, has been working with fur since she was 18. “My first job,” she said. “It’s very interesting.”

Each pelt is tagged with a unique ID number and barcode that allows buyers and fashion designers to know what farm it came from and farmers to evaluate their breeding stock.

Ross said traceability is essential in an industry trying to defend its image. “Designers want to know, how was the animal treated?” he said.

The price will be determined by factors like quality and size as well as market conditions. U.S. mink farmers last year received an average $26.60 per pelt, according to the USDA.

Pelts are sorted into more than a dozen natural color variations, from black and mahogany to white. Ross expects pastel — actually a dark beige — will be especially hot this year.

“It’s a balance between supply and demand and what’s in fashion this year,” Ross said. “What color is popular — that’s a moving target.”

A ‘vibrant history’
Wisconsin might not exist without the fur industry.

The first white explorers who ventured up the Mississippi River and across the Great Lakes in the early 1600s came in search of fur, which had been largely depleted in Europe. They set up trade with the native tribes, offering jewelry, metal tools and guns in exchange for pelts.

A ‘vibrant history’
Wisconsin might not exist without the fur industry.

The first white explorers who ventured up the Mississippi River and across the Great Lakes in the early 1600s came in search of fur, which had been largely depleted in Europe. They set up trade with the native tribes, offering jewelry, metal tools and guns in exchange for pelts.

The trade was fueled by fashion, Birmingham said, namely upper-class obsession with beaver-skin hats. But trends changed, and by the 1830s, the demand for pelts had waned, leaving the natives with little means to acquire the goods on which they had come to depend.

As a result, Birmingham said, they began going into debt — a practice that had been encouraged by President Thomas Jefferson.

That debt made it easier for the federal government to take native lands, paving the way for Wisconsin to become a state.

U.S. mink farming got its start in upstate New York during the Civil War, according to a 1943 history by the publisher of the Wisconsin-based journal, “Fur Rancher.”

With its cold climate and abundance of fish, meat and dairy byproducts to provide a cheap, high-protein diet, Wisconsin was a natural place for the industry to thrive.

By 1940, Wisconsin had twice as many fur farms as any other state, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. “There’s a really vibrant history of mink farming in Wisconsin,” Whelan said.