U.S. fur farms are rebounding after struggling for the past 15 years but not because of sales in the U.S. New wealth in China is creating significant rises in demand for high-quality furs and sending pelt prices through the roof.
Pelt prices shot up from $41 on average in 2008 to a record $94 in 2011. U.S. fur farmers sold nearly $260 million in raw mink pelts to South Korean and Chinese buyers last year, according to Federal agriculture officials. Many pelts are made into coats sold to Chinese consumers, who bought more than half of the fur coats sold globally in 2010, according to the China Leather Industry Association.
China produces its own pelts, but the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Survey, or FAS, reported in 2010 that China's homegrown furs have been marked by low quality resulting from in-breeding, high feed costs and poor nutrition. In the U.S., a third of 2011's 3.1 million pelts came from Wisconsin farms.
"The international market has protected U.S. producers," Wisconsin fur rancher Bob Zimbal told the Associated Press. "In 2009, when the whole world economy was really poor, we still had a profitable year. That's when it became clear that China was for real."
Chinese manufacturers have turned to foreign farmers for high-quality pelts. China imported nearly $126 million worth of U.S. mink pelts last year, making it the second most lucrative mink export market for American fur farmers behind South Korea, according to the FAS.
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"The fur coat happens to be one of the trappings of success," Michael Whelan, executive director of Fur Commission USA. told AP. "People in the Far East and Europe see American TV and see us wearing it; they all want to wear it."
Animal rights activists have worked to make fur unfashionable in U.S. culture and now face a new challenge in China. Most opposition to fur sales in China has been led by foreign groups, but homegrown activism is growing. But the anti-fur efforts haven't had much effect thus far. Industry groups predict strong growth in China, perhaps as high as 14 percent annually, in the near future, according to AP.