These days, we put a premium on organically produced meats, vegetables and fruits. Additionally, the locavore movement is sweeping across the nation as conscientious consumers look for ways to buy that rib-eye steak from the farmer down the road rather than take a chance on something they find in the supermarket. But often lost in the shuffle is consumption of a lean meat that’s as local as it gets, and depending on the surrounding farmland, may just approach organic status.
By eating venison, you're eating healthy, wild and local.
As an avid hunter living in southwest Virginia, I try to bring eight or nine whitetails from field to freezer annually, as the major meat source for my wife, Elaine, and me and, when they were young enough to be a part of our household, for our two children. I really believe in the health benefits of eating venison and wild game meat, and in the healthy lifestyle of hunting.
Lindsay Thomas of Bogart, Georgia, is the editor for the Quality Deer Management Association, an organization dedicated to the scientific management of whitetails.
“I feed my family with venison, and I have always felt that venison is the ultimate ‘organic’ food,” he says. “When I see marketing phrases like ‘cage-free’ and ‘organic,’ I wish that the public knew that hunters have access to the most cage-free, organic, chemical-free, natural food in the world. And venison is extremely good for your health.”
To understand deer meat, like anything, you should consider what the animal is eating. Venison is only as organic as the corn or soybean field the deer typically grazes in, but you get the idea. Before modern agriculture brought with it pesticides and myriad chemical sprays, venison would have been totally organic. Today, we’re not so lucky, but when you consider the average deer, it approaches organic. Ironically, true organic venison would come from caged deer that weren’t allowed to graze where they please, and the animal’s life would not be nearly as fulfilling.
Inexpensive meat: processing your own deer meat
Eating venison is relatively inexpensive. Consider the case of the Kansas bowhunter. A good-sized mature doe (the most desirable sex to the meat hunter, as opposed to the trophy hunter) might achieve a hanging weight of 80 pounds. Before you shot this deer, you paid $17.50 for the antlerless tag, $20.50 for the general hunting license, and somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 for the arrow that may or may not be used again. The key to keeping it cheap is to learn to skin and process the deer yourself.
Taking the carcass to a butcher during hunting season may set you back $100 or more, so field dressing, hanging, skinning and carving the meat yourself will save you a bundle, plus it puts you more in touch with how that animal went from field to plate. It’s a time to revere the animal that helps sustain you and offer thanks in mind and spirit in whatever way you so choose.
Initial costs can add up, sure. A bow or rifle can run you $300 and up, clothes cost money, with various other gear, probably a good outfit to start will be in the neighborhood of $600, with lots of variables.
But annual cost comes down to permits and tags, bullets or arrows, additional stands, and replacing what you already own. And of course gas, because to think you’ll only have to head out to your tree stand once is like expecting to hit the lottery on your first ticket.
Aside from the cost of my permanent gear, which I’ll use for years (hopefully as long as I’m around), I’ve gotten that backstrap – the tenderloin and a delicacy in my household reserved for special occasions – to my plate for a little more than 80 cents per pound (assuming a harvest of 60 pounds of edible meat), plus gas driving to and from the farmland I hunt. Be warned though, once you’re hooked, it is far too easy to spend money annually on cool new gear.
Venison is a true health food, as it is an excellent source of protein, is low in fat (especially saturated fat), and is a good source of iron, vitamin B12, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin B6. Plus, it is low in calories, especially when compared to other meats such as pork and beef. Four ounces of venison would provide 68.5 percent of the daily value for protein, while only adding 179 calories and 1.4 grams saturated fat. That’s pretty good eatin’.
Many of the aspects of deer hunting are good exercise as well. Such activities as scouting for game, hiking and climbing to a stand, and dragging out deer offer a quality workout, which is made even better by the fact that you’re outdoors.
Controlling the deer population
Dave Steffen, forest