Mississippi deer processors overwhelmed as season’s harvest doubles, triples order requests

Published 9:10 am Saturday, January 2, 2021

Bagging that deer is one thing. Getting it to your kitchen table may be quite another.

Halfway through the deer season in Mississippi, deer meat processors are having a difficult time keeping up with demand.

“We’ve probably doubled what we had done at this point last November,” said Nancy Larmour, who with her husband, Jack, has operated Fork ‘N Road Deer Processing in Caledonia for 11 years. “We’ve had to stop taking in deer because of the capacity.

We’re working seven days a week, long hours every day, and we still can’t keep up. From Saturday morning until noon Sunday, we had another 200 deer come in. We’ve added a cooler, and we have 500 deer hanging now waiting to be processed. It will be like that right on through February.”

It’s much the same story at Wilson’s Deer Processing in Pheba, which serves customers from Oktibbeha and Clay counties and has a cooler capacity of 200 deer.

“I can’t remember anything like this,” owner Christi Wilson said. “We’ve had deer brought in from as far away as Corinth. We’ve had to turn people away. Every processor I know is in the same predicament.”

Under normal circumstances, it takes seven to 10 days to have a deer butchered and processed, depending on what cuts the customer requests. At Fork ‘N Road, customers can have their deer processed into 19 different products — everything from burgers and steaks to jerky and tamales.

Now, the same orders are taking 15 to 20 days, Larmour said, even though they’ve added staff and now have 14 employees — most of them high school and college students on winter break — to try to meet the demand.

It’s much the same for Wilson.

“There’s not much we can do, really,” Wilson said. “A deer has to hang for three to four days before we can even start processing it. In those three to four days, more and more people are coming with their deer. So it’s almost like a cycle. As soon as we clear cooler space, it fills up. We stop taking in deer when the coolers are full. That’s happening every week now.”

Based on what they have seen so far, both Larmour and Wilson expect to process more deer than ever before.

Wilson said the most deer her company has ever processed in a season was 1,200. For the Larmours, the figure is 4,500.

There are no statewide figures posted yet for this year’s deer harvest. Until this year, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks had a deer count program funded by the state. But in the 2019 legislative session, funding for 2020-21 was not approved.

In 2019-20, the data showed a harvest of 221,000 deer statewide, up from 197,000 harvested in 2018-19 but well below the mid-90s, when the harvest was consistently 300,000 or more.

If demand for their services is any indicator, Larmour said this year’s harvest may even exceed those numbers.

“People are getting frustrated,” Jack Larmour said. “I had somebody come and after I told him I couldn’t take his deer, he said he should open up his own deer-processing business. I told him, ‘Fine. Get yourself $100,000 worth of equipment and a building and have at it.'”

Nancy Larmour said she and her husband have thought about why the demand is so high this year.

‘”I think it’s a combination of things,” she said. “With COVID, people are quarantined so they may have more time to hunt. Then, there’s the economic part. Back in March, hamburger was up to around $5.25 per pound and there was a limit on how much you could buy. I think people still had that in mind as the hunting season started.”

Lifelong Lowndes County resident Dale Parra has been deer hunting for almost 60 years. He, too, said he’s never before seen such difficulty in having a deer processed.

“It used to be much easier,” he said. “You never even thought about it. I don’t know how to account for that. I don’t know if more people are hunting, but I do know more deer are being brought in for processing. I think people are prepping for hard times, kind of like folks did in the Depression, maybe.”

For those with deer who can’t find a processor, Nancy Larmour said people should cut the deer into quarters and keep it on ice.
“That will buy you some time until a spot opens up,'” she said.