The Courtland farmer can be seen gracing this year’s Faces of Farming Calendar. The February page features a photo of Sandra sporting a dark mink cape, sitting on an ornate sofa plunked out in the snow.
Since 2005, the non-profit agricultural education coalition known as Farm and Food Care Ontario has held an essay contest to choose who will appear in the calendar. The prize includes a photo shoot, plus two tickets and accommodation to the Harvest Gala Calendar lunch.
Sandra, 57, and husband Clarence, 59, a former welder, decided to buy a relative’s former tobacco farm and start the mink operation from scratch. Clarence already had 35 years of experience working with mink, after helping out an uncle who raised them in Norwich. Today, the Aspdens have 1,700 female and 570 male mink.
Originally a city girl from Kitchener, Sandra worked as a factory supervisor in Brantford for more than two decades, but finds mink farming much more relaxing.
“Coming from a factory where I was supervisor over anywhere from 25 to 90 people, you’re going all day, but coming out to the mink, you walk through, you do your job and you talk to the mink,” she said. “You don’t have anyone breathing down your neck giving you stress, stress, stress.”
The operation has become a family affair, with the couple’s three sons, a daughter-in-law and a grandson all helping out.
Mink breed just once a year, in late November. Sandra explained that the minks’ three-week birthing cycle begins in March. In mid-April the “blacks” will have their offspring, which are called kits. The pastels or “browns” then give birth in mid-May.
At six weeks the animals are vaccinated for the first time and then again when they are 10 to 12 weeks old. Around July 1 the kits are separated from their mothers and a male and a female are put in cages together.
When it’s time to harvest their coats, the animals are euthanized using carbon monoxide. After skinning, the pelts are then carefully graded and sold throughout the year at the North American Auction House in Toronto.
A sale of 2,200 pelts in January brought in just over $200,000 for the Aspden farm. Buyers are from all over Europe, China and Russia.
Sandra admits the anti-fur lobby is huge and recalls 450 mink being released by activists who broke into the cages on a Simcoe farm a few years back. She says such activists don’t realize most mink, which have only known captivity, will be run over by cars in their disoriented state.
The animals are also voracious carnivores with a strong bite and will start killing small animals for food. Those that are recaptured can also bring disease into the barns.
In captivity, mink are fed leftovers such as tripe purchased from area abattoirs, pig kidneys and fish.
On the environmental front, Sandra pointed out that many man-made materials don’t break down in landfills, but fur will, especially when it’s buried.
There is a code of ethics for mink farmers, she added, including enrichment practices such as providing golf balls for the animals to help occupy time in the cage.
“The whole thing is to educate the public,” Sandra said. “On my farm, no one mistreats the mink.”
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