Ontario farmers carve niche business in mink

EDITOR’s NOTE: These farmers no longer are in the mink industry.

 

Like most farmers, Jake Grift knew what he wanted to be at an early age.

Grift, however, set his goal earlier than most.

“I sat on Santa Claus’s knee when I was four years old. He asked me what I want to be when I grow up and I said, ‘a farmer.’ ”

Grift, who was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to Canada in 1990 at the age of 15, took longer than most to fulfil his childhood dream.

He worked at a number of jobs for more than 20 years before starting his own farm near Guelph, Ont., in 2013.

Grift didn’t select a standard farming category, like cattle, chickens or grain. He became a mink rancher.

“It’s unique. And I think you have to be a bit of a weirdo to do this.”

Grift spent a portion of his childhood working at his uncle’s farm in Holland, where he learned how to care for pigs, chickens and mink.

That experience helped him land his first job in Canada.

“As a teenager, moving here from Holland, I basically walked off one mink ranch to another one (in Ontario),” he said, adding the challenges, complexities and independence of mink farming convinced him to start his own farm in Canada one day.

An opportunity arrived a few years ago when a relative in the Netherlands wanted to establish a mink ranch in Ontario.

Grift now operates a 24,000 sq. foot barn and has more than 2,000 female mink, which produce 8,000 to 10,000 skins annually. His wife, Tomke Roelofs, runs her own business on the farm, boarding about 20 horses for urban and rural clients.

Roelofs lived and worked on egg and dairy farms in Ontario and Germany before meeting Grift.

“I was off the farm for about 10 years. During that time I met Jake and we both (wanted) to get back to the farm and do something,” she said.

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“I was always interested in horses…. So this farm provided the opportunity (to do both).”

Grift and Roelofs wanted to farm because they liked the idea of working and living together.

“Where we have our own (enterprises)… but basically work from home,” Roelofs said.

Grift is still adjusting to the challenges of the mink business.

“I’m not established yet,” he said. “It takes a while to make a herd your own, to figure it out and get good at it.”

Like sheep, successfully breeding mink is about timing. Mink respond to lengthening days following Christmas and typically go into heat for three weeks in late February to early March.

“After Dec. 31, you have to be very careful with having light in and around the barn,” Grift said.

“You have to put the mink on a diet (in the winter) so they lose weight. If they don’t lose weight, chances are they’ll still come into heat … but it affects the size of the litter.”

Mink production has its own life cycle. They give birth to litters of four or five kits in May, about eight weeks after breeding. The kits nurse on their mothers for approximately six weeks.

Several kits, often three, are housed together in a small pen (cage) for a month following weaning.

The animals are fed a meat diet, usually the byproducts of abattoirs, fish processing and food processing plants, including fish heads and slaughterhouse offal.

Winter fur begins to grow in August and reaches its prime in November or December. The mink are killed with carbon dioxide and then the pelts are harvested.

Grift said the price for mink is usually set at the year’s first auction, typically held in January.

“It’s a world market and there are three options in the entire world: one (market) in Toronto, one in Denmark and there’s one in Finland.”

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Chinese customers dominate the international fur market.

“China… that’s where 90 percent of it goes. Every man wants a Beemer (BMW) or Mercedes and every woman wants a fur coat. And it’s all about status,” he said. “If you go to the auction here in Toronto … 90 percent of (the buyers) are Chinese.”

Global fur fashions have changed dramatically over the last two de-cades to match the expectations of modern consumers.

“Your grandma’s standard brown mink coat, nobody is buying that anymore”, Grift said.

The fashion industry now uses fur more creatively, processing the fur to craft a unique pattern or colour and using fur for part of a garment.

North American Fur Auctions of Toronto said on its website that 2014 was a difficult year for the fur industry. Warm weather in China, Russia and Europe cut into sales, and ranch mink prices dropped up to 70 percent from 2013, when prices hit record levels. Grift said his first sale of this year generated a decent price.

“I just sold 1,700 skins in January and averaged $67 Canadian.”

Grift is confident fur demand will remain strong, but the fur farming industry remains controversial in North America and Europe.

The Dutch Senate voted to ban mink farming in the Netherlands in 2012, claiming it is immoral to raise animals in small cages for an unnecessary luxury product.

However, the Dutch courts overturned the proposed ban last spring. Judges said it unfairly punishes fur farmers and compromises their right to a livelihood.

Grift said animal rights activists occasionally break into mink barns and release the animals into the wild. He said such actions are ridiculous because Canadian mink farmers follow standardized animal welfare practices, which are developed by Agriculture Canada, industry representatives and animal welfare agencies.

As well, he said releasing farmed mink is cruel because his animals descend from mink that were domesticated 60 years ago. They don’t know how to survive in the wild.

“Everybody is entitled to their opinion,” he said. “If you’re against having an animal in a cage, that’s fine. But letting them out is going to do more harm than good.”

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