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There just isn’t anything good to say about the fur market going into the 2020-2021 trapping season. The confluence of an oversupply of ranched fur, soft demand due to slowing economies in China and Russia and rock bottom oil prices, and finally the COVID-19 pandemic that rocked economies worldwide and put travel to a halt, have combined to essentially stop the fur market in its tracks this year.
We’ve been in a tough fur price environment for the past few years, and I have predicted in the past few fur market forecasts that we’d see a bottom in 2019-2020 and fur demand and prices would begin to recover thereafter. That was before COVID. The coronavirus pandemic hit at the absolute worst time for the fur market, and the fallout will likely mean we’re in for low fur prices for quite a bit longer than expected.
Low fur prices have already claimed North America’s largest fur auction house, North American Fur Auctions, which went bankrupt earlier this year. Fur Harvesters Auction was the last remaining place for wild fur harvesters to ship their product to be auctioned off to international buyers. In March 2020, FHA’s scheduled auction, which would offer a large portion of the 2019-20 harvested fur product, was not allowed to take place due to COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the Canadian government. Instead, FHA held their first ever online auction, which was a feat in itself. The folks at Fur Harvesters should be commended for their hard work and adaptability in putting on this online auction. Unfortunately, though, there was very little interest from the international market. The poor demand was likely a combination of the inability to see the fur items in person and the poor outlook for fur retail sales due to economic conditions. Very little fur sold and prices were poor.
With encouragement from buyers, FHA scheduled a wild fur auction for late August, hoping the pandemic would have subsided by then and things could resume as normal. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. While Canadian buyers could attend this live auction, international travel was still not possible, with the Canadian border closed. The August 2020 auction went on with domestic buyers, many of who were taking bids over the phone from international buyers during the auction.
Results of the FHA August 2020 Fur Auction
Coyotes were the only item that experienced active bidding, and the interest was only in heavy western coyotes. This was likely driven by demand from Canada Goose, which recently announced it would stop buying virgin wild fur to line its parkas in a couple of years. The best Western coyotes averaged $77, a considerable drop from last year’s prices, but still a bright spot in an otherwise poor market.
Lower quality Western coyotes went for $30-40, and the rest of the coyotes offered were mainly unsold. The few that did sell didn’t do well. For instance, I had a 3X-2X I HVY C-D Eastern coyote that went for $18. The same pelt would have brought 2 to 3 times that price a year ago. Four of my smaller Easterns averaged $8 in the March sale. After the high end parka trim orders were mostly filled, buyers stopped bidding.
Beaver – about a quarter of the offering sold, averaging $14. The demand for the hatter market that we’ve seen create a strong, albeit low, floor for the market did not appear to be present in this sale.
Beaver castor – this was a bright spot, as the demand for castor, which is heavily used outside of the fur industry, continues to be high. Depending on grade, castor ranged from $80-110/lb.
Muskrat – about half sold, averaging $2.50.
Otter – about a quarter sold, averaging around $15.
Marten – about 50% sold, averaging $20. Marten in the Lower 48 did very poorly (my Maine marten averaged $7.60).
Bobcat – around 15% sold for a $150 average. This represented a mix of some better quality Westerns as well as the lower quality Easterns.
Lynx – about a third of the offering sold for $42.
Skunk – 60% sold for a $4 average.
Fox, raccoon, fisher and mink did not sell in any meaningful quantities and were held with all other unsold goods for future sales.
So in a nutshell, the few buyers that needed fur picked and chose what they considered to be the best values, and left the bulk of the fur at the auction house. When you go into the fur harvesting season with almost all of the previous year’s harvest still waiting to be sold, you know things aren’t good. The best possible outcome for the market would be to clear out the previous year’s inventory so that fresh goods could meet an improving market with limited available supply. Unfortunately, this just didn’t happen. In order to clear out goods in a basically dysfunctional market, most of the fur would have to be given away, which would be a huge loss for everyone involved in the production side.
So here we are. The old timer trappers I’ve talked with recently say they have never seen prices this low. (Note: My new book, Walter Arnold, Maine Trapper provides some insight into fur prices from the 1930’s, ’40’s and ’50’s). Even in the fur crash of the 1980’s, prices were higher than this. When will we see a recovery? It’s anybody’s guess right now. There’s no doubt that these low prices will have far fewer trappers out in the field this fall and winter, meaning the market won’t be flooded with supply. But there will be fur harvested. Many recreational trappers will harvest fur no matter the price, and necessary animal damage control trapping will result in fur byproduct that would still be better on the market than be put to waste. This year’s harvested fur will compete for buyers with the unharvested pelts from previous years sitting at auction houses or in cold storage facilities of large fur buyers. All of this points to the fact that we’ll need a strong uptick in international demand in order for fur prices to recover. This means economic recovery, diminishing coronavirus impacts, higher oil prices, and an economically stronger consumer in the fur consuming countries. How long this will take is anybody’s guess. Until then, stay tuned and keep your chin up!
An Alternative Market
They say every dark cloud has a silver lining, and with crisis comes opportunity. The opportunity I see in this depressed fur market is the fact that it will force many of us to seek alternative markets for the fur we produce. This is a challenge, but requires us to learn to be marketers, get creative and seek ways to add value to a product that otherwise is considered a commodity. In my book, Fur Profit, I briefly discussed several ways trappers can add value to their fur. Some ideas include tanning fur pelts and selling them as decorative wall hangers, making fur clothing like hats and mittens, and other products like blankets and pillows. There are lots of possibilities out there, but they require a ton of work in both manufacturing and marketing. The good thing, however, is that this might result in the creation of niche markets that help support fur prices during the tough times like this.