ORD — When the Petska Fur truck pulls into a town, people show up with deer hides, raccoons, antlers and skunk.
What the company really likes to see, though, is coyote.
"Right now the only thing that we can sell without much trouble is a coyote," said Greg Petska, who heads the Ord-based fur company.
The fur from coyotes trapped in this area will wind up on coats produced by a company called Canada Goose. That company, based in Toronto, "spearheaded this whole coyote craze five or six years ago," Petska said. Strips of coyote are used on the coat's collars and hoods. The company sells high-end coats, popular with young urban residents who don't have a problem with fur.
Canada Goose had the market to itself for two or three years. A couple of other companies have now joined the field.
"So you've got three companies basically competing against each other for this raw material that we're gathering out here in the country," Petska said.
Canada Goose charges a handsome price for its apparel, which is sold in 37 countries. A child's jumper, featuring a fur collar or hood, goes for $700 or $800. Some coats are priced at $1,500 to $1,800. "I've seen them as high as $2,000," Petska said.
To bring in fur, Petska covers a very big area.
The company sends its trucks to eight or nine states, including the Dakotas, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. One of the routes hits central Nebraska hard.
In Nebraska, the company is very busy in November and December. "We're as available as we can possibly be, because that's just when the fur is coming into prime, as your days get shorter," Petska said.
Five or six of the vehicles are based in Ord. Petska Fur also has drivers who live in Alliance and Wyoming. Each of those vehicles puts on 30,000 to 35,000 miles per season. Running each truck costs $300 a day. This week, Petska operated five trucks, so the company has $1,500 in fixed costs per day.
In order to recoup those costs, Petska collects many types of fur.
Deer is a good, stable part of the business. The company makes only $2 or $3 per deer hide, but they help cover expenses. "We buy 20,000 or so deer hides a year," he said.
The hides are sold to a glove wholesaler in Wisconsin, who works with a highly regarded Chinese tannery and glove maker. The Wisconsin man buys a million deer hides from fur buyers like Petska.
Hunters who bring deer hides to Petska are compensated with deer or cash, whichever they prefer.
Petska competes directly against ranch fur. Ranches haven't figured out how to produce coyote, but they're doing very well with mink and fox, Petska said.
The larger ranches might have 20,000 to 30,000 breeding pairs of mink, he said.
China entered the ranch mink business four or five years ago. The world went from producing 30 or 40 million mink annually in 2012-2013 to 800 million mink per year.
China now has a big middle class, as well as an upper-middle class. The country is like the U.S. was in the 1950s, Petska said. People want their own homes and have money to spend. "And one of the things they want first is a fur coat," Petska said. That yearning is filled with ranch mink.
A good mink coat now costs only $600 to $800. In the 1970s, the pricetag was $3,000 to $5,000.
Petska doesn't want to criticize mink. "It's a timeless item. It's a product that everybody wants to buy for their first coat," he said.
But in so many industries, China makes the world go around. "They want the raw materials. They know they can build it cheaper than anybody, and they're darn sure doing it." At this point, China is even being undercut by other countries, such as Pakistan and India.
Petska has been buying fur in Nebraska since 1972 or '73. That's when Greg's father, Ken, started the company. Ken, now 77, is doing his best to get out of the business. Greg, 56, is now in charge. He is assisted by his sons.
The company will buy any fur-bearing animal that's legal to take in Nebraska, he said.
Raccoon is a staple fur in Nebraska.
In the mountain states, the company buys mountain lions and bear. Petska Fur also buys elk and deer antlers, which are mostly used to produce dog chews.
Pet stores will charge $12, $15 or $20 for a small piece of antler, Petska said. Many dog owners like to buy natural or organic chews for their pets.
It's probably also true in the bigger cities in Nebraska. "But you get on the east coast or the west cost and you put organic or natural in front of anything, and they will buy it, no matter what it costs," he said.
The company also buys people's fur coats.
"A year or two ago, we donated one to our local high school rodeo queen." She sold the coat at her fundraiser auction. "And the darn thing brought crazy money,"
But in old coats, the leather has deteriorated because it's so old. He's trying to work with people who do leather work. But the company is much more interested in fresh fur.
"We'll even buy jackrabbits, for crying out loud," Petska said. Not so much in Nebraska, but in other states it's legal to hunt and resell them.
What fur isn't the company crazy about? Possums have almost no value, he said.
Petska also doesn't want "smelly skunk."
"Skunks are a cool fur, but our business is in town," he said. "The neighbors just don't take too kindly to a skunk odor wafting across the neighborhood. We try our darnedest not to buy smelly ones."
Petska is continuing to expand because, he says, "you've just got to get big to survive." This year, the company will visit the panhandle of Oklahoma and Texas for the first time.
The company that deals with hunters and trappers is hunting for new revenue streams. The internet has opened up new possibilities for selling fur, he said. The company, for instance, supplies good skunks to a dozen different taxidermists, who create smaller mounts.
Visiting so many towns, Petska drivers might as well pick up whatever's in demand, because they're already there.
Petska knows many Americans now shy away from fur.
But, he said, "It's a natural resource that goes to waste if we don't utilize it."