In February, for the second year in a row, I attended the Pennsylvania Trappers Association District 2 fur sale. Once again, the room was packed with trappers and their respective catches. Some of the catches, I noticed, were considerably smaller than last year, which was no surprise.
The past month or so I've talked to several trappers from the Tri-State area who've said their numbers were down compared to previous years. One reason could be last summer's drought. Many food sources were depleted or dried up by fall. In my own trapping endeavors, I found raccoons to be more scattered than usual. It seemed like I caught a few everywhere, but not a lot of them anywhere. For instance, one farm I trapped last year produced 19 raccoons. This year it produced four. That's a big drop off.
Of course, a variety of things could be affecting raccoon populations. The past decade or so have seen relatively low fur prices. As a result, few trappers have pursued them, and populations have exploded in most areas. It's quite possible that any number of diseases, from distemper to rabies, could've cut down the population to more reasonable numbers before fall arrived. I've seen it happen before.
photo: slug- fur prices perspective.jpg — The author with a fine collection he trapped this past season in Pennsylvania.
Whatever the reason, the overall harvest of most furbearers was down this year. But that's good news for trappers. As with other markets, fur prices are driven by supply and demand. Low harvest means higher prices, and a lot of trappers left the fur sale this year with smiles on their faces. I was one of them.
There were four buyers at this year's fur sale. I had about 50 raccoons to sell I withheld for tanning the couple fox, coyote, and handful of muskrats I also caught. The 50 coons were all fleshed and stretched, and I figured to average around $10-12 apiece. The year before I averaged $8, and from what I'd read about recent national auction results, prices were on the rise. Raccoons at the January NAFA (North American Fur Auctions) sale averaged around $18, but the only goods sold were XXL and XXXL pelts in other words, the best of the best.
I had a number of XXL and XXXL raccoons, and I expected them to fetch a good price, but I also had some small, subpar pelts that would hurt the overall average. Also, I've sold through NAFA in the past and know that posted averages don't tell the whole story. It's rare when 100% of the raccoons sell. The posted average is for the goods that actually sold.
I offer only one bit of advice enjoy the prices being offered right now because they won't last forever. That's a guarantee. One way or another, they are sure to change.
Back in the late 1990s, I had years when only 50-60% of the inventory I sent to NAFA actually sold at the first auction where they were offered. The rest were held over and offered again at later auctions. I sometimes had smaller, damaged, or otherwise undesirable skins holdover for several years before finally selling.
If you're going to bypass your local fur buyer and send directly to auction, that's a factor you have to consider and be willing to accept. You also have to be willing to accept paying a member fee to NAFA, as well as a commission on all sales, not to mention shipping charges. All of these things add up and take a chunk out of the check you actually receive for your furs.
When prices are fairly low, I've always thought that it takes a lot of coon to make sending them to NAFA worthwhile. If you only have a couple dozen, after all of the fees mentioned above, you won't notice much difference in your fur check than if you sell to a country fur buyer. One of the reasons I've sold at the PTA event the past two seasons is that a four percent commission gets donated to the organization. That money goes toward educating the general public, getting young folks involved in trapping, and protecting my rights as a trapper. It's a good investment.
I sold all 50 coons that I took to the fur sale. When the buyer told me that my best coon would bring $30 and that my overall average would be $15, I couldn't stop grinning. I wanted him to hurry up and write out the check before he changed his mind. That was a good average considering I had six or seven hides I considered low grade, small, damaged, etc.
For a week or so, I was pleased as could beand then I saw the results of the March NAFA fur sale where raccoons averaged around $31. On top of it, almost 100% of the inventory sold.
Say what?! All of a sudden that $15 average seemed a pittance but only for a minute. After all, when I sold my catch at that price, I was more than satisfied. It was more than I'd expected and I was happy with it.
Selling furs is always a roll of the dice. The fur market is as volatile and unpredictable as the stock market. Prices fluctuate weekly, if not daily. I've experienced years when I averaged a higher price from my local buyer only to have the bottom drop out of the market a few weeks later. In that case, the buyer took the loss and ended up selling the furs for less than he paid for them.
Just because raccoons averaged $31 at the March NAFA auction doesn't mean that prices will continue that way forever. I'm no expert, but I think prices will drop back to what we've experienced in the past, especially if furbearer populations rebound this year. With many trappers receiving larger fur checks and spreading the word, there's little doubt more people will be trapping and predator hunting this fall which will result in a larger harvest. And once again the market will be flooded with goods and prices will drop.
The world economy is also a factor to consider. Many of our wild furs are sold to foreign markets, primarily China and Russia. This year, both regions experienced unusually cold and harsh winters, which created a greater demand for fur truly, there is nothing warmer than real fur. And while fur is a huge part of the culture of those countries, it's hard to predict if consumers will be willing to pay higher prices for garments. The higher cost of pelts will inevitably lead to more expensive garments, and there's just no telling if consumers will be able to afford them. If there's a heavy carryover of garments from this year to next, we'll see a very sluggish market this fall.
As with anything, time will tell. As someone who has been trapping and selling furs for over 20 years, I offer only one bit of advice enjoy the prices being offered right now because they won't last forever. That's a guarantee. One way or another, they are sure to change.