From crosshairs to the food bank: How deer feed the hungry
By WALLACE MCKELVEY, PennLive.com
Dec. 16, 2017
ENOLA, Pa. (AP) — A recent Monday was a perfect hunting day. It was sunny, unseasonably warm and Jason McCombs had already shot a six-pointer that morning with his son Connor at his side.
That, in itself, was something a feat.
They were two hunters among dozens staked out on state game land in Perry County for the start of the season. Deer, in McCombs' experience, are smart enough to avoid the fray.
McCombs was in the parking lot when Connor called at 3:15 p.m. from his post. He was in the middle of conversation and his heart skipped. He immediately assumed the worst--that Connor fell out of the tree stand and hurt himself--because he hadn't heard any shots.
"I got one!" the 16-year-old shouted breathlessly into the phone.
Connor started hunting with his dad when he was 14. This three-pointer was his first and he shot it with the 1974 Winchester Model 94 he'd refurbished with his dad.
"The one he got probably ran past people all day long," said McCombs, who lives in New Cumberland.
It was also a poignant rite of passage because young hunters are permitted to shoot smaller deer and, at 16, this was Connor's last chance. The point system measures antler size. More points correspond with larger, more mature deer.
Of course, the killing of a deer is just the beginning.
Together, father and son dressed the deer--removed the internal organs--and hauled the 100-odd-pound carcass back up the trail. McCombs brought a cart for their first trip that morning but left it behind in the afternoon. So they set out together, hoofing it uphill.
"How do you do this when you're by yourself?" Connor asked.
"Well," McCombs said, "it's not an easy process. You go 10 feet and stop."
From there, father and son delivered the deer to Blue Mountain Deer Processing in Enola. Unlike the deer McCombs shot earlier in the day, they wouldn't be eating the venison from Connor's first deer.
McCombs will get the antlers back--he plans to mount them on a plaque to commemorate the day--but the meat from Connor's first deer will go people who need it more.
"My family all hunt," the father said. "If I want deer meat, I can get it, so if this goes to somebody who needs it more than me that's a good thing."
For the last three years, McCombs has donated venison to food banks and other charities through the nonprofit Hunters Sharing the Harvest. The program partners with dozens of butchers statewide, paying processing costs and passing the meat along.
Last season, the program sent 120,000 pounds of venison to food banks and homeless shelters. According to Executive Director John Plowman, it's already on track to surpass that figure based on donations made during deer archery season earlier this fall.
"This is the hunter's best way of showing compassion and doing a social service," said Plowman, a retired state Game Commission employee who's been involved with the charity since it began in 1991.
Back then the concept of donating venison was a novel one and the program started small. Over time, more butchers and hunters joined and the state worked to spread the word and make it easier to participate.
"Somehow, HSH got it right way back 26 years ago and figured out how to be accountable and transparent," Plowman said. "The hunter can trust that his deer will end up where it has to go."
The charity, which is funded through grants and private donations, raises money each year that it uses to pay butchers, who in turn offer discounted processing fees.
Dean Deimler, who operates Blue Mountain, reduces his usual $105 fee to $65 for the program. Last year, the company processed 535 pounds of venison from 15 deer.
The 33-year-old butcher hasn't gone hunting since he was a teenager. Although his grandfather ran a farm and his uncle operated a butcher shop, he chanced into the profession. The business was already set up when he purchased his Enola home. Deimler decided to keep it going.
Deer processing, of course, is a seasonal business.
This is a busy time--Deimler received 220 deer from archery season alone--but his business ebbs and flows with the hunt. During the spring and summer, he raises koi that homeowners and businesses use to stock their decorative and garden ponds.
"One's more of a hobby and the other's all about the outdoors," he said, of his two very different pursuits.
On Wednesday, Deimler's stepsister Katlynn Potteiger wielded the knife, stripping meat from Connor's deer. The carcass had already been skinned and the blood drained.
The 22-year-old learned how to process deer only recently, stepping in to help during archery season.
Potteiger makes quick work of it, tossing fat and tendon into one bucket and meat into another. She doesn't talk much, her knife always moving. At one point, she picks up a hacksaw, which she uses to separate the hindquarters from the rest of the carcass.
From there, Connor's venison will make the short trip across the butcher shop to be ground. On the second trip through the machine, the meat--exposed to air--takes on the familiar brilliant red hue of ground beef. Most people wouldn't know the difference, although venison tends to be leaner with a richer--some call it "gamey"--flavor.
Eric Orndorff, director of program services at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, said the venison is popular and never stays in house for very long.
"At this time of year, we will in fact receive some calls from our partners asking for it, before it is in inventory," he said. " We would like to receive even more venison and encourage hunters to acquire additional tags to harvest a deer for themselves and one to donate."
That's how a lot of venison makes it into the program: Hunters like McCombs take one deer for themselves and donate another. Each year, Deimler encourages hunters who say they don't need the meat to consider donating.
Although Blue Mountain also produces steaks and a variety of sausages for its customers, the donated meat is all ground. Ground meat is easier to distribute on the receiving end.
Plowman said it would theoretically be possible to donate other types of meat from hunters, such as geese or pheasants, but the nonprofit would never receive enough to make the expense worthwhile. It does, however, accept bison, elk and moose with the caveat that the hunters pay the butchering costs themselves.
A medium-sized deer, he said, produces about 40 pounds of venison burger.
It costs the nonprofit about $1.75 per pound to produce the burger, Plowman said. That compares favorably to the average retail cost of ground beef, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics currently puts at about $3.74 per pound.
Plowman can't help but see a missed opportunity when he comes across a deer carcass on the region's highways. Indeed, Deimler said motorists occasionally bring roadkill to his shop but--more often than not--the deer can't be salvaged. The force of a high-speed impact, especially from behind or the side, turns the meat into something akin to strawberry jam.
"We might be losing 100,000 deer a year on highways," Plowman said, "based on the red smears on (interstates) 81 and 78. We'd like to lower that because those deer go to waste."
In the meantime, the best Plowman can do is promote the donation program to hunters.
"Some 1.7 million people are on food assistance," he said. "That's a lot of people below poverty level and they need this food."
Information from: Pennlive.com, http://www.pennlive.com