Behind Dan Mullen’s Victorian Gothic farmhouse, just beside a field of tall corn, sit three barns full of vicious mink.
They smell. Their screech is ear piercing, they would bite your face off if they could and they attract swarms of flies.
These little creatures, however, are big business in Nova Scotia. Mink pelts are the province’s biggest agricultural export, earning about $140-million a year.
But mink farming is controversial. The business is growing, which concerns residents such as Colleen McGill, who fear the smell, flies and possible pollution from the farms will lower property values and disrupt rural life.
Mrs. McGill doesn’t want fur operations in her community or others that are near water or on “arable land.” She and other residents will try to make mink an issue during this fall’s municipal elections.
However, Mr. Mullen, 40, president of the Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association, is hoping to change this view. He believes the controversy shining a spotlight on the industry will force fur farms to manage manure and practices better.
“I’m the new generation. I believe it’s time that us young people start to be proud of what we do … because we have nothing to hide. We need to tell our story,” he said. A luxe lightweight black mink jacket, which he bought for his wife, is hanging just by the door of his office.
The NDP government, recognizing the significance of this lucrative industry, is trying to manage the situation. It is poised to adopt new regulations, within weeks, that would require fur farms to have management plans that addresses the storage, treatment and disposal of manure, water and carcasses. The plans must be endorsed by a professional engineer.
Failure to adhere to these and others regulations, such as controlling flies and odour, will result in fines of up to $1,000 a day, possible seizure of the mink or even jail.
Mr. Mullen, who supports the changes in principle (he has not yet seen the final version of the new regulations), breeds 3,500 female mink every year and sells 18,000 pelts.
His is considered a medium-sized operation. Not far away is a farm that breeds about 45,000 mink and produces 250,000 skins a year.
“The time has come where we can’t fly below the radar any more,” he said.
Nova Scotia is more associated with lobster or blueberries or apples – not black mink. But mink farming has been around since the 1930s, starting in Digby County, where there was an abundance of fish that could be used as feed.
Canada produces around three million pelts a year, of which half come from Nova Scotia, primarily from several counties in the west of the province.
The pelts are sold to China, Russia and South Korea, where Nova Scotia’s black mink are coveted for their glossy fur. The high quality is believed to be partly a result of their feed, which is about 60-per-cent fish byproducts. Right now a farmer can earn $100 a pelt – a profit of about $40 or $50.
While farmers are enjoying profits, some residents are concerned about the mink manure, believing it is toxic and contributing to pollution in local lakes.
But that’s not the case, argues Lise LeBlanc, an expert on nutrient, soil and waste management planning. She says it’s all about managing the manure, and mink farming is “desperately needed” as a source of fertilizer for depleted soil.
“Mink manure is no worse than chicken manure or beef manure or dairy manure,” she said.
Mr. Mullen also notes that the entrails, heads and feet of chickens and fish would just be going on the scrap heap if it wasn’t for the mink. “We are turning a waste product into a luxury item,” he said.
For Mrs. McGill, however, there is nothing luxurious about sitting outside among flies and the stench of mink manure. She and her husband retired 10 years ago and moved from the city to a 50-acre farm. Now, a big mink operation is being built along her road, she said.
“We want to ensure that neighbouring property owners don’t lose the use of their land or their quality of life through odours and flies,” she said. “And we also want to protect our farmland from operations that do not support buy local, eat local. You can’t eat a mink. You don’t buy mink coats from these people. … In the true sense of farming, it’s not a farm.”