Zimbal Minkery: Four Generations of Quality & Care
Written by: Diane Benedetti
In the heartland of America, less than three hours from the internationally renown city of Chicago and one hour from the bustling metropolis of Milwaukee, lies one of the most famous mink ranches in the world. Sheboygan and Oostburg, Wisconsin are home to the many acres of the Zimbal Minkery.
The area is like a post card of middle America. Acres of crop fields and dairy farms are broken by the occasional highway. The towns are small but warm and welcoming. The skies here are blue and the air is fresh.
It was here in the late 1930’s that Roland Zimbal decided to diversify from his struggling dairy business and with economic conditions being what they were at the time, went into a partnership with three friends to raise mink.
This farm was quite different from the farms of today. The cages were very large, about 8 feet deep and 4 feet wide, making it most difficult to catch the mink for breeding and grading. Feeding was another process that now seems a bit archaic, as leather straps with metal pails attached and filled with feed were worn around the workers’ necks and they spooned the feed into each cage.
There was little technology available at this time for mink farming but the work experience here was a building block for the creation of the Zimbal dynasty.
FROM BEANS TO BUSINESS
The current patriarch of the family is Robert Zimbal Sr., a self made man, with deep, penetrating blue eyes, a hearty laugh and a dedication to hard work. At the age of 77 he is still spry and deeply committed to his business.
As a rather young boy, still in the 5th grade, Mr. Zimbal started to raise green beans. This was not a small project but 20 acres of beans that needed to be planted, tended and harvested and then sold at market value. This necessitated staff, accounting and business management, at peak times employing 200 people per day.
It wasn’t just the green bean business though that kept Mr. Zimbal busy in his youth. His father was the managing partner of the Sauk Trail mink farm and Mr. Zimbal was there helping in all aspects of the business until duty called him away.
Duty was the US Army and the Korean War. Drafted in 1952, Mr. Zimbal went into basic training and was then sent to Korea immediately. There he spent two years and, in spite of the horrors of the war, has fond memories of the camaraderie and ingenuity that the Korean people showed.
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS OF A MINK FARM
Returning from the war in 1954, Mr. Zimbal married his “sweetheart”, Audrey Heling, and together they started the first Zimbal mink farm. This mink ranch was located in Sheboygan and began with only 104 breeding females. Ninety-four of these were darks they purchased and the remaining ten were pastels that were given to Mr. Zimbal for helping out another mink rancher.
There was an immense amount of work to be done and although Mr. Zimbal was versed in all aspects of the job, it was physically impossible for him to be able to do everything. As he is quick to point, if it were not for his family, he could not be in the mink business today.
In the early years Audrey started grading the live mink and “she was the best”, Mr. Zimbal notes with pride. She had a keen eye for the grading and created a system that works well to this day.
The Zimbals have six children, three boys and three girls, and they all came to have daily chores on the farm when growing up.
One daughter, Lori, remains in the family mink business today and has been joined by her husband Mike Jacobchick. Sandi and Donna pursued other courses but remain close and still reminisce about these “early days”.
The boys, Robert Jr., Richard and Tom, adapted well to growing up on the mink farm and became an integral part of the day-to-day business. Today, all three have major responsibilities in the operation of Zimbal Minkery. In addition, their wives, Linda, Sue and Dawn have joined the family business bringing additional skills to the enterprise.
RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT
As the mink industry began to develop in the United States, organizations came into being to consolidate efforts and funding for improvement in fur farming.
One such organization was EMBA, to which Mr. Zimbal was elected to the Board and later became Chairman of the Research Committee when the organization merged with GLAMA. From this group the Fur Commission came to fruition and Mr. Zimbal continued his position as Chairman of Research and developed many interesting relationships with leading universities and research labs throughout the country.
As with any research group, there are always many theories but they require someone willing to put them into practice at the commercial level. This is where Mr. Zimbal became a pioneer, testing the practical applications of the theories. He helped develop new practices in the lighting of mink for breeding purposes and his research and application of genetics for size dominance and proliferation has brought profitability to the industry.
It is not just about profitability though; it is the improvement of quality that interests Mr. Zimbal most. His achievements are recognized in the number of awards that he and the Zimbal Minkery have received over the past decades.
