Deer hunters nationwide are being turned away from some mom-and-pop butcher shops and small meat processing plants, and the same is true in Kansas.
For the first time in 50 years, Burkhart Meats in Kinsley is unable to process deer for its customers. Neither is Smoky River Meats in Salina.
Because of the pandemic, a constricting supply chain and more ranchers wanting to have their animals processed at a small plant — as opposed to sending them to feed lots — small- and medium-sized processors and butcher shops are bursting at the seams.
"It got busier because of COVID," said Ron Wheeler, co-owner of Burkhart Meats. "We used to have a two- to three-week wait — never months."
ZD Meatz in Oakley is willing to harvest deer, but the hunter must first cut the carcass and freeze the meat and then bring it in a bag to the plant to be processed into sausages and jerky.
"We’re too full of beef and pork right now," said Tim Zerr, a co-owner of ZD Meatz. "The deer (meat) has to be boned, frozen and tagged."
The executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors, Chris Young, said this year many of its members across the country are unable to process deer. Because the wild game carcasses must be stored far away from beef, hogs and lamb, many processors no longer have room to store them.
"It’s a growing trend," Young said. "It’s a widespread situation."
According to Young, many processors usually use the extra money they get from processing wild game to help them invest in new equipment.
"This becomes their side deal in the fall," Young said. "But now, a lot are not taking on new business."
Burkhart’s, like many other butcher shops, has an attachment to its customers and feels bad that it cannot fit them in sooner or take in their wild game this year.
"We’ve had many generations of customers. Four to five generations," said Melanie Wheeler, co-owner of Burkhart Meats, as she teared up. "They’re wonderful."
Burkhart Meats is a third-generation butcher shop. The shop’s founder, Harold Burkhart, 91, still comes in daily to check on the crew members, who include his daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters. Decades ago, Harold Burkhart started a special recipe for Dill Billy Bacon.
"It makes the best BLT sandwich ever," Burkhart said. "It pretty much sells itself."
Like Burkhart’s, other butchers have their own special bacon, bologna and summer sausage recipes, all of which they find hard to keep on their shelves lately.
Long waits to process beef
Burkhart Meats, ZD Meatz, Smoky River Meats and meat processors across Kansas and nationwide are booked through January 2022.
"Right now we’re just really busy," said Lucas Bretz of Smoky River Meats in Salina.
Young knows finding the answer to this situation of not enough, or not large enough, small meat processors is difficult. But he is hoping states and the federal government will be able to help smaller plants increase in size. Right now, three bills are sitting in Congress: the PRIME Act, the RAMP-UP Act and most recently, the PRICE Act.
"If we could get a steady flow of money (for expansion of small- to medium-sized plants), it would help," Young said. "There’s no quick fix."
Some plants, like ZD Meatz, are planning to expand. They are all trying to fit in as many customers as possible.
"Now is definitely a good time to have a butcher shop," Melanie Wheeler said. "A lot more people are starting to butcher (their animals at a butcher shop)."