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Mink on his mind

‘Retired’ mink farmer still working full schedule at age 95

“I just don’t feel like sitting in a rocking chair every day and rocking myself to sleep,” said David Jergenson, of Cyrus.  And it’s not likely he will be rocking anytime soon because this 95-year-old retired mink rancher choses to spend nine to 10 hours a day working at the mink ranch he used to own. David retired in 1982 and his son, Duane Jergenson, now owns the ranch.

When asked how many days a week he spends at the mink ranch, David answered, “Oh, five days.” His wife of 67 years, Julette, leaned in and with a smile and whispered, “Six.”

“As long as I’m physically healthy, there is always something to do,” stated David. “But I’ve got to quit that pretty soon.” Julette quickly interjected, “That sounds like a tape recorder played over from about 10 years ago. But, it gives him something to do.”

Just over a year ago, David was honored at the Minnesota Fur Breeders Association’s fall banquet. For his many years of service to the mink industry, he was awarded a plaque inscribed with the words, “Rancher of the Year.”

“I was pretty surprised. I don’t know why they wanted to pick me,” David humbly said. “I didn’t know a thing about it.” With some prompting from Duane, David and Julette attended the banquet with no knowledge of the honor that was to come. Julette shared how, at the banquet, she watched David as he visited with some other ranchers. Then the speaker mentioned that there was a fellow present who was born in 1918. “David’s ears perked up and pretty soon he got the message to come and sit down,” explained Julette. “That was funny.”

David was born in 1918 and was raised on a farm north of Donnelly, about one mile south of Cottonwood Lake. He was the middle child in a family of 11 children. “We had dairy, raised hogs and chickens – we milked cows by hand back then,” he said with a chuckle.

At the age of 24, he was drafted into the Army and served in World War II. He trained in the Mojave Desert for eight months before riding a troop train to New York. “We were black before we got out there – soot from the engine or something,” David recalled. He had one furlough before going overseas to Africa and Italy. It was then that David went on his first date with Julette Gilbertson. She was also from the Donnelly area, and the two went to the same church.

Julette wrote every day for four years while David was away in the Army, and he wrote whenever he could. The couple’s courtship continued for four months when the war ended and David was discharged from the Army as a Tech Sargent. The two were married in March of 1946.

David had a strong desire to carry on the family tradition of farming. “I tried to buy a farm when I got out of the service,” he began, “but I needed a larger farm than what we settled down on…only 120 acres.” That’s how I got started raising mink – because the farm was too small.” And so, the Jergensons settled down on the 120-acre farm near Cyrus in December of 1948.

The new farm owner began consulting with his brother-in-law who owned a mink ranch in Eden Valley. They slowly started buying mink and built up their own ranch of 400 females. “We thought we’d try it, and it was quite an experience to learn,” admitted David.

Trials and tribulations in mink farming were many in the beginning: disease, building collapses, winter and summer temperatures, even the color of the mink presented a challenge. Mink come in many colors, such as, sapphire, blue iris, brown pastel, black, white and pale beige, and the couple needed to make a decision on what color to raise. “My brother gave us some Yukon Darks and they weren’t worth much on the market,” remarked David.

Over time the Jergensons increased their mink herd, and at its largest, the ranch housed 1,000 female mink. “Those first years the weather wasn’t very nice to us,” declared Julette. In the beginning, they didn’t have sheds so the mink were housed in pens in the yard. Whenever it would snow they would go out and lift the pens so they wouldn’t get snowed under.

Feeding the mink was completely different to what it is today. The couple would buy fish for the herd, and David would butcher old horses and crippled cows as an additional food source. “That was a real job,” he pointed out. They also fed the mink a grain cereal and a concentrate. Today at the ranch they feed chicken, egg products, cheese, beef spleen, lungs and liver. Brokers handle these products for the ranchers now, unlike how David disposed of his neighbors’ ailing animals. Brokers line up the product, and most everything is delivered to the ranch frozen in semi-trucks.

