This Utah mink farmer wants to build a legacy. But will his industry survive?

The pandemic ended mink farming in some countries. Will the U.S. follow, or is this a new opportunity for Utah farmers?

The first warning sign might have been small: a caged mink’s sneeze, or possibly a cough. But the coronavirus pandemic would go on to sweep through Utah farms in 2020 with a force that ultimately killed at least 12,000 mink across 12 farms.

The mink on Anthony Nelson’s farm in Morgan County didn’t get sick. But he still worried that the business he launched in 2015 could fail, as farms across the state were quarantined and auction houses closed, making it difficult to find buyers.

To support the industry, millions in federal and state relief funds flowed to mink farms here and nationwide, a lifeline to farmers already staring down a global decline in demand for fur and confronting calls from activists to shut down over concerns about animal welfare.

Nelson, 31, now sees a bright future ahead in Utah, home to the country’s second-largest mink production, behind Wisconsin.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anthony Nelson on his mink farm in Morgan County, Jan. 29, 2022. Nelson raises mostly brown and black mink, which are worth the most money, in addition to Silver blue and Hedlund white breeds.

“We’ve had our adversaries forever and we have a strong community,” he said. “I think that for the most part, Utah residents are fully behind mink farming and it’s maybe more outside voices that aren’t so fond of it.”

But Jeremy Beckham, a board member with the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, is critical of efforts by the state to, as he sees it, “prop up” a sector that has been struggling for years. He sees the payments as “a pretty clear example of taxpayer money going for a really niche special interest.”

Fur farming, he predicts, “is on its way out. I don’t think the state should be artificially interfering in a market this way, especially when this industry is posing a pretty serious threat to public health.”

Coronavirus outbreaks across the world have further accelerated the existing pressures on mink farmers. The virus prompted the end of mink farming altogether in several countries, which some farmers think will create an opportunity for Utah’s industry to grow.

But in the United States, local and federal mink farm bans are now under consideration. Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a provision to ban mink farming as part of the America COMPETES Act, which seeks to increase America’s competitiveness with China.

“I do think it’s the beginning of the end,” Beckham said. “But whether that is over a one-year timeline or even over a decade timeline, I don’t know.”

‘Society has evolved’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hedlund white mink in pens on Anthony Nelson's farm, Jan. 29, 2022. Males typically weight around 8 pounds and are 22 inches in length.

When he was a kid growing up in rural Franklin, Idaho, Scott Beckstead spent holidays and weekends on his grandfather’s mink farm, helping feed and tend to the ferret-like animals.

Beckstead said his grandfather had a genuine “love and affection” for the mink and treated them well. But even so, Beckstead said he felt from a young age that the carnivorous animals — which typically live a solitary existence and spend much of their time in the water — seemed to be suffering in captivity.

“They still behaved very much like wild animals,” he recalled. “As someone who studied and learned about animals from the time I was a teeny little kid, it was clear these were still very much wild animals and that there had been no effort to address their behavior during the course of breeding.”

While earning his undergraduate degree at Utah State University, Beckstead began to learn about the animal rights movement, which prompted him to think more critically about his beliefs and values and the culture he was raised in.

“It really got me to start thinking about putting myself on a path to working to protect animals as a way of life,” he said — something he now does as director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action, a group that advocates for, among other things, the end of fur farming.

“I’m sort of a living example of how our society has evolved,” he said.

While Beckstead’s experience is perhaps unique, data shows he isn’t the only one who has been rethinking his relationship with fur in recent years.

Mink coats were seen as the epitome of style and class a few decades ago, as The New York Times has noted. But today, luxury brands like Chanel, Ralph Lauren and Versace have banned the use of fur fashion products — and consumer demand for mink has been diminishing for years.

Prices peaked in around 2011, buoyed by a spike in demand within Chinese markets. At the time, the U.S. mink industry was worth a high of around $291 million and American farmers fetched an average of $94.30 for the 3 million pelts they’d produced, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

By 2019 — before the coronavirus upended sales — the sector’s worth had dropped nearly 80%, to $58 million. The number of pelts produced dipped, too, and the price per fur plummeted to $21.30.

A pandemic safety net

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anthony Nelson drives his Minkomatic tractor to feed mink on his farm, Jan. 29, 2022. The mink are fed a specialized mixture of proteins, fats and by-products.

The economic picture further collapsed in 2020 as the coronavirus closed farms and auction houses, which are generally considered essential for buyers who want to look at and feel the fur before they make a purchase. There was a 49% decline in pelt production from 2019 to 2020, though prices rebounded somewhat to $33.70 per pelt.

