CHICAGO - Battered by the economic downturn and years of animal rights activism in their own backyard, American mink farmers are now in a different sort of quandary: scrambling to keep up with China's demand for all things fur.
Driven by a hunger for high-end clothing and luxury home goods among China's burgeoning middle class, US exports of mink pelts to China jumped to a record US$215.5 million (S$266.6 million) last year - more than double both the value and volume shipped in 2009.
That Chinese consumers are clamoring for fuzzy-trimmed backpacks, ermine-edged coats and mink-covered office supplies comes as a welcome respite for the US mustelidae world.
The industry's fortunes had chilled in recent years, with farms shuttering and prices slumping amid the past two recessions and mounting criticism of the fur trade by US and European animal rights groups.
Now, prices of farmed mink pelts are soaring to all-time highs. South Korea and Russia, too, have contributed to a surge in demand that led to shipments of 11.8 million pelts worth $479 million worldwide by US farmers, trappers and auction houses last year. That was nearly triple the level in 2009.
BITTER COLD MEANS GOOD BUSINESS
Weather has kept the demand piling on in recent months. Both Russia and China experienced unusually cold winters late last year. The bitter temperatures half a world away were something to celebrate on Ron Gengel's mink ranch.
For three generations, the Gengel family has raised minks in a northern Illinois farm for furriers around the world. They've survived competition from overseas rivals, slumping prices and an American consumer more interested in fakes than the real pelt.
Such down times have made the Gengels cautious of the current boom and quick to adjust to shifting trends. When international buyers began talking about white fur being considered more chic than black pelts, the family started raising more white mink - and fewer black.