Thursday, November 30, 2006

Butchers up to their elbows in venison

With deer populations high and hunting ever popular, there's room for more meat processors.

Processing deer meat

Gene Dalton | The Roanoke Times

Dallas Taylor processes deer meat in a building behind his home on Peppers Ferry Road.

Whitney Meadows wraps ground deer meat at Taylor's Meat Cutting

CHRISTIANSBURG -- The deer-ly departed are piling up outside Dallas Taylor's shop.

Five bucks sprawl lifeless on the ground and one waits to be skinned. The field-dressed carcass hangs from a hook, its innards removed and its blood nearly drained. A few drops stain the grass underneath.

There's a similar scene a few doors down Virginia 114.

An eight-pointer hangs outside Harvey Hill's shop, waiting to be boned, cut and packaged. It will provide a lot of meals at someone's table this winter.

Harvey's Meat Processing opened last month, just in time for deer hunting season. The shop has quickly established itself as a competitor to the nearby Taylor's Meat Cutting, a meat processing facility since 1992.

Dallas Taylor, 27, took over the family business from his father, Tommy. When Hill and his wife opened their shop recently, Taylor wasn't worried.

"It's a good thing they opened," he said. "I'm at my max. I have about all I can handle. Three to four hundred deer showed up here since the season started."

Besides, Taylor said, it's all in the family.

Hill, 35, is married to Taylor's cousin, Patty Taylor Hill.

"This whole stretch is nothing but my family," Taylor said of the piece of Peppers Ferry Road between Christiansburg and Fairlawn.

Harvey Hill -- who works as a butcher at the Salem Kroger -- started planning his side business several years ago.

"I've been cutting meat for 16 years and I really enjoy it," he said. "I'm an avid hunter, as well. I have a lot of friends who are hunters, and I wanted to help them out."

Hill said his wife "wasn't too happy" when his friends brought their deer to him for processing at their house.

So last year, the Hills got approval from the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors for their own meat processing plant. To be in compliance with permit requirements, they had to get an engineer to draw up plans for the building.

"We decided to put it here because this is where we live," said Patty Hill, whose father, David Taylor, provided the land and financial backing.

The couple scouted around for equipment to get their business up and running.

"Any little piece of equipment is expensive," Patty Hill explained. "We went to a lot of sales."

The Hills were able to find good used meat saws, tables and other items but they had to shell out $13,500 for two new refrigerated units they needed for storing fresh meat.

"We're happy to have it finally open," Patty Hill said, adding that customers have expressed similar sentiments.

"They cleaned it up, cut it and wrapped it," Logan Shrader said as he picked up the box full of steaks, roasts and tenderloin that was once a four-point buck bounding around Clover Hollow.

The 18-year-old Shrader said he has been hunting for two years and enjoys eating venison.

"It's good. I think jerky's the best," he said.

He's glad he doesn't have to process the meat, though. He said the $45 he paid to have Hill's Meat Processing do the job was worth it.

The processing prices at Taylor's Meat Cutting are similar. Both shops charge $10 to skin the deer and $2 to saw antlers off the head. For many hunters, the rack is a trophy.

"I didn't use to charge for the horns," noted Taylor. "But the first day of rifle season, 55 deer showed up. That's a lot of horns to saw off. Your hand gets tired. I had to start charging."

Taylor, who's also worked as an emergency room nurse for the past three years, can't say which job is more challenging.

"They're both pretty hard. On one hand, you've got to save someone's life. On the other hand, you're getting overwhelmed with deer!"

For Taylor, the biggest headache is getting customers to pick up their orders quickly.

The process of preparing the meat is simple.

"Wrap it, put it in the freezer, call the customer and pray they come real quick," he said, explaining that his processing comes to a halt when he runs out of freezer space.

Processors are not allowed to sell meat, only to prepare it for customers who bring animals in. In addition to deer, the processors can handle bear, elk and other wild game.

Neither Hill nor Taylor find the work offensive. Once the animals are disemboweled and skinned, cutting the meat can be done quickly with the right equipment.

Waste is put into large sealed containers and picked up each week by a company out of Salem called Valley Proteins. The processors pay a $125 fee for the removal. Valley Proteins sells the product for use in pet food, cosmetics and even biodiesel fuel.

While there are no government regulations for processing the wild game, processors answer to the U.S. Department of Agriculture when preparing domestically grown meat.

Both Harvey's Meat Processing and Taylor's Meat Cutting are licensed to process beef and pork. Quarterly inspections are required for that.

Taylor decided to add domestic meat processing "because I knew they were coming in," he said of his competition.

Currently, however, neither business is in hog heaven. Although farmers will be coming to them through the winter months with cattle and hogs to process, the hunters are keeping them busy now.

As his knife sliced cleanly through a lean piece of venison, Taylor said he was content in his meat processing shop. He has no desire to trade his apron for camouflage and plant himself in a tree stand.

Hunting's not for him.

"I'm not good at it," he said, making another cut with the knife. "That's why I do this."

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