Processors making big bucks this deer season

Rene Wisely
Special to The Detroit News

Barb Haveman is smiling more since Michigan’s bow-hunting season began last month.

The namesake behind Barb’s Deer Processing in Comstock Park, north of Grand Rapids, is on pace to process about 1,000 deer into venison this year, up more than 40 percent over 2015.

“Last year was not a good year,” said the 81-year-old entrepreneur, who has made the deer harvest part of her family’s fall tradition for 55 years. “We processed only about 700 deer.” She attributes the low numbers to three consecutive brutal winters that began in 2012.

The 2015 season did see a drop in the number of hunters, but there was a slight increase in harvest from 2014 with 335,000 deer in 2015, according to Chad Stewart, deer management specialist for Michigan’s Department of Natural Services. He predicts more deer this year because of last winter’s milder temperatures.

Haveman said bow season is a warm up to her busy time — the firearms season that started just last week.

That’s when she expects to earn a bigger piece of Michigan’s $2.3 billion hunting industry. She charges $80 a deer, more if the customer wants some of the meat ground or turned into beef jerky, salami and the like. Processing fees range from $50 to $100, according to a survey by The Detroit News.

Two forces may be helping Haveman’s fruitful start. She’s benefiting from today’s time-crunched hunters who want the outdoor experience but may lack the time or skills to process their kill.

Also, the fall’s unseasonable warm temperatures put an end to Mother Nature’s free outdoor freezer, forcing hunters to get their meat butchered locally rather than strapping it to their vehicle and transporting it downstate to a processor closer to home.

“A lot of people think they can hang it to age it, to make it tender, but with the warmer temperatures we’ve had, they brought in spoiled meat,” said D.J. Jarbow, owner of DJ’s Meats in Highland Charter Township.

Jarbow now makes it a point of educating every customer on how to preserve the carcass — two bags of ice in the chest cavity — before riding to his shop.

“I like to train them how to do it properly to prevent that spoiled meat,” Jarbow said. “That’s part of creating loyal customers.”

He made one out of Larry Stopczynski of Milford, who averages a deer every other year on his family’s 35 acres near Mio.

Stopczynski spent $135 last year at DJ’s Meats, having the fur, bones and sinew removed without a saw from a six-point buck, having the venison packaged and labeled and then paying extra for a few specialties, including summer sausage with jalapeno.

“When you drop it off, it reminds me of an assembly line as they start right away by tagging it, skinning it and guaranteeing that you get your own venison, rather than, say, from a deer someone brought in that was roadkill,” Stopczynski said.

Paul Harris of Brownstown found himself processing the first two deer he got at the beginning of bow season in Albion. While he likes to have his butcher friend do it, because of the warm weather he had to quarter the animal, putting it on ice.

He decided to finish the processing at home but it took him 5-8 hours depending on the size of the animal. He also loses a lot of the meat because he’s picky. “I don’t like the fat and the tallow,” Harris said.

“I’d rather spend my time hunting than processing it,” he said.

Ray Lane, owner of Duroc’s Professional Deer Processing in Harrison Township, has noticed more do-it-yourselfers like Harris, who still bring their venison in to grind.

“The bad economy a few years ago hurt some of the people in this blue-collar area, so they learned to do it themselves to save money,” Lane said. “Hunting is a luxury activity because you have to take work off to go, so I see more people trying to save money any way they can so they can still enjoy their hobby.”

Haveman has noticed the trend as well. It happened so much, she bumped her fee up $5 this year to $20 to grind five pounds of burger.

“Let’s hope they’ll understand that our costs are rising, too,” Haveman said.

She wants to keep them smiling.

Rene Wisely is a West Bloomfield-based freelance writer.

Hunt for green

Michigan ranks third in the nation in hunter participation, according to a 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, the most recent study available.

Average number of days hunting per person: 21

Total expenditures: $2.338 billion

Trip-related expenditures: $271.3 million

Equipment and other: $2.06 billion

Average per hunter: $4,409

Average trip expenditure per day: $25

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation report