BOONE COUNTY - November 10 marks the start of gun season for Missouri hunters.
For hunters, the gun season is ten days of prime time deer hunting. For meat processors, it's a 10-day "madhouse" according to meat processor Bill Crane.
Crane processes more deer during gun season than any other time of the year. The gun season also marks the time of year with the most donations to the Share the Harvest program.
The statewide program provides a way for Missouri deer hunters to donate their deer to families in need. Hunters can either donate a whole or partial deer by taking it to a participating meat processor. The meat processor packages the deer into ground venison, which is picked up by a local charitable agency that distributes the venison to where it serves the greatest need.
In Boone County, Crane's Meat Processing and Tunes' Locker Plant participate in the program and donate the venison to the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. The cost of processing the deer is the responsibility of the hunter.
However, there are funds available to reduce the processing fee to hunters at the time of donation. The Conservation Federation of Missouri administers a statewide program that directly reimburses the processor a predetermined amount for each whole deer donated. There are other donors such as the Missouri Chapter Safari Club International that allow the processor to process donated deer for free or at a greatly reduced cost.
The processing cost for a whole deer at Crane's Meat Processing is free and $75 for a partial donation. At Tunes' Locker Plant, the cost is $15 for a whole deer and free for a partial donation.
During the 2011 deer seasons, 6,191 hunters donated 317,882 pounds of venison in Missouri. Crane, who has participated in the program since 2000, donated 6,700 pounds of venison to the Food Bank last year. Since 2000, he's seen an increase in the amount of deer and pounds of venison donated each year.
Crane attributes the increase to the start of the "Four-Point Limit," which allows hunters to only kill bucks with antlers that have four-points.
"Since the four-point limit started here in the state, the deer have gotten quite a bit larger," Crane said. "The average weight is over 100 pounds. Most of the hunters will kill a doe and have it put into sausage or eat it, and they donate their buck. So the tonnage of Share the Harvest has really come up the last few years."
According to Tom Pridemore, the development supervisor for the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, many central Missouri families lack a dependable source of protein in their diets so the Share the Harvest program is very important. He says providing a lean and healthy source of protein is very tough because it's expensive.
Though he has seen an increase in deer donations to the food bank over the years, he is worried about the amount hunters will donate this year due to the recent chronic wasting disease affecting deer in the counties of Adair, Chariton, Linn, Macon, Randolph and Sullivan. Pridemore says other factors include this summer's extreme drought, the hemorrhagic disease affecting deer, and lower numbers of deer in certain regions.
"There may just not be as many deer to harvest, and thus, not as many deer to donate," he said. "We're concerned about that but we've really worked hard in the last few months to get the word out and to encourage hunters to donate."
Crane is more optimistic about donations. "The way they've been bringing them in and as big as the deer have been, we're already up from where we were last year on donations at this time," he said. "It will be more. I look forward to a really good year this year."
For more information on participating meat processors in your area, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation's website.