Gov. Tim Walz’s Agriculture Department wants to help the state’s backyard deer processors. Which is why, on the cusp of another firearms whitetail season, those processors are nervous.
Hunters should be nervous, too.
Because many of the state’s nearly 500,000 nimrods who are skilled enough or just plain lucky enough to bag a whitetail when the shooting begins Saturday, Nov. 7, will have a hard time finding someone to transform their eviscerated-but-otherwise-fairly-lifelike animals into bundles of protein wrapped in butcher paper.
Blame in part the pandemic, which has caused a monstrous backup among Minnesota custom pork and beef processors, who in more typical years also cut and wrap venison.
Chad Eischens, 47, of Park Rapids is one of an untold number of small-time deer-processors who work out of garages, pole barns or basements, setting up shops at this time of year to skin, cut and wrap some of the nearly 200,000 deer Minnesota hunters will kill this year.
In their family’s garage, Eischens’ dad and two sons help with the skinning, while his wife wraps steaks and chops, and grinds burger.
This is Eischens’ 16th year of deer processing. Or maybe 15th. Or 18th. He’s not sure.
“Last year I did about 190 deer between bow, rifle and muzzleloader seasons,” he said.
He wasn’t alone. From Worthington to Warroad, Winona to Windom, an unknown number of hearty Minnesotans provide a critical service for deer hunters. Their per-animal fee is usually about $50.
It’s not an easy job. And as many of these part-timers age out of the business, conga lines of apprentice whippersnappers aren’t exactly snaking around the block, eager to take their places.
Little known has been that the state has long required these freelancers to be licensed and inspected. But none were. Or very few. And the state, it seemed, was content to look the other way.
Now, under the guise of doing these backyard butchers a favor, the Legislature has shifted oversight within the Agriculture Department to that agency’s meat and dairy inspection program.
With the change comes a requirement that even small-time venison processors must purchase a $76 license. They also must install hot and cold running water in their garages or other butchering areas, have sufficient cooler space if they store meat on site, and their garage or other facility’s walls, floors and ceilings must be water-resistant and capable of being cleaned.
Also, waste disposal systems must be in place.
All to prevent ... what public health problem?
Nothing that has been reported, concedes Nicole Neeser, Minnesota Agriculture Department dairy and meat division director,
“This year we’re taking a soft approach in an attempt to educate these processors,” Neeser said. “Initially, we’re trying to collect information about who’s out there doing this business.”
How Neeser’s staff intends to locate the state’s backyard deer processors is unclear. Already her 16 inspectors are busy overseeing 55 mostly small Minnesota locker-plant and similar butchering operations, many of which, historically, also processed hunters’ deer.
But not this year.
“It’s going to be a battle for hunters to find a locker that will cut deer this year,” said Julie Holt, who with her son Mike operates Airway Lockers in Sacred Heart. “Normally we do it, but we’re so busy cutting beef for people we can’t take deer this year.”
It might be next summer, Holt said, before she and her son take any new processing orders.
“Hunters better call ahead right now and try to put their name in if they want someone to cut their deer,” Holt said.
Chronic wasting disease also plays a role in the deer-processor shortage this year.
Grand Champion Meats in Foley, for instance, won’t accept deer this season killed in Department of Natural Resources deer-permit areas 255, 343, 344, 604, 605, 643, 645, 646, 647, 648, 649 and 655 — though boneless trimmings will be taken from these areas after hunters acquire negative CWD tests for their meat.
“We’re so busy with our beef and hog custom processing,” said retail manager Teri Parker, “we’re just taking it a day at a time.”
Jeff Johnson runs the venison sausage-making side of Johnson & Bakken’s Big Game Processing and Sausage in Stanchfield.
“Through the first week of December, I isolate myself in my sausage-making kitchen for 16 to 18 hours a day,” Johnson said. “Already we’re up over last year because so many processors aren’t taking venison.”
Meanwhile, Brüders Butcher owners Adam and Lee Borgerding, with shops in Melrose and Breckenridge, are asking hunters to place $150 reservations to guarantee venison processing slots at their facilities. The fees will be converted to gift certificates at their shops if hunters don’t bag a whitetail.
“We’ve brought in extra coolers and we’re planning to process between 500 and 1,000 deer,” Adam Borgerding said. “That’s in addition to our custom sausage making.”
Chad Eischens’ ambitions near Park Rapids aren’t nearly so grand.
With luck, he and his family will have processed all the deer brought to them by Thanksgiving. Then he’ll head to Lake of the Woods to guide winter walleye anglers.
As for the Agriculture Department’s new regulations and inspection requirements for small processors like him?
“I’ll take a look at it,” he said. “If it costs too much, I’ll get out of it.”