ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- As Minnesota meat lockers increasingly tell hunters they won’t process their venison carcass, hunters have had a fallback: The garage guys.
These are the guys who set aside a week or more during hunting season to cut up deer for hunters for a fee, generally in their garages or shops.
It’s extra cash for them, and helps out hunters who might not have time or the tools or the skills to skin and butcher their own venison.
But these garage processors, too, are under pressure as the state moves to regulate an industry that has been operating independently. Starting Aug. 1, the state began requiring them to obtain licenses through the Department of Agriculture’s meat program. A license costs less than $100 a year, but other requirements could be more costly, such as hot and cold running water, a sink for hand washing, nonporous walls, floors and ceilings, and a commercial cooler.
“If they crack down on all of the garage people and I don’t want to put water in mine, where is everybody going to go?” said Chad Eischens of Park Rapids, who processes venison in addition to running a lawn care business. “Especially if the lockers won’t do it either? Is that going to force people to stop hunting, or shoot them and put them in a dumpster?”
Last year, he processed 190 deer.
“A lot of people don’t want to deal with it,” he said. “They shoot them and then they have to figure out what to do with it or they don’t know how. And if it’s warm out, they have nowhere to hang them or keep them cool.”
Eischens said he processes deer in a garage with a cement floor and tin ceilings and walls. He has a walk-in cooler, but he doesn’t have running water in the garage.
“Make too many regulations then a guy like me isn’t going to do it,” he said. “Say I have to spend $15,000 on upgrading, obviously I’m going to quit doing it.”
The regulations were included in the 2020 omnibus agriculture policy bill that passed the Minnesota Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz. They took effect Aug. 1.
The changes came into effect because three years ago, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Food and Feed Safety Division, which inspected wild game processing at the time, adopted more stringent regulations passed down from the federal government, said Levi Muhl, Meat Inspection Program manager for Minnesota.
The Minnesota Association of Meat Processors, which represents meat lockers, found those regulations so burdensome that they asked to be covered by the meat and dairy inspection program within the ag department instead. Lawmakers agreed, and they also extended licensing requirements for the first time to the processors who were working out of their garage, a move the meat lockers supported, Muhl said.
“The guy down the street is processing venison and not having any of those responsibilities,” he said. “So they wanted to level the playing field.”
What nobody realized, he said, was that the coronavirus pandemic would hit, shutting down meat packing plants across the country. Farmers started sending what livestock they could to the small mom-and-pop meat lockers, which weren’t equipped to meet the sudden onslaught of demand. Busy processing cattle and hogs, and concerned that a positive COVID test could shut them down and ruin venison carcasses, many lockers announced they would no longer process whole venison carcasses, although they will turn trimming into sausages.
Muhl called it a “perfect storm” of circumstances. He added that even though the timing might not be great, requiring the guys in a garage to get licensed carries some positives. It means more oversight over how they dispose of deer bones, which is a concern because of the presence of chronic wasting disease in some deer populations in Minnesota.
Also, the law change means that garage processors can now participate in the state’s venison donation program, sending meat to local food shelves.
Plus, the license will allow those small-time processors to also work on hogs and cattle, which could expand their businesses while also helping farmers get their meat to market.
This year, meat inspectors are working to educate the garage guys about the new law, Muhl said. Next year, they’ll begin enforcing it.
“We’re just trying to get a handle on how many are out there and where they’re located,” he said. “I’m sure at some point we’ll run into resistance.”
Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow lake, chair of the Senate committee that passed the bill including the provision, said, "This issue is an unintended consequence resulting from policy changes brought to the Legislature from Governor Walz that impact small processors of wild game. We are actively pursuing solutions to fix this problem immediately, up to and including legislative action.”