“We go through ups and downs,” said Nelson, the Morgan County fur farmer. “We always have. But we had been trending down before COVID hit. And so once COVID hit, it really pushed prices even worse. There’s been pelt outs from people who were feeling the financial pressures even before COVID” who killed all their animals and sold their pelts.

To get through this period without going under, many Utah farmers turned to state grants and federal loans.

Mink farms in the state received about $1.5 million in funding from the federal government in 2020 and 2021, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of CARES Act funding tracked by ProPublica. All the loans were offered to pay for payroll costs, and the majority have since been forgiven.

The state of Utah also distributed $1.3 million in funds around this time to mink farmers, through 44 separate transactions that were meant “to compensate producers for loss in the market due to COVID-19,” according to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

Additionally, the state gave around $500,000 to Utah farmers as compensation for mink that died on their farms during the pandemic — at a rate of $20 for kits, $35 for breeder females and $50 for breeder males. Those numbers were based on an average of sales at auction, according to sales slips provided by the fur industry, state Veterinarian Dean Taylor said in an email.

“The prices paid did not fully compensate the producers since the majority of the mink lost were breeders, which sell for much more than pelts,” he said. “Unfortunately most of the producers had made the breeder purchases some years earlier and they did provide sales receipts for more than $100 but those were not considered current market value and were not used.”

A Salt Lake Tribune records request produced a list of individual transactions made through this program, which included the names of the mink farms and farmers that received money for deaths. The state had previously declined to release the names of the farms that sustained outbreaks.

In an effort to get the funds to farmers more quickly, the state relied on self reports of losses, according to the state’s Agriculture Department. While the grants are subject to future audits by the Legislature and state auditor, the department said there had been no effort to do so as of early January.

Michael Whelan, the former executive director of Fur Commission USA, said the money provided a much-needed “safety net” for farmers who might have struggled to feed mink and keep their businesses operating at a time when they couldn’t sell their products.

‘The power of government’

In the early days of the pandemic, it became clear that mink were more susceptible to the coronavirus than other animals — a reality that quickly raised concerns that they could act as a reservoir for disease, cultivating and ultimately spreading new variants back to humans.

Researchers were able to find evidence for transmission from mink to humans in The Netherlands with the use of genome sequencing of outbreaks on 16 mink farms, according to a November 2020 study published in the journal Science.

That research prompted The Netherlands, which was already planning to end fur farming by 2024, to speed up its efforts to end the $50 million industry. More than a third of all Dutch farms had been impacted by the pandemic at the time of the country’s announcement, according to a September 2020 report from the United States Department of Agriculture. And NPR reported that concern about mink-to-human infection was part of the impetus behind the cullings, which effectively shuttered the farms by the end of last March.

In Denmark, outbreaks and fears of human transmission led the nation — which was one of the top luxury fur producers in the world — to cull all of its 17 million mink, healthy or sick, and ban new farming until 2023, The New York Times and Reuters have reported.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Two female black mink peek out of their individual pens, Jan. 29, 2022. Some 1,200 female mink at Anthony Nelson's mink farm will begin the breeding process in March and will produce an average litter of four kits in April. Nelson hopes to produce some 12,000 mink pelts this year.

The government apparently did not have the legal authority to require the killing of healthy mink, and the decision led to political upheaval and the resignation of the country’s minister of agriculture. Still, the move has left the future of the business in the country uncertain.

Ireland moved to ban fur farming last summer. France followed suit in November, according to The Guardian, and Italy did the same in December.

As the coronavirus pandemic swept through Utah mink farms, the Utah Animal Rights Coalition called on then-Gov. Gary Herbert in October 2020 to take stricter measures to control the spread of the virus. The group wanted the state to suspend all breeding operations on mink farms and to mandate COVID-19 testing protocols for both animals and workers.

While the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food encouraged farms to enact stricter biosecurity measures — and eventually to vaccinate their mink — there were no efforts to enact legislation or take executive action creating mandates on fur farms.

Utah had few regulations addressing fur farming prior to the pandemic and that continues to this day.

“It’s not on our radar in the same way it is in a lot of other places,” said Beckham, who wants to see the state buy out mink farms to end the practice. “Our leaders here aren’t mentioning it and aren’t talking about it and the media here is not really mentioning it or talking about it either.”

Washington state considered a bill during its 2021 regular legislative session that would have prohibited fur farming in most instances. It didn’t make it to the floor but was reintroduced in January. Oregon also considered legislation that would have imposed stricter regulations on the breeding and transporting of mink during the coronavirus pandemic.

That bill, which did not make it out of a Senate committee, was met with opposition from industry groups and farmers — and from Utah Sen. Norm Thurston, who grew up around mink farms in Morgan County.

