December 8, 2021

Deer processors, taxidermists thrive as hunting begins

Busy season arrives

Travis Dunn/Staff Reporter

Jack Barker of Jack’s Taxidermy in Cortland demonstrates how he puts an artificial eye in place prior to fitting the deer hide on a foam deer head form. Business is picking up at Barker’s shop as hunting season gets under way.

Bow hunting season has already been keeping game processors and taxidermists busy. But things got busier Saturday, when regular deer and bear season opened.

Matt Hunt of Marathon is ready. His processing business, Matt’s Custom Meats, has been in business for six years. He runs it part-time out of his garage; by day he also cuts meat — as a meat department manager for Price Chopper on Glenwood Avenue in Binghamton.

He’s been cutting deer meat since he was a kid. He used to help his dad during deer season, then he started doing it for himself when he got older.

Six years ago, he decided to try it as a side business “to make extra money for Christmas and stuff,” he said.

Fewer places are doing it, he said, but the demand for the service was still pretty high.

“They were just dropping like flies,” Hunt said. “I kind of just decided to do it.”

It’s hard work, and it’s messy. Plus there are a lot of ticks.

The cold slows them down, but it doesn’t kill them. Hunt treats all his clothes with the insecticide permethrin to protect himself.

“Every time I skin a deer, I find ticks,” he said.

The basic work is simple: Hunters bring him gutted deer, and they tell him what they want. Sausage, steaks, hamburgers — Hunt can do them all.

He and his wife run the operation, with help from Hunt’s father, out of their 30- by 30-foot garage. Hunt does the cutting, his wife the wrapping and his father the skinning. He has an 8-by-10-foot cutting room and an 8-by-10- foot walk-in cooler, and pellet stove to keep the work area warm.

On typical workdays, he comes home in the evening, eats dinner, then heads to the garage to cut meat for a few hours. He also processes deer meat on the one weekday he has off from Price Chopper.

Typically, Hunt handles 30 to 50 deer a year, and he has already processed at least 13 from bow season. He said last week that he expected business will pick up over the weekend.

“The first week of gun season is really busy,” Hunt said.

His business has changed little since he started, other than the new equipment he has added. This year, he started using a vacuum sealer — replacing the paper and plastic packaging he used in the past. Also, he bought a winch to lift and move deer carcasses, and also
to help peel “the hide off like a sweatshirt,” he said.

One big change: Rendering companies used to accept the leftover deer parts — the bones and hooves and more. Then came Chronic Wasting Disease.

Now Hunt gives the leftovers to a friend, who feeds some of parts to his dogs and uses the rest for coyote bait.

The regulations

Wild-game meat processing is unregulated in New York if the meat is processed for the consumption of the owner of the meat, according to the state departments of Environmental Conservation and Agriculture and Markets.

Independent processors who accept deer carcasses do not need a state license if the processed meat is returned to the owner. A license is required, however, if the processed meat is sold commercially. Other regulations also apply if the meat comes from captive animals.

But many hunters want to keep the head and the hide. For that, they need a taxidermist, like Jack Barker at Jack’s Taxidermy in Cortland.

Barker has been doing this since he was about 13, when he took a correspondence course. He’s been running his business from the same location since 1973.

“It’s a seasonal thing,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. You might be busy, you might not.”

Regular hunting season started off busy — customers had dropped off four deer as of early Monday afternoon, he said. This year had already been busy for bow season, said Barker, and taxidermist friends of his have also reported a busy season.

“We got more than we usually do,” Barker said.

Taxidermists need basic facilities to preserve the incoming deer parts — freezers, mainly.

“The key here is on the small stuff,” he said. “You can pack it and freeze it until the rush is over.”

The bigger stuff needs to be immediately “skinned, fleshed and salted” to stop potential bacterial growth, which can ruin the head or hide.

Many of the old taxidermists have disappeared over the years, and few new ones have replaced them.

“People come and go,” he said. “It’s not an easy trade.”