Since the mid 1960’s, the Zimbal name has been recognized at both North American auctions houses as a leading recipient of top lot awards for finest quality mink skins in many colors.
From 1964 to the mid 1970’s when the industry hosted competitions in livestock, Zimbal Minkery was once again a leader in top prizes. The fur trade now sponsors a competition for the finest quality mink pelts. The Zimbal organization continually brings home top awards that attest to the superior quality of mink that they produce.
THE NEXT GENERATION COMES OF AGE
“Without my family, I could not have done this” is a sentiment expressed often by Mr. Zimbal and always with pride. So it is of no surprise that as his sons became of age, with their knowledge and youthful energy it would be time for an expansion.
The second Zimbal mink farm was built in 1979 in Oostburg. Managed by Robert Jr., Richard and Tom, this property began with 1,600 breeding females in the first year and now has over 25,000. As Robert Jr., President and General Manager of the entire Zimbal operation, was quick to point out, “Being the largest mink farm in North America was not our goal. To all of us, producing the finest quality mink in the world is the most important aspect of our business.”
The Zimbal Minkery is the largest mink production enterprise in North America, now producing over 180,000 pelts per year. The Zimbal plan was, and continues to be, a slow, steady growth of about 10% per annum if, and this is a very important “if”, only if the quality can be maintained.
This strong family team, with Robert Jr., overseeing operations and quality control, has Tom’s expertise in the day-to-day management of the activities of the farm, whilst Richard researches and supervises new projects as well as directing maintenance.
All three sons were trained at Hudson’s Bay facilities in Europe and North America, now North American Fur Auctions, NAFA. Additional experience was gained through apprenticeship programs with other international mink farms.
Still today, there is high regard within the Zimbal family for the exchange of information and work experience within the trade. Grandsons, Rick and Jim, were trained by NAFA in New York and Toronto. Jim spent time in Europe to learn about fur farming there whilst Rick was recently working in China to gain more experience.
The Zimbals have also sponsored members of the international trade for apprenticeship on their farm. From Japan, Korea and China as well as Europe and North America, those interested in learning techniques for fine quality mink production have come to one of the leaders of the industry.
PROGRESSING INTO THE 21ST CENTURY
With knowledge and experience comes foresight and the Zimbal family certainly possesses this. Raising some of the world’s finest quality mink is not the end of the equation. After the harvesting of the pelts, they must be fleshed, dried, and graded in auction lots.
In another development phase, the processing plant was added to the Zimbal Minkery operation. In the true style of Zimbal leadership within the industry, a “State-of-the –Art” plant was constructed in Oostberg and became fully operational in 2005.
Pelts from all three Zimbal mink farms come here for processing in the plant that Mike Jacobchick oversees. The process begins with harvesting and progresses through to final grading.
Another major addition to the company’s operation is the newly built feed kitchen. Again, this is not a small facility with a minor role to play but a complex operation that supplies all fresh feed to over 200,000 mink during the height of production.
Zimbals have long taken an active role in providing their own feed but the new facility takes this to another level. Clean, efficient and highly functional are just a few words to describe this operation. High quality feed is a major component is raising the finest quality product.
In talking about what goes into the feed, Mr. Zimbal enthuses about the freshness of all of the products. Two abattoirs in the near by city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, supply most of the animal by-products that include liver and offal. To this they add fresh eggs and cheese as well as a special cereal that they make themselves.
A diet like this, along with fine breeding stock, insures the quality of Zimbal mink.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
Not far from the second Zimbal mink farm sits the latest addition to the group. Mr. Zimbal’s grandsons, Rick and Jim, started their own operation in 2000. They will add over 30,000 pelts to the 2008 collection from this farm.
The family participation does not stop here. A stroll through the mink sheds will find a grand daughter entering data on a hand computer whilst another grandson cleans up after the last pelting. The family is involved at all levels and the young are learning the business from the ground up.
Mr. Zimbal is fond of saying, “The harder I work the luckier I get”. It is obvious that it was hard work that brought success to the Zimbal Minkery. Dedication and care are the cornerstones upon which this family business has thrived and which will allow for further success of this dynasty for generations to come.
All Mink from Zimbal Minkery is sold exclusively at NAFA