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Like a Diamond



Near the shore of Lake Michigan lies a not-so-hidden gem in Wisconsin agriculture. Zimbal Mink is a fourth-generation mink ranch and home to some of the most highly sought-after mink in the world.

“We have a reputation and are known for our quality,” said Valerie Zimbal. “We strive to maintain a consistent, high quality, luxury fur.”

Valerie’s great-grandfather, Robert, planted his farming roots in Sheboygan County in 1940. While serving in the Korean War, Robert wrote to his fiancée, Audrey, that he would like to build a mink ranch with her. On August 24, 1954, he returned home, married Audrey and they received five pastel mink as a wedding present. Today, Zimbal Mink is an award-winning ranch housing more than 400,000 certifiable mink. The Zimbal family raises premium mink that are sold internationally to designers and consumers alike.

Wisconsin leads the nation in fur production, due largely to its climate, location and food access.

“Mink need access to fresh food, particularly meat,” said Valerie. Not only do they thrive here because of the climate, but they have access to healthy diets and fresh water. Mink rely on high-quality food sources to grow nice, thick, silky coats.”

Despite growing up on the ranch, Valerie’s love for fashion and creativity led her to fashion school in New York City. That same love is what brought her back to Zimbal Mink where she now manages the farm’s public relations efforts and puts her skills to work with the fur. She said it is a rewarding career that she is proud to be a part of. “We have built incredible connections with people both in the state and internationally,” Valerie said. “Mink is a small international industry.”

With her background in fashion, Valerie takes great pride in selling pelts and crafting garments from fur. Zimbal Mink works closely with Alice in Dairyland. Valerie also travels throughout the world to meet with buyers and designers who use Zimbal products.

The Zimbals are active participants in the Fur Commission USA’s Humane Herd Certification Program. The program ensures that the care, feed, housing and management of the herd meets criteria standards to continue raising some of the highest quality mink in the world.

However, mink ranching does not come without its challenges. A proposed amendment to a federal bill proposed in early 2022 would have banned the purchase, sale and transportation of mink.

“As farmers, we have to keep an eye on policy,” said Valerie. “That is why it is so important that organizations like Farm Bureau understand and support us to keep us moving forward.”

The coronavirus pandemic had a monumental impact on mink ranches across the world, as mink are highly susceptible to disease.

“Pelts are sold on live auction, but COVID brought that to a halt. It devastated our industry,” Valerie explained. “And then came the war between Russia and Ukraine.” Both Russia and Ukraine are large markets for fur. Russian sanctions and the ongoing war continue to impact global mink sales.

Despite challenges, Valerie said her family is tremendously passionate about the work that they do.

“There is a common misconception that mink ranching is cruel, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Valerie said. “This is our livelihood. We take great pride in the care we are providing these animals and are very passionate about what we do.”

Same Goals, New Generation

Carrying on the tradition of their ancestors while providing high-quality mink pelts for the global market remains a priority for Zimbal Mink.

When Valerie’s great-grandparents started Zimbal Mink, their goal was to raise healthy animals that provide quality garments. This starts with the highest standard of care for the animals.

“Fifty years later, we still have the same goals,” Valerie said. “The quality is reflected in the care we give them. Our main goal is to keep the mink healthy, stress-free and give them access to clean water”

Zimbal’s participation in the Fur Commission Humane Care Farm Certification Program puts them at the forefront of transparency and sustainability.

Mink are natural recyclers. These composting critters keep food that is not fit for human consumption out of landfills by consuming byproducts of fish, cheese, eggs and meat production. They save hundreds of thousands of tons of food from ending up in landfills every year.

Mink require a high-protein diet comprised of mostly raw meat. Access to high-quality meat and cheese byproducts helps to create a consistent high-quality feed for the mink. Zimbal’s location within an hour of Green Bay gives them ample access to meat and cheese byproducts to feed. Food companies and processors also benefit from this partnership because they receive a small premium for products that would otherwise be wasted.

Nothing is wasted throughout the mink’s lifecycle. When the fur has been harvested, mink meat is used for rendering and oils are used in various cosmetics. Meeting and exceeding the high standards of care for the mink leads to producing the best quality mink pelts in the world. It is a great reflection on the family’s caretaking abilities.

“Mink are like a high-end restaurant: you need a good location, server, host, ingredients, chef and ambiance. If anything is missing, it takes away from the experience,” Valerie explained. “The same goes for mink: they need a good environment, quality feed and excellent care to raise high-quality pelts. That starts with us on the farm.” The mink’s lifetime is as sustainable as the garment it creates.

There is no comparison to the quality product created from real fibers. Once the coat has retired, unlike synthetic material, mink coats are biodegradable. Mink garments tend to be passed down from generation to generation, just as the legacy of Zimbal mink has been carried on from Valerie’s great-grandparents. A well-maintained mink garment will last decades.

Whether here in Wisconsin or in designs across the globe, Zimbal mink continues to be the fur industry’s most coveted not-so-hidden gem. “High-quality fur is like a diamond,” Valerie said. “It’s an investment, but lasts a lifetime.”

Story originally appeared in the December | January 2022-2023 Rural Route. Story by Cassie Sonnentag and Rachel Gerbitz. Photos copyright Zimbal Mink.

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