Ponzi and the musk ox: A wave of the future?

The musk ox down on the farm

Has fiber worth a leg and an arm

     A species quite old

     They survived Pleistocene cold

At seventy below they’re still warm

We visited the Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks and looked at the musk ox and caribou.  We learned a great deal.  Qiviut, the fur undercoat that grows every winter and sheds in the spring, brings the astronomical price of a dollar a gram in the crude state.  The only mammalian fiber that has no scales or barbs, it is immune to felting and thus will not pill. 

I immediately began to wonder about musk ox farming.

Pyramid investment schemes come and go in farm country.  It works like this: an exotic animal is touted for a number of characteristics, and those naïve enough to buy into the process pay large amounts for mated pairs of those animals.  In the beginning, the price goes up as more producers jump on the bandwagon.  Inevitably, mated pairs do what they’re good at, the numbers increase, the supply outpaces the demand, and the market crashes.

In the time I’ve been in Iowa farm country, twenty-five years, I’ve seen this cycle with potbelly pigs, llamas, bison, ostriches, longhorn cattle, and emus.  I enjoy seeing the remnant populations on the farms around town, but I know a lot of folks who lost money on the deals.

Pyramid investment schemes benefit those who get in on the ground floor and exit with a good return, before the bottom drops out.  I know a farmer who has made good money in Ponzi schemes not by being the originator but by being in the first or second group of investors.  He knows how to spot pyramid investment schemes and when to get in and when to run. 

I looked at those musk oxen; I thought about the price of qiviut, the natural rate of increase of all animal populations, market forces and farm country.  The problem with qiviut is that there isn’t enough of it.  There are plenty of places in the lower 48 with adequate grazing, high altitude, cool summers, and low rainfall; musk oxen would do well there, each would produce $1600 worth of qiviut at current prices, the herd would grow and winter wear would be light, comfortable, warm and durable.  After a few years you would find heart-healthy musk ox on the menu in exclusive restaurants, and the Montana Qiviut Growers Association would be fretting about the prices going down and the drop in the number of producers.  Shortly afterwards globalization would have taken place with the musk ox replacing the yak.  Then Sherpas will freeze because you can’t make a yurt from qiviut because it doesn’t felt.

For those folks back home who want to know, farmers cut hay once or twice in the Fairbanks area.  You can grow wheat on permafrost, depending on the soil quality.  The market for locally grown sweet corn is good.  Barley and hops find a ready market for beer, which, as in a lot of places, is consumed in large quantities.  People and institutions plant gardens with carrots, beets, potatoes, kohlrabi, broccoli, onions, chives, leeks, cabbage, tomatoes, and lettuce in prominent and unlikely places.  Fairbanks, further north than Anchorage, has warmer weather in summer and colder weather in winter because of the moderating effect of the sea.


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