MEAT-ING DEMAND: Hunters, local processors contribute to a boon in the supply of protein

Dan Titus, owner of Knightstown Meats & Catering, inspects packages of meat the business has processed for customers, including hunters. Titus said his business is up 50%, and the amount of deer meat he has processed has increased 30%. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

HANCOCK COUNTY — Brad “The Butcher” Gruell has seen more than his fair share of deer this hunting season.

The Greenfield-based butcher said the COVID pandemic has been a factor in the increased amount of game being brought in by local hunters for processing.

He said he received orders to process 120 deer in the first week of hunting season this year, compared to the 170 orders he received all of last year.

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“I don’t know if people are trying to self-sustain (by hunting their own meat) or what, but the demand has certainly skyrocketed,” he said.

“Most all slaughterhouses are a year and half to two years backed up with orders,” leaving customers to wait while their orders stay tucked away in freezers, Gruell said.

Since some of the country’s biggest corporate meat processing plants were forced to close earlier this year when COVID-19 began sweeping through their workforces, local hog and cattle farmers and meat processors have happily been stepping up to meet the demand.

At the Greenfield business Well Done Beef, orders for locally raised and processed beef have increased by 50% this year.

Business has also increased by 50% at Knightstown Meats & Catering.

Amy Effing, who owns and operates Well Done Beef with her husband, Jason, said their phone lines and online orders began blowing up in the spring, as many consumers rushed to seek out local alternatives when meat started disappearing from grocery store shelves.

“We immediately began seeing an increase as demand went up, and sales increased considerably,” said Effing, who sold out of ground beef soon after the pandemic hit.

While many are turning to farmers like the Effings for local meats, some consumers are taking matters into their own hands, hunting their own meat to be processed by local butchers.

John Jester of Greenfield has been hunting for years and can typically be found out in the woods hunting wild game 40 or 50 days a year.

Getting the game processed is an affordable alternative to buying meats at the store, he said.

It costs about $120 to get the average-sized deer processed, which can provide 80 to 90 pounds of meat, he said. At that rate, the cost is roughly $1.40 per pound.

Just like cows and pigs, deer meat can be processed into a variety of cuts like burgers, steaks and roasts.

“I think deer meat is a great alternative. It has a lot of flavor, and it’s very lean, so it’s good for you,” Jester said.

While he considers his family fortunate to be able to afford other types of meat at the grocery store, he knows some hunters rely almost exclusively on the food they hunt to provide for their families, perhaps now more than ever before.

“Not everyone can go to Walmart and buy steak whenever they want,” he said.

Jester said he’s one of the lucky ones who hunts for recreation, but he also enjoys stocking his freezer with the wild game he brings home, and giving deer steaks and burgers away to friends.

The increased demand for meat from both hunters and farmers has been a boon to business for local processors like Knightstown Meats & Catering.

For owner Dan Titus, business is better than it’s ever been in the 30 years he’s owned the processing plant.

Titus attributes the increase in business to the fact that many grocery store shelves were lacking meat earlier this year, and also because some shoppers were trying to avoid the stores altogether.

He’s also seen a good share of hunters bringing in wild game. “We’re up about 30% in deer harvesting this year,” he said.

That is consistent with state statistics on deer taken so far this season. On Wednesday, according to a Department of Natural Resources database, 110,336 deer had been taken since the start of the season earlier this fall. That’s the most in any year since the 2015-16 season. The same trend is playing out in Hancock County, where 285 deer had been taken as of Wednesday. That’s the most since 308 were taken through the same date in 2015-16, according to DNR.

Both Titus and Effing hope that after the pandemic ends and the meat market returns to normal, that consumers will continue to support the local meat industry.

“I’m hoping that people will stick to the mindset of thinking about local farm-fresh products and supporting local family farmers, because we were there for them in their time of need,” said Effing, a fifth-generation farmer who raises cross-bred angus beef on her family’s Greenfield farm.

Buying meat and other farm-fresh products locally has a number of benefits for the consumer, she said, in addition to supporting the local economy.

Locally-raised animal products are fresher than store-bought products, which are typically shipped to grocery stores by truck or train. “If you look at the travel times for meat products, it could be traveling for several days from several miles away, and that’s before it even arrives at the processing plant,” Effing said.

“Once it’s processed at a large packing facility, it’s going all across the nation. If you stay local there’s a real guarantee on freshness, plus you get to know your local farmers,” she said.

While locally raised products may cost more, farmers typically try to keep their prices as competitive as possible, said Effing, who is currently selling ground beef for $4.50 a pound, which is $1 off her normal price.

“Local products typically cost a little bit more because of the cost margins involved,” said Effing, “but you’re getting a better product because of the way it was raised.”

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