Deer donation charity’s contributions rallying
WILLIAMSPORT, Md. — Plenty has been said about the state’s lack of meat processing capacity and its effect on farmers, but Josh Wilson sees the consequences for a less vocal community: Maryland’s neediest.
The contraction of processors here and nationwide, as well as a series of other issues, including decreased government support, have led to a decline in the number of deer donated to Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, the Washington County nonprofit where Wilson is executive director.
It’s a problem that’s slowly begun to improve in recent years as Wilson works to distribute venison to food banks, soup kitchens and other charitable outlets across the region that serve the one in 10 Marylanders struggling with food insecurity.
“We’d certainly love to see numbers like what we saw 10 years ago,” he said. “If funding is available and butcher access is widespread across the state, then you’re going to see more deer donated.”
Donations to Farmers and Hunters in Maryland peaked in 2013 at 4,300 donated deer processed at 41 participating butchers. Last year, those numbers had cratered to 1,100 deer at 23 butchers. The reasons, Wilson said, are manifold. For years, a dollar from each hunting license sold in the state went to venison donations until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protested the allocation, saying it didn’t align closely enough with wildlife management. In response, the state provided up to $248,000 a year for a program that helped pay for the nonprofit to have donated deer processed — money that was gradually phased out, starting in 2015, Wilson said.
“It was certainly disappointing,” he said.
The organization relied on donations for several years until the Maryland Department of Natural Resources launched a new venison donation grant program that provided up to $25,000 each year, most of which went to Farmers and Hunters, he said.
The number of regional butchers is a more complicated problem. Some died or retired, Wilson said. Some quit processing deer due to regulatory infringements or labor shortages. New charitable deer processing guidelines by the state could improve that somewhat, he said. Hunters are also keeping larger deer for themselves.
Farmers and Hunters’ network reaches across the Midwest, however, with more than 80 volunteer coordinators and 120 participating butchers spread throughout. Since launching in 1997, the nonprofit has processed more than 5.5 million pounds of venison or more than 22 million servings of food.
Wilson has attended several agricultural events over the last two months to urge farmers to reconnect with the program, whether they’re hunting in the fall or removing deer from their farms in other seasons. An average-sized deer provides enough venison for 160 meals.
“I’m not sure that people in general, especially those that don’t hunt, really grasp the amount of positive impact that hunters can have in a community or a county when it comes to addressing food insecurity,” he said. “It can really be eye-opening for people.”