Another COVID-19 ripple effect: Many meat processors booked up through deer season

Published 2:41 pm Friday, September 4, 2020

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By Hannah Yang, Minnesota Public Radio News

The coronavirus pandemic is intruding on yet another Minnesota tradition: deer season.

In just over two weeks, Minnesota’s archery deer season is scheduled to begin. And as preparations for the fall hunting season ramp up, some local butchers and meat markets, which often spend their autumns processing deer into venison, might have to turn their game customers away.

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Many processors are already operating at full capacity — a ripple effect of COVID-19 closures at major pork and beef processors this spring.

George’s City Meats in Nicollet, Minn., has been around for more than four decades. During all those years in the meat processing business, Angie Langel said, the family-run shop has never experienced the type of demand they have this summer.

They’re working nonstop, said Langel, a granddaughter of founder George Poehler, who helps run the shop. And there’s no sign of slowing. They’ve got hogs and cattle scheduled to be processed well into next year.

“It’s a little overwhelming to think that a year from now we’re already having animals booked,” she said. “That’s a little scary to think of it that way. If something happens, then what do we do? It’s nice to know we have a steady income and we have plenty of customers coming in. But it’s also really overwhelming.”

So as the staff at George’s works through on their glut of orders this summer, deer season is on the back of their minds. Dawn Gens, Poehler’s daughter, who also helps run and works at the shop, said she’s taking things day by day.

Usually, by fall, they’re able to pivot some of their production toward venison as hunting season kicks into high gear. This year, she’s not so sure.

“We’re booked out for a year,” Gens said. “I’m butchering beef and hogs. We’re just focused, so we don’t know about deer yet.”

Gens said she hopes they’ll be able to bring on some outside help to break down deer, so they can still process sausage at the shop. But she can’t say for sure how the fall will pan out.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects have rippled through communities and industries across Minnesota in different ways. When outbreaks temporarily shuttered several meat processing plants, including Worthington’s JBS USA pork processing plant and Sioux Falls, S.D.’s Smithfield Foods production facility, it left producers — and consumers — in limbo.

Farmers were left needing places to process livestock they weren’t able to move onto market. Large retailers, like Walmart, experienced meat shortages, leading a surge of customers searching for new sources. Both turned their sights on local meat processors and markets.

That’s exactly what happened at the Buffalo Ridge Locker in the small town of Ruthton, Minn., in Pipestone County. When the huge Smithfield plant across state lines announced it would put its operations on hold, Buffalo Ridge was flooded with phone calls, and requests to process hogs and cattle.

Andy Schellhaas is co-owner of Buffalo Ridge Locker, and his family has owned the business for 39 years. He said this level of demand is unprecedented. Buffalo Ridge, he said, is booked for domestic livestock processing out until May 2021 — and summer 2021 is filling quickly.

Schellhaas said he’s hearing similar stories from his peers at meat processors and butchers in other parts of the state,

“Everyone had taken on as much as they could,” he said. “It’s safe to say there’s quite a few lockers in this situation. I’ve even heard that some people from even up north are even reaching out down here saying, ‘are you taking processing right now?’”

Two weeks ahead of deer season, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is already hearing stories of hunters having trouble finding processors. But officials say it’s too early to tell if the backlog of processing domestic livestock will deter hunters or have an effect on the number of permit applications this fall.

Barbara Keller, the DNR’s big game program leader, said that while many processors are experiencing the ripple effects of the pandemic, some are still to take game this season — it just means that hunters will need to be proactive in their planning.

“We are anticipating that we need to get the word out to hunters, because certainly it could have an impact on hunters’ willingness to take additional deer, if they don’t have a resource where they can get that deer processed,” Keller said.

“We’re optimistic that it won’t have a significant impact, but it’s hard to say that kind of this early on. It is a dynamic situation.”

Over the past few months, George’s City Meats has built up a new clientele from farmers in a processing pinch and consumers looking for local meat — some from as far as the Twin Cities.

Typically, Langle said, they would also see a reliable stream of hunters in the fall. But she’s worried about what all that new business will mean for George’s regulars.

“We’re feeling bad that those are the people we’re trying to squeeze in somewhere, but because we have all these new people trying to find a new place, that we’re having a hard time keeping them separate and keeping everyone happy, so to speak,” Langle said.

“It’s been a challenge. Deer hunters basically come one time a year, and that hasn’t changed. But, now those are the people that are trying to get in and we’re already booked with other animals.”

An avid hunter himself, Schellhaas said he doesn’t think others will be discouraged from hunting this season because of the potential obstacle. He just hopes they’re willing to be flexible with the fluid situation.

“Just be ready because it could always change,” he said. “It could all be different. We don’t know the future and we just plan one day ahead like everyone else. We want people to hunt. We want everybody to still do those things and not be deterred by it. But, just be ready. You might have to do it yourself.”