Tucked away in the bluffs of Pierce County 40 miles east of the St. Croix River, Sailer’s Meats in tiny Elmwood, Wis., is an unlikely place to find Minnesota deer.
On Mondays during hunting season, the field-dressed carcasses arrive in bunches for owner Jake Sailer and his crews to process into steaks, chops, jerky and sausage. The 92-year-old family business has a reputation for award-winning meats, but they’re gaining deer business in part because a growing number of other artisan butcher shops are getting out of the whole-carcass venison trade.
“It’s crazy, and it’s all good,’’ said Sailer, whose family built a new retail store and locker plant in Elmwood in 2006. “We don’t need it or depend on it, but it keeps a lot of guys working.’’
Area meat cutters say the shift away from whole-carcass processing started in 2002 when chronic wasting disease (CWD) was discovered in deer roaming in southwestern Wisconsin. Suddenly, bone-in cuts of venison were disallowed and the hides and remnants of the deer couldn’t be given to rendering companies to make byproducts. The waste had to be removed to landfills at added expense.
And since then, the appeal of whole-carcass deer processing has waned for other reasons. Most formidably, a lot of independent shops are booming with other business.
Julie Lorentz, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors, said higher sales are linked to sustained public interest in locally or regionally sourced foods. More consumers want to know where their food comes from and what’s in it.
“People are really looking for that now,’’ Lorentz said. “Ten years ago, it wasn’t like this.’’
Jim Stasny, owner of Stasny’s Food Market in St. Paul, said his butcher shop has continued to accept whole, field-dressed deer for processing even though the store’s overall meat counter sales have tripled.
“Deer processing used to put you over the hump,’’ Stasny said. “Now the deer season comes and it’s like, ‘Do we have time?’ ”
The job always has been daunting because the hunting season coincides with one of the heaviest slaughter times for other custom meats, including beef, pork, bison and lamb. In addition, most butchers go all out to finish deer processing quickly so they can prepare proper inventories for the holidays.
Those who dropped the business say they no longer need to hire extra help, cope with long hours, pay for extra refrigeration or take special precautions for CWD. And they don’t miss dealing with poorly gutted deer or carcasses that need extra washing.
“When we talk to the guys who got out of it, we all say it’s the best thing we ever did,’’ said Ryan Schmidt, president of Schmidt’s Meat Market in Nicollet, Minn.
“It’s a lot of hard work,’’ Stasny said. “That’s the main reason a lot of them have gotten out of it.’’
Like a lot of shops that have stopped handling whole deer carcasses, Schmidt’s still makes sausage for hunters who bring in bags of home-carved, boneless venison. An uptick in home-carving has helped replace some of the lost capacity for whole-deer processing at butcher shops. In its heyday, Schmidt’s handled 1,000 to 1,200 whole deer in a two- or three-week period, Schmidt said.
A number of shop owners said that when the weather is warm, hunters are more prone to bring their meat in for processing because they don’t have adequate refrigeration and can’t always get to it right away to make their own sausage.
“The heat brings them in, but yes, more people are doing their own,’’ said Jennifer Dierkess, co-owner of McDonald’s Meats in Clear Lake. “That’s going to grow and grow.’’
Like Sailer’s, McDonald’s is still geared up to handle whole deer carcasses, and business is strong. “You have to adopt to handling it because regular business is so good right now,’’ Dierkess said.
McDonald’s, which invested in a separate building for its venison processing, has taken in more than 600 deer this year, and Dierkess estimates that venison processing is 20 percent of her overall business. Several McDonald’s customers in the past week said they were turned away by other butcher shops, Dierkess said, because they didn’t have the capacity to butcher another deer carcass.
Also like Sailer’s, one of the biggest challenges at McDonald’s is training and keeping meat cutters.
“It’s a dying trade,’’ Sailer said.