The following is adapted from an article which first appeared in the August/September 2002 issue of AgVentures, and is reproduced with the author’s permission.
Farming for Fur
By Audrey Eggers for AgVentures
“Life on a fur farm revolves around the natural reproductive cycle of the animals,” explains the website of Fur Commission USA (FCUSA), a trade association representing some 400 fur-farming families across America. “Fox breed in February and their young are born in April and May. There are generally four active kits in each litter. Fur farmers vaccinate their young kits for botulism, distemper, enteritis, and, if needed, pneumonia. The animals molt in the late summer and early fall, after which they produce their winter fur. They are harvested as mature animals at full prime in late November and December.”
Kits stay with the mother until weaned at six to eight weeks of age. After kits have stopped nursing, they are housed in pairs until they are penned alone at maturity. This follows the pattern of wild foxes, which claim and defend their own territory.
“Virtually every fur farmer begins by serving at least a one-year apprenticeship on a well-established farm to learn the complete annual fur production cycle,” continues the FCUSA website. In that year he or she will have seen breeding, gestation, birth, weaning, eating patterns, maturity and the harvesting of the fur. “Due to the larger physical size of fox, the American Veterinary Medical Association approves lethal injection as the most humane method. This method causes cardiac arrest. Lethal injection is the only fox harvesting method recommended by the FCUSA Animal Welfare Committee.”
Great care is given to the animals’ health, if for no other reason than that unhealthy animals mean bad fur and low profits. When foxes were raised in pens on the ground, years ago, the animals were often infected with worms and other harmful parasites. Raised cages allow waste to fall through which results in healthier animals.
Although foxes thrive in cold climates, they dislike prolonged exposure to direct sunlight, rain or snow, and for this reason fur farm cages are placed in covered sheds. Nesting boxes and shelter shelves provide added protection from the wind and cold. “The animals produce great pelts, beautiful fiber, basically natural fiber for cold weather,” said Teresa Platt, executive director of FCUSA.
In the wild a fox is a carnivore eating rabbits, rodents and insects as well as acorns, berries and fruit. Jolene Kuehn, Assistant Furbearer Specialist in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, reported seeing a fox up a crab apple tree eating the fruit right from the tree. Even though they will eat a variety of food, their teeth identify them as carnivorous, and they must have protein to live.
According to information on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website, “a fox will often hide uneaten food under litter or bury it in a hole to be eaten later.”
In Wisconsin, the byproducts of cheese production are used by area fur farms to feed mink and fox. In Utah, waste from fish canneries in California, and byproducts from seven other states are trucked in to a central feed mill. Wisconsin and Utah are first and second in number of fur farms in the United States.(1)
“We’re the niche of the niches. We’re the tail end of everything. That’s kind of what fox fur farming is,” said Ms. Platt.
“Our animals are carnivores. There’s your huge difference,” said Ms. Platt, comparing furbearers to other livestock. “They’re the meat-eaters. So when you have a fish-processing plant, a chicken-processing plant, cheese production with a bunch of expired cheeses that cannot be used by human beings, or eggs that get damaged in transit or pass their expiry date, where does all this go?”(2)
Instead of being the fox in the hen house, foxes are now housed near the hen house for the food, which causes them to thrive. Selective breeding, and perhaps the steady protein-rich diet, has increased the size of farmed foxes to thirteen to fifteen pounds for adult males.
“Have you ever lived near a turkey farm?” asked Ms. Platt. “They can grind that up into some sort of fertilizer, but the price for fertilizer is not really that good. You know you can flood that market. Or would it be better used for pet food, feeding animals in zoos, circus, as aquarium feed? Or producing a fiber? So we have a lot of farmers that are situated in areas where processing plants are located. Wisconsin is the number one state. Well, it happens to be big on dairy – a lot of protein from cheese. Wisconsin also uses a lot of duck. There’s quite a few duck-processing plants up there. We have a feed mill in Salt Lake City, and I have a cluster of close to 150 fur farms around that feed mill. That feed mill takes production byproducts from about eight states. They service all the way up to Alaska and all the way down to San Diego where I am.”
She added, “We don’t have a single mink farmer anywhere in the state of California. But there’s a lot of fish processing in California. Where are you going to take that waste? Fish processing plants often are surrounded by urban areas not by fields of corn that need fertilizer.”
Ms. Platt informed me, “You can ship it off to the feed mill over in Salt Lake City. They’ll purchase it. They’ll truck it. They run trucks all day long. And the farmers come in and pick up the feed, and feed their animals.”
“The sales of fur products are increasing,” says Ms. Platt. “If you live in a cold weather place, you can look at synthetics or you can look at natural fibers. Most people pretty much stick with natural fibers. They’re doing a lot of different things with fur.”
Ms. Platt told me about the array of colors and invited me to use the website to let readers know what is being done with fox fur. “You can get all colors of pelts without having to dye them, and the colors are staggering. Fur has an advantage over a lot of textiles. We don’t have to dye it to get all these colors.”(3)
“They’ll take these different colors,” she said, “and they’ll complement them with different dying techniques or different cutting techniques or laser cutting them so one area is a little deeper than the other. There are some really interesting techniques going on out there.”
Fur farmers breed the animals for desirable genetic traits, including color. By recognizing and understanding the recessive and dominant color combinations, they have been able to produce a number of fur colors welcomed by the fashion world.
Fur manufacturers require large numbers of similar pelts in order to match “bundles” from which uniform fur garments can be produced. In order to facilitate the work of the fur buyers, farmers are encouraged to pool their pelts, so that similar goods can be presented at auction in longer “strings.”
Ronald Kean, Extension Poultry Specialist in Madison, Wisconsin, said, “We have mink farms that use the mortality and chicks from hatcheries. I’m not aware of fox farms.”
“Fox production in the U.S. is very, very small,” said Ms. Platt. “We’re probably talking about 10,000 pelts, produced in about 10 states, and a lot of those states will only have one or two farms. Mink is overwhelmingly the one that’s being produced in the U.S. That’s about 3,000,000 pelts in 31 states. So you can see the difference.”
Finland is the world’s leading producer of fox pelts, with Canada producing ten to fifteen times as many as the U.S.
Carlton Riemer, now a Lutheran pastor in Oklahoma, grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and clearly remembers a large number of fox farms in the area. “When we had a casualty, we took it to the fox farm. That’s how we got rid of it. But the fox fur market broke, and there aren’t any fox farms near there now.”
Current fashion is increasing the demand for fuller, longer furs, increasing the demand for fox fur. Perhaps Wisconsin farmers will see the fox farms return.
(1) See Mink Production in the US and follow the link to the latest USDA statistics.
(2) Super Duper Recyclers – How Fur Farmers Turn Waste into Beauty FCUSA commentary, Oct. 28, 1999.