In a letter to Oregon senators, Thurston said the bill was a “misguided attempt to use a crisis to eradicate an entire legitimate industry” and argued that, if it passed, there would be an “energized push to get rid of all farm-raised animals, including chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cattle, among many others.”

“Any attempt by Oregon to ban mink farming will have a detrimental effect on the mink industry here in Utah, and I would highly encourage you to not use the power of government to shut down an entire industry based on nothing more than single-viewpoint ideology,” he concluded.

Thurston said in an interview that he wasn’t aware of any efforts to restrict mink farming in Utah since the coronavirus pandemic began, though there has been proposed legislation that would affect farmers in the past.

Utah lawmakers tend to be “friendly” toward agriculture, he said, and he doesn’t see that changing.

“I’m a huge supporter of agriculture and recognize that it’s tough,” he said. “A lot of mink farmers are family farms. There’s a lot of corporate agriculture out there, but that’s not the mink industry.”

But at the federal level, animal activists are advocating for the ban in the America COMPETES Act and the shut down proposed in the Minks in Narrowly Kept Spaces are Superspreaders (MINKS) Act, which was introduced in July 2021.

In supporting the MINKS Act, Animal Wellness Action points to the pandemic and argues that the U.S. is “assuming enhanced domestic risks to supply a luxury product to China.” The bill was introduced in the House last summer, but hasn’t moved since then.

Beckstead, who’s advocating for the bill on the federal level, notes it has bipartisan support and points to the influential appropriations position of one of its sponsors.

Members of Congress are aware of animal welfare problems associated with fur farming, he said. “But the real urgency is the threat to public health. And I think all of these members of Congress have a very real and sincerely held desire to not allow these operations to jeopardize our efforts to try and contain the coronavirus.”

Nelson says the fur farming industry is watching that bill and other local legislation closely and has worked to counter the messages from animal activists.

“We don’t like the trend that Denmark and some of these other countries have set where they’ve just totally outlawed it completely,” he said. “Obviously we work very hard with local legislation and with places like New York and Washington and California and Oregon. We watch those very closely, and we’re very active in making sure our voice is heard.”

Looking to the future

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Two black male mink on Anthony Nelson's Morgan County mink farm, Jan. 29, 2022.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Nelson had worried that he “wouldn’t be able to operate for two straight years without receiving pretty substantial cash flow from the sale” of mink. ”We worried about how we were going to move mink, if there was going to be enough confidence for buyers to buy mink online, he said. His farm received a grant of nearly $55,000 from the state to help it continue operating. And now, Nelson said, he’s finally feeling “optimistic.”

Many other Utah farmers also made it through the worst of the pandemic with government help and some have continued operating with new biosecurity measures meant to reduce the spread of the virus.

There have been no new COVID-19 outbreaks on the state’s farms in months, according to the Agriculture Department. And the Fur Commission says mink vaccine efforts have been successful — though science journalist Sonia Shah recently reported in The New York Times that at least one of the farmers she spoke to on a trip through the state had not been vaccinated and did not intend to inoculate his mink.

Some auction houses have opened to allow buyers to inspect pelts in person, which has helped with sales. And the industry, which is still holding auctions online, has become more comfortable pivoting to an online marketplace.

It’s also possible that the closure of so many European mink markets could, rather than spelling the end of the farms, ultimately be positive for the businesses that remain.

China — where consumers still have an appetite for luxury fur and where most mink products go today — has already signaled its plans to ramp up production to fill the hole left by European countries. And Challis Hobbs, executive director of Fur Commission USA, thinks Utah farmers will respond similarly.

“Denmark was one of the biggest competitors in terms of quality, so I do think there’s a huge opportunity for these Utah farmers in that sense, because of that reduction in the supply,” he said. “There’s going to be a big deficit to fill that need, and I think Utah farmers are taking advantage of that.”

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the history of the fur trade where there’s as big of an opportunity as there is now,” he added, noting that he’s seen younger farmers like Nelson getting into the profession in the last few years.

Nelson got into the mink business through his wife’s family and runs a farm adjacent to his brother-in-law. One of the things that has appealed to him about the profession, he said, is the idea that he could build “something that lives on beyond me.”

And despite the challenges, that still feels possible to him.

“I have a son that’s four and a half years [old] and he’s been going to the farm with me ever since he was a year old,” Nelson said. “He loves to just hop on the mink feeder, and we feed the mink and we go water the mink. And for him, it’s not a job or a chore, it’s just time with dad. “So honestly, that’s the biggest thing, is being able to build something that’s going to last.”