David shared how the mink were fed with a spoon or by gloved hand in his days of mink farming. “After we got push carts to feed with, we really thought it was something.” He continued, “Things are much different from when we were in it. Everything is much more automated now. They have machines for this and that and everything, where as we did all of it by hand.” Today the ranch has motorized feeding machines in which a button is depressed to dispense feed on top of the pens twice a day.

“I was in the mink yard a lot,” stated Julette. “We called it a partnership – or at least I did.” David and Julette both laughed. She added, “It is hard work. Mink ranchers don’t have much time for vacation.”

Along with starting and maintaining a mink ranch, the Jergensons raised a family of three daughters and two sons. Julette took care of the kids, the home, provided meals for the family and workers and worked alongside her husband every day. They truly ranched together.

In mink farming, breeding time is at the beginning of March. Only one crop of mink is produced each year. The females are carried to the males. It takes one male to every five females for a successful breeding season. The gestational period for a mink is 45 to 50 days.

Mink are very small and hairless when they are born. The young are called kits and grow very fast. Julette was especially taken with the baby mink, “They are no bigger than my little finger when they are born. Oh, they are just so tiny,” she gently said.

The babies’ eyes open at about five weeks. “You can never trust them when they get older. We wear leather gloves to handle them,” explained David. “The mothers are very protective of the young. You have to be very careful.” On the mink ranch today, Duane averages five kits per female and is working on genetically increasing the litter sizes by keeping those females that produce larger litters.

Pelting season begins around Thanksgiving. The best males and females are kept for breeding. After the mink pelts are harvested they are frozen in 50-pound blocks, palletized and shrink wrapped. They are then hauled to the fleshing plant where the fat is removed and then drummed. The process of drumming is where the pelts are put into a machine with corn cob grit that will dry up the pelts so they are not greasy. The pelts are put on a board, fur side out, to be stretched and are drummed one more time before taken to auctions.

Auctions are in February and May and are held in Toronto, Canada, and Seattle, Washington. People come from around the world to buy the mink. Many foreign countries are represented, such as China, Russia and Korea. In the last three years, China has been buying 80 percent of the mink produced. They use it for trim on many items, like clothing, and even on inanimate objects, like staplers.

A lot of labor and expense go into mink farming. Whether the year is 1948 or 2013, equipment, feed, labor costs, building expense and electricity are only the beginning.

One of David’s favorite activities on the farm is picking the breeding stock, which is called grading the mink for quality fur. In the fall, he goes through the herd looking for large mink. A fluorescent light on wheels is used in grading the fur. Once a mink is carefully secured, he combs the fur down and looks for the length of guard hair. A mink’s guard hairs are the long coarse hairs that form a layer that covers and protects the soft underfur. The experienced mink rancher looks for mink with a lot of guard hair that isn’t too long. He also checks for depth or density in the underfur. “You learn all of this from experience,” he explained. “My son can grade too.” When asked if he was better at grading than his son, David replied, “Well probably! I argue with him sometimes. When I run across a mink with exceptional fur I say, ‘Hey guys! Come look at this mink!’ And when I comb the mink down, it just flows.”

Mink farming continues to run deep in the Jergenson family. Not only has son Duane taking over his parents’ mink farm, but grandson Luke also has a mink farm outside of Minnesota.

So what keeps this man steps ahead of some men half his age? David acknowledged, “I guess for 95 I’m in pretty good shape.” Reading and studying health issues has helped his physical being. Julette added that he has always been interested and dedicated to his herbs and vitamins. He also stays busy as a Chaplin of the Gideon International Ministries where he takes a lot of joy and pride in spreading God’s word.

A strong work ethic keeps David going strong. In the words he used to tell his father’s story at the banquet, Duane told how his dad once asked him, “Why are you letting your guys go home at 4:30? They should be here until at least 6.” He added, “That’s my father; he really did invent work ethic. Dad used to say, ‘You need to have intestinal fortitude and a cast iron constitution to get work done.’”

He is a humble man who would much rather speak of the achievements of his children or how beautifully his daughters can sing, but in regard to the award he received, he had this to say, “I seldom have any great feelings, but it was quite the recognition. I’d have to put it that way.”

So forget a rocking chair for David Jergenson – he would likely trade it in for an automated feed cart and a pair of leather gloves anyway.

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