Fur farms challenged at startup

The Telegram finds few operations survived rush in last decade

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on August 19, 2013
A mink from the Viking Furs farm. The province has about 60,000 female breeders in total, female breeders being the standard measure for mink farm size. Farmers say there is room for growth in the industry, despite many new farms proposed in the last decade not making it through startup to become long-term enterprises.
— Telegram file photo

Second in a two-part series

Online records show at least 37 applications for new or expanding fur farms in Newfoundland and Labrador since 2003. Yet many of those proposed businesses never became reality or shut down in short order.

In 2009, the provincial government reported 35 fur farms. In 2013, the number stands at 29, “however some of those are small, non-commercial sized farms.”

The ability of individuals and partnerships to establish new farms and to have farms survive is worth considering, given the potential farmers claim for the industry.

The province pulled in $17.9 million on fur exports in the first three months of 2013 — sales season. The total is nowhere near Nova Scotia’s $127.8 million for the same period. The discrepancy is considered a sign of the potential for growth.

The success of fur farms proposed in the past decade was limited, in part, because not every proposal was approved by the government.

In 2006, a farm in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's was co-proposed by successful fox farmer Merv Wiseman, under NF Fur Farm Enterprises Inc. It was rejected at the environmental assessment stage after residents and the town’s mayor raised concerns about wafting smells, the possibility of escaped mink, rodents and the effect on local property values.

And yet, making it through the public review was no guarantee for a new farm.

Applications were often made through companies not yet incorporated, according to provincial environment and business records. There is no record of proponents like “Bedo’s Fur Ranch,” or “NTE Northern Fur,” which received basic approvals, actually establishing businesses.

“We never got the funding,” said Terry Byrne, who proposed a fur farm near Buchans and was granted approval for construction in 2006.

He went for a week of hands-on training in Nova Scotia before making his proposal and had commitment for direct assistance from a Nova Scotia farmer through his first year. He told The Telegram he abandoned his plans because of lack of financing, after failing to secure an Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) loan.

Farms can take three to four years before they start to see revenue and farmers say startup is a challenge at best without help — whether provincially through departments like Innovation, Business and Rural Development or federally through ACOA.

“We had tremendous good help from government side,” said Viking Furs’ Peter Noer of his startup in 2004. His is now one of the province’s largest mink farms, carrying 15,000 female mink, benefitting from a more than half a million in provincial assistance since 2007.

“People have to understand that it’s loans that have to be paid back.”

In Lamaline, Clem Benteau was cleared to start a two-shed mink farm in 2007.

“It was going great until they got this Aleutian disease on the mink,” he said.

Aleutian disease has not been shown to affect humans, but can cause trouble for fur breeders, mainly in fur quality. Noer says the disease is present on his farm, but he has been able to manage it and continue on. However, there was an uproar when the province’s first case was discovered, with calls to cull animals.

“All hell broke loose,” Benteau said. “I had pretty well all the funding in place, but it all went by the wayside then.”

Though the provincial government announced $5.4 million for an Aleutian disease-management program in 2008, Benteau soured on fur farming.

Getting a farm running is just a first step. Henry and Mildred Critch, in the Cavendish area, received government approval in 2006, but shut down in 2009 because of operational challenges tied to heavy snowfalls.

“At the time, there was a big snowstorm and it was so hard to get into his ranch and he couldn’t get ... no roads plowed or nothing, and he didn’t have nothing to get in on, so he more or less got ticked off with it and gave it up,” Mildred said.

With contact numbers out of service and reports of failed business from various town staffers and farmers, The Telegram found other operations showing no signs of activity.

Overall industry employment falls short of the 2,000 direct jobs promised back in 1996 by then-Forest Resources and Agrifoods Minister Beaton Tulk, as he announced a five-year strategy for the fur industry in the House of Assembly.

That is not to say the employment will never be seen.

There have been surges in interest in fur farming since Tulk’s time, as evidenced by the rush of applications to government in the 2000s. And fur farmers who spoke with The Telegram said today’s strong prices, international interest in local operations and a serious approach to animal welfare and environmental issues — including studying ways to reduce smell from larger farms — have positioned the industry for growth.

“I think we did have a big influx ... between 2004-07 and a few of those farmers are no longer in the business, but I think that those farmers that are still in the business are solid farmers and I think that the majority will be around for the long haul,” said Catherine Moores, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Fur Breeders Association.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but I think we have a much stronger industry right now than we did five years ago.”