A look inside a Mississippi school’s meat processing class

Published 5:37 am Saturday, December 4, 2021

At the height of Mississippi’s deer season, more than a dozen students donning white butcher coats and hairnets take their positions at stations in Mantachie High School’s meats lab each day to process deer.

Mantachie’s meat processing class is the only one of its kind in the state of Mississippi.

Students debone and cut minute steaks, which are then tenderized and placed in vacuum-sealed bags. What’s left on the bone is cut off and turned into breakfast sausage, hamburger or stew meat, whichever the customer prefers.

At the end of the day, students’ butcher jackets are washed and all surfaces and equipment are thoroughly cleaned.

Matt Spradling, food products teacher at Mantachie, is in his fourth year as instructor for two meats processing courses. His Meats 1 class covers the basics of safety, sanitation and the cutting process. By the time students reach the Meats 2 class, they know how to process cows, hogs and deer with limited guidance.

The class starts processing deer on Oct. 1, the first day of deer season. They cut meat one day per week until the middle of November, when gun season opens. Then the students cut almost every day until they get out for Christmas break.

When students return after the break, they’ll process meat every day until mid-February, when deer season ends in Alabama.

A WIN-WIN FOR STUDENTS AND HUNTERS

The meats processing class was created in 1989 and now has about 30 students across both classes.

The students primarily process deer — usually between 500 and 550 each year — but they also process about 50 hogs and eight cows annually.

Over the years, the Mantachie High School shop has gained popularity through word-of-mouth. Spradling has had hunters bring deer from as far away as Houston, Mississippi, and Red Bay, Alabama.

Hunters can drop their deer off at Mantachie’s shop building to be processed only during school hours, from 7:15 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Deer hang in the cooler room at a temperature of about 35 degrees for three to eight days to allow the meat to age before being butchered. After being processed, the meats are stored in a freezer, which is kept between 0 and 2 degrees.

Having a deer processed by the students costs $35 to $45, depending on which cuts of meat the customer wants.

Students get hands-on experience learning a valuable skill and hunters pay less to have their meat processed, making it a win-win situation for all involved.

All money made from processing meat goes to the school’s FFA chapter and is used to buy supplies for the meats lab and pay for trips to contests or pay for FFA jackets.

“It’s a teaching tool,” Spradling said. “But it also helps pay for some of the other stuff that we do in the chapter.”

‘SOMETHING THAT VERY FEW CAN DO’

In Spradling’s class, students learn skills like retail identification, marketing, supply and demand, wrapping, display and pricing.

“It teaches you something that very few can do anymore,” Spradling said. “It teaches you a lot of skills, (like) if you had to kill something, cut it up, clean it, preserve it and sanitize everything like you would need to. You could even make a living with it.”

Tanner Boutwell, a 15-year-old 10th grade student, is already putting skills learned in Spradling’s class to good use.

Boutwell’s stepfather recently opened a meats processing business in Mantachie called Comer’s Meat Shack. After cutting meat at school, he returns home to do the same.

Boutwell’s watched deer being processing since he was 6 years old, but learned the ins and outs of the process at Mantachie High.

“I learned out here first, then carried the skill on and used it,” Boutwell said. “I’ve learned how to separate a hindquarter, the parts of beef, some stuff I wouldn’t really know if I wasn’t out here.”

Boutwell enjoys the hands-on aspect of the class, getting to process meat himself. He plans to become a farmer, but thinks he will continue to be involved in processing deer throughout his life.

“It taught me a real life skill that I can actually carry on in my life and use later on,” he said.