Minnesota’s garage venison processors say a recent law requiring state oversight is so costly it will drive them out of business and cripple an important service to hunters.
“Without guys like me, hunter participation will decline,” Kevin George of Park Rapids told lawmakers in March during hearings to overturn the law. “I got a lot of people who hunt up in this area. They stay at Super 8 or AmericInn. Well, they can’t debone their deer out in the parking lot. Nobody’s going to want that.”
His customers also include elderly and disabled hunters, as well as those who lack the skills or desire to process their own deer. He also serves those from other states who need to debone their deer before crossing state lines to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease.
The law, which took effect in 2020, requires Minnesota’s “garage guys” to get licensed through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for the first time. While the license itself was relatively inexpensive, the process to becoming licensed meant installing hot and cold running water if they didn't have it, as well as a sink for hand washing, nonporous walls, floors and ceilings, and a commercial cooler.
Reached Monday, wild game processor Bob Christianson in Koochiching County said a state inspector told him he also had to add a separate sewer line for his wild game shop, and that he estimates it would cost him $70,000 to $100,000 to comply with state requirements. He doesn't consider himself a "garage guy," as he has a separate shop and some high-end equipment. But he is just as affected by the new law, as his seasonal work doesn't bring in enough revenue to cover the expense of meeting state regulations.
“I would be done with this a long time ago if I wasn’t so needed," said Christianson. "It’s a lot of work.”
The crack-down came at a time when meat lockers were increasingly refusing to process whole venison carcasses because of more stringent regulations and because they were afraid a COVID-19 outbreak might shut them down and leave them with spoiled venison.
Inspectors planned to use 2020 as a year to locate and educate garage processors, and this year to enforce the law.
The proposal to overturn that law would exempt seasonal wild game processors who work less than 90 days a year.
Some wild game processors, like George, work only during the rifle season, while others also take venison carcasses during the bow and muzzleloader seasons also. George said the seasonal nature of the work doesn’t make enough money to justify the expense of becoming licensed. If the law isn’t overturned, he said, he won’t do it anymore.
The garage guys have some allies, including Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, chairman of the Senate committee that originally passed the law, and Douglas County Commissioner Jerry Rapp, who persuaded Minnesota Rural Counties to take it on as an issue.
“These garage processors do a big service to deer hunters in Minnesota,” Rapp said. “We’ve done our own venison processing for as long as I can remember and I have yet to have anybody die.”
In a Senate hearing, Westrom sounded a similar theme, arguing that he hasn’t heard that the garage processors have caused any deaths. What they do, he said, is skin them and cut them up so that hunters can then bring the meat to a locker to be made into sausage or jerky.
“Do we need to expand government into every area like this?” he said. “Let’s try to go back to the way things used to be and let the small garage guy wild game processor handle their game processing the way they have before.”
Not everyone favors a whole-sale overturning of the law.
That includes some locker plants, who have to get licensed and view the garage guys as having an unfair advantage if they are exempt.
Brian Schatz, president of the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors, testified that he would support overturning the law as long as it only applied to those making $15,000 a year or less, an amendment discussed in a Minnesota House committee.
“The $15,000 limit is about 150 deer,” he said. “If you’re above that, I believe you should be under some type of inspection. And our board and our organization thinks that too.”
Lockers are increasingly turning away wild game because of cumbersome new rules that require them to document more of their work, he said.
The Walz administration also testified in favor of regulation.
Some processors are conscientious, said Nicole Neeser, director of the Dairy and Meat Inspection Division in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
“But that is not universally true across the state," she said. "We do see numerous complaints throughout the year, primarily in the fall, of wild game operations.”
If the exemption moves forward in the House and Senate committees, it will likely be folded into the larger agriculture omnibus bill. The Minnesota House Agriculture and Finance Committee will hold a hearing on the omnibus bill at 1 p.m. Wednesday, April 7. Those who wish to testify should contact email@example.com by 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 6. The hearing may be viewed at www.house.leg.state.mn.us/htv/schedule.asp.