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A love for the fur market: Bridgewater’s Potter Fur Company a SD rarity

Kim Potter keeps a bunch of coyote and raccoons in his cooler for when they can get to skinning them at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 18
Zach Potter stitches up the leather before drying at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 18
Raccoons that were brought in frozen lay on the ground to thaw out on the heated floor at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 18
Osmar Vinales pulls deer tails out of a bag to separate the skin from muscle at the Potter Fur Company. (Matt Gade / Republic)4 / 18
Cesar Vinales pulls the skin off a coyote at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)5 / 18
Cesar Vinales pushes a cart with coyotes on it to be cleaned at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)6 / 18
Tools used for removing the fat from the leather lay on a cloth at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)7 / 18
Osmar Vinales, back, and Zaida Garcia clean deer tales at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)8 / 18
Kim Potter is the owner of the Potter Fur Company. (Matt Gade / Republic)9 / 18
Zaida Garcia has a laugh as her boss Kim Potter makes sure she doesn't drop the deer tales while she puts them on the shelves at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)10 / 18
Osmar Vinales, back, and Zaida Garcia clean deer tales at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)11 / 18
Dried coyote pelts lay on a box in the Potter Fur Company's building. (Matt Gade / Republic)12 / 18
Zach Potter removes the fat off the leather skin while working at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)13 / 18
Deer tails are laid out on the shelves at the Potter Fur Company. (Matt Gade / Republic)14 / 18
Kim Potter shows some muskrat hydes hanging in one of the drying rooms at the Potter Fur Company in Bridgewater earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)15 / 18
Kim Potter shows what is consider good quality racoon fur at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)16 / 18
Zach Potter stitches up the leather before drying at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)17 / 18
Zach Potter removes the fat off the leather skin while working at the Potter Fur Company earlier this week. (Matt Gade / Republic)18 / 18

BRIDGEWATER — Skin, scrape, dry, repeat.

It's a rather messy process for the employees at Potter Fur Co., but owner Kim Potter is addicted to the business.

"I have a fur disease," Potter said Wednesday morning from his large work shed located just south of State Highway 262 in Bridgewater.

Potter's joking, of course, but his son Zach says it's fair to call it an obsession.

Each year around November, Kim Potter begins his seasonal business as a fur dealer. For the past 10 years, he has ridden the fur market by buying racoons, coyotes, muskrats and just about anything he deems quality. He and his staff then take the animal's fur, clean and dry the pelt, and eventually sell it in hopes of making a profit.

It's undoubtedly a unique job, and not many in South Dakota do it.

State Game, Fish & Parks Department records show there were 23 resident fur dealer licenses in South Dakota last year. That's the lowest number of local fur dealers on record and well off the recent peak of 40 in 2012 when the fur market was booming.

A resident fur dealer license, which costs $100 annually, allows Potter to purchase the skins of fur-bearing animals for resale to places such as the North American Fur Auction, the largest fur auction house in North America. Although this year the business and fur market haven't been outstanding, the 59-year-old Potter stays positive.

"One day it will all come around again," he said.

Life at the shop

Three employees dressed in aprons, wearing blue nitrile gloves — and, yes, somewhat splattered in blood — were working in stations Wednesday morning skinning coyotes and prepping deer tails.

Brothers Cesar and Osmar Vinales and Zaida Garcia are the crew that does much of the dirty work for Potter Fur.

They've mostly lived in the Bridgewater area for 17 years but are originally from Guatemala. They are paid not by the hour, but by the number of animals they work. On average, a daily workload for one person includes skinning and fleshing between 50 to 100 animals. It's clear they're veterans at the shop.

"I couldn't ask for a better crew," Potter said.

Scattered around the work area are racoons and coyote carcasses and a mountain of deer tails, many of which will eventually be sold for the hair to be used for fly-fishing jigs.

Potter has a walk-in freezer he uses as a holding room. Inside are hundreds of racoons, what he calls his "bread and butter," or his most-purchased animal. One year, Potter Fur purchased between 8,000 and 10,000 racoons. This year, he estimates that number to be under 2,000.

