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The Deer Processor Issue

By Bruce Ingram

Photos by Bruce Ingram

The Bedford County hunter had enjoyed a successful hunt, tagging a nice whitetail. The only problem, though, was that the business that he formerly used to process his deer had ceased operations and another one had so many deer to work up that it couldn’t take any more. Just what was the sportsmen to do?

Justin Folks, Deer Project Leader for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), says this situation, which was reported to him, is indeed a problem on multiple levels.

“The issue of overwhelmed processors is not just limited to Bedford County—we are seeing the same across the state,” Folks said. “The unfortunate truth is that many processors are getting out of the business, and there aren’t many new ones coming on board.

“The reasons why processor numbers are declining aren’t readily apparent and may be related to factors that require operational rather than financial solutions. For example, availability of disposal options for deer carcass parts and difficulty in finding labor. Our agency is definitely interested in improving access to processors to meet hunters’ demands, and identifying the limiting factors will need to be a first step in addressing the issue.”

Folks is also concerned that the lack of processors could cause DWR not to attain its deer harvest objectives in counties and communities where deer numbers are too high for the available habitat. If hunters have no place to drop off a deer for processing and that situation keeps them from hunting, it’s an obvious setback to accomplishing the state’s goal to have higher harvests in certain locales. Hunters also may not try to harvest more deer because they are either too busy to do the processing themselves or don’t know how to.  Worse still is the possibility, Folks continues, that some individuals may not even try hunting because they lack the knowledge to process an animal.

DWR does offer educational Deer Processing Workshops across the Commonwealth. “In 2023, we offered 12 workshops. We’re working to increase that number,” said Jimmy Mootz, DWR hunter education team lead. “We only have one processing trailer, and we’re currently soliciting bids to acquire three additional ones. Having a trailer in each region will hopefully result in a minimum of 30 workshops annually once the trailers are operational.

“There is a very real need for each ethical hunter to learn how to process their own deer harvest,” Mootz continued. “DWR is your partner, helping you learn the skills and techniques to process your own deer and build your confidence in this important aspect of your deer hunter journey. Learning to process this clean, healthy, steroid-free protein will bring your cost per pound of meat down substantially. Beyond processing, DWR’s Deer Processing Workshops will even provide you with proven recipes from our own Hunter Ed Team, including our own Chef Wendy Hyde, that will have you preparing the most amazing dishes ever! Handling that animal, from harvest to the table, brings honor to the animal, and brings pride in knowing that you’ve made healthy and ethical choices that you can share with others.”

Folks also noted that food banks such as Virginia Hunters for the Hungry (VHfH) are experiencing a decrease in venison donation. VHfH director Gary Arrington says the lack of processors has caused gaps in the organization’s coverage area. Successful hunters sometimes simply don’t have a place to take their harvest to. In short, these are food bank deserts, and the less fortunate among us are the ones who suffer.

In 2022, Bedford’s Jared Key started a deer processing business, The Skinning Shack.  Before that, he processed livestock as a certified custom exempt processor, exempt meaning that he does not have to undergo any kind of USDA inspection process. It should be noted that no permit of any kind is required to process wildlife.

“The main drawback of the processing deer business is there is no consistency in the workload,” Key said. “In September, I barely had enough work to pay for the freezer bill. In November during the general firearms season, I didn’t have enough space to take all the deer that were brought to me. And I also didn’t have enough helpers; labor can be a real issue.

“Processing is hard work, especially skinning the deer and the preparation it takes to get a deer on the table. But I do enjoy this job, especially the turning of the meat into specific cuts.”

More opportunities for deer to be processed, whether its in processing facilities or by individual hunters who learn the skills, will result in a healthier deer herd, more venison for food banks to distribute, and happy hunters.

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  • February 2, 2024