Midway through Mississippi's deer season, processors already are reporting large herds of deer coming through their businesses, where they are fashioned into various specialty foods for discerning customers.
"We do not kill the deer, but we do everything else," said Charity Yoder, co-owner of SunBelt Wild Game Processing in Macon.
"We'll gut it for you, clean it, package it and freeze it. We do a lot of specialty meat, like jerkies, summer sausages, bologna, smoked sausage and probably our biggest seller would be the regular breakfast sausage."
As with many deer processing businesses, SunBelt, which has been in business for more than 25 years, follows the deer hunting season calendar and processes deer from Oct. 1 through the end of January.
Yoder and her husband bought the business in 2003. She said the company processes an average of 1,200 deer a year.
"There doesn't seem to be much difference in the business (from last year)," said Doris Bucci, of Bucci's Deer Processing, in Monroe County. "We do a complete line of deer processing. We keep each customer's deer separate, and each customer gets their own deer (meat) back."
"We're processing the deer meat into everything from hamburger to cube steak to specialty cuts, summer sausage, link sausage and everything like that," said Jack Larmour of Fork In The Road in Caledonia.
In its first year of business, Fork In The Road already has processed about 300 deer, Larmour noted.
"I've been wanting to do it for three or four years and had some butchers come to me and say they need a little help with their income and we just jumped right in," he said of entering the processing business. "I used to (hunt), but with deer processing, I don't have time any more."
"We do as much or as little as the customer wants," said Wallace Sansing of Sansing Meat Service in Maben. "We'll skin them and do everything, or we have a lot of customers that just bring us the meat (to process). We'll take them at any stage in the process. We kind of handle the full spectrum of different services.
"We also make a wide variety of smoked products," he added. "That's probably the biggest thing to attract people from out of our local area."
Sansing estimated the business, last year, processed more than 3,000 deer orders.
"We are a full-service meat market, year-round," he said. "It's very few weeks out of the summer that we don't actually have some deer meat here to be processed. It's not a seasonal deal, like some people who do deer processing only.
"We have a lot of customers who freeze the meat, and we don't even see them until after the season's over. We're cutting deer in March, most of the time, and have some that drag into spring, actually."
Sansing Meat Service has been in business since the late 1960s, but deer processing only recently has exploded into a large segment of the business.
"It was sort of in the (1980s) when deer hunting and deer processing became a sport or popular pastime," Sansing said.
"Our services have kind of evolved over the years, based on the fact more and more people have placed the value of deer hunting not just as a sport, but for the meat. We have many customers who will depend on it as their source of meat through the year.
"Through the years, we've added products to enhance that part of our business and give people more alternatives to what they can do with the meat. It probably has become a big part of our business in the last 15 years and it seems to grow every year. People bring more, it seems like. We've kind of created a monster."
Kristin Mamrack/Columbus Commercial Dispatch