He buys an animal based off several factors, including its size and the density and color of the fur. The animal's value is like the stock market — it goes up and down based off demand at the auction.

But profit isn’t fully the reason Kim Potter is in this business, Zach Potter said, agreeing with Kim’s statement that “it’s a labor of love.” Zach helps out at the shop as needed, stretching coyotes and stitching the areas where they were shot.

“Personally, I know that old man can work me under any day of the week,” Zach said. “But to see someone with his passion, drive and love of the industry, it’s something I’ve learned a lot from. I want him to be successful at it. I want a few chips to fall the right direction.”

From buying to selling

About every other week, Potter goes on a route in southeastern South Dakota, where local trappers and hunters will gather to show off what they've got. In fact, that's what he's doing today, Jan. 12, bouncing through Beresford, Irene, Lennox, Yankton, Tyndall, Parkston and Ethan with his truck and trailer. His schedule is always posted on his company's Facebook page and website, www.potterfur.com.

"Everybody knows where I'll be. If you've got something, show up," he said.

But one thing is known well — bickering over prices isn't worth the time.

"There's not much negotiating," Potter said. "Once you start negotiating, you're weak. You should give them your best shot right away."

One carcass takes about 20 minutes of work before it hits the drying area — a room that stays about 55 to 60 degrees and has constant airflow. There, it waits four to five days before it's ready.

After the animal is worked and fully dried, Potter ships large quantities to a warehouse in Stoughton, Wis., where they go through the grading process. They're each barcoded to know they came from Bridgewater.

"They look at everything that's right and everything that's wrong with it — bullet holes, snare marks," he said. "They all need to be in the same categories graded consistently."

Then, eventually they're sold through the auction house all over the world.

From a business that started out of his house to what has become a winter passion, Potter doesn't see himself leaving the fur buyer business anytime soon, despite many others getting out.

"I enjoy this," he said. "You meet a lot of good people out on the road and develop a lot of friendships. I guess I can't get away from it."

New bounty plan in SD

While there may be fewer fur dealers in the state, there soon could be more fur bearers. They're licensed to trap certain animals.

Gov. Kristi Noem on Tuesday emphasized a new plan for what she hopes will improve South Dakota's pheasant population. During her first State of the State address, Noem touched on getting aggressive on predator control with a bounty program.

"Young people will have a chance to get out there and help reduce the threats to our pheasant population," Noem said. "This also means the funding for improved habitat must come from an increase in private and foundation dollars as well. I'll make the ask directly if needed. I'd love to see banquets and fundraisers and employer-match programs all making habitat one of their causes."

The "nest predatory bounty program," according to Noem's office, will be implemented this spring. The incentive-based program would be implemented statewide, year-round and focus on predators that target pheasant nests such as raccoons, striped skunk, badger, opossum and red fox. Coyotes are not included "at this time," Noem's office said, but "we will be more aggressive on killing them."

Participants will need to have a valid hunting or trapping license, unless they are landowners who harvest these animals on property they own/operate. Youth under the age of 16 are not required to have a license.

GF&P is proposing a year-round bounty of $10 per tail for the five species. Participants will be allowed to collect an unlimited amount in bounties, but if the annual amount they collect exceeds $600 per participant, that individual will receive a 1099 form from GF&P for tax collection purposes.

In addition, GF&P is partnering with the Department of Corrections and Pheasantland Industries to construct live traps this spring. Landowners can register for up to 10 free live traps via an online registration process on GF&P's website and can pick up their live traps at any GF&P office.

"It is anticipated that GF&P may reach out to partners like Pheasants Forever or the local 4-H groups for distribution assistance as well," a statement from Noem's office said. "Trapping efforts should occur in or directly adjacent to quality nesting habitat and focus during the primary nesting season (i.e. April 1 through July 31)."

Landowners must follow all trapping rules and regulations and these live traps cannot be sold, bartered or traded.