Lack of deer processors motivates hunters to do it themselves
“We are accepting boned off meat for finished products only. As of now, we will not be able to accept carcass deer.”
That’s the latest notice posted by one of the best local butcher shops in my area – the combined result of an untimely family illness, limited help and concurrent seasons causing an overload of incoming product during the shop’s busiest time of the year.
Short-staffed deer processors are feeling the pressure to keep up, and successful hunters are having a hard time finding a place to take their deer, which punctuates a glaring skills gap in both today’s workplace and the common recreational hunter — that being the knowledge and ability to break down and process a deer.
Randy Ferguson, Executive Director of Hunters Sharing the Harvest, a non-profit venison donation program, said he’s hearing the same from deer processors all around the state and from frustrated hunters trying to find them.
“Young people interested in being a butcher should find one now and apprentice under them to help this industry and give themselves a marketable, skilled trade,” Ferguson said.
“I talked to a processor from Columbia County recently who said he had just too many birthdays to keep doing it. He had tried selling his operation to a young guy, but it fell through. It’s not a demand issue. Demand is high and rising. It’s an operational issue and a skilled workforce issue.”
Truth is, a once widespread availability of local processors is aging out and hanging up their aprons for good, forcing hunters to learn the art of skinning, quartering, butchering, anprocessing their own venison – or in the very least, learning to debone their meat into bulk trim for a processor to then turn it into sausage, bologna, and other finished products.
Do-it-yourself deer processing isn’t overly difficult, but it’s time consuming, and it requires someone with experience to teach you. Nothing beats a hands-on mentorship, but there are free online tutorials for those who learn well from on-screen instructions. With a little time and know-how, anyone with a sharp knife and access to cold storage can do the task.
The biggest thing to remember is to keep the meat clean and cold, and the best way to accomplish that is to field dress, hang the deer, and remove the hide as quickly as possible after harvest. I prefer to hang deer from hind hocks to make this all go smoothly. Once hide, head, hoofs, and entrails are all removed, it’s easy to wash down the meat with a cold-water hose to remove any hair and debris.
You can then trim off undesirable fat and bloodshot meat. Cut out the loins that run along the spine, remove the tenderloins from the inner cavity, and trace the scapula with your knife to loosen and remove both forelegs. Next, use a knife or bone saw to remove the neck section and ribs, and lastly saw a straight line down through the pelvis to remove both hind quarters. Alternatively, this can be done with a knife, by tracing each leg’s ball and socket joints, but I prefer to do that later on a clean workspace.
All removed sections get rinsed down and placed in a cooler, or in my case, on sheet plastic dropped in the bottom of an old fridge I keep in the garage. This can sit for a few days, if necessary, but ultimately need to come out and get further broken down to remove all bones, silver skin, fat, and sinew before spoilage occurs.
The loins are reserved for butterflied steaks or roasts. Hind quarters are turned into steaks, chipped steak, roasts, smoked dry ham, jerky, marinated medallions for the cast iron skillet, or simple cubed stew meat. The front shoulders, ribs, pelvis, and excess neck meat go into the trim bucket to be ground for bulk burger, sausage, or bologna. The shanks are sawed off for osso buco, and the trimmed neck bone goes directly into the crock pot for a roast, pulled taco meat, or venison veggie soup.
Once processed, everything gets wrapped or vacuum sealed and frozen to be enjoyed throughout the year. This whole procedure takes me a few days after work, spending a couple hours each evening in a cold, unheated garage, working on a cutting board on a foldout table, but it saves lots of money and furthers the satisfaction of the harvest.
If you really want to learn the craft, reach out to your local deer processors to see if any of them need help. The skills learned there can prove invaluable down the road, whether helping to answer a high demand call for available butchers during hunting season or processing your own deer out of necessity or just to save money.
Without a doubt, it’s an important skillset not enough people possess these days, but a necessary one for the future viability of our sport. It could help both deer processors and deer hunters if more folks would just learn to master the art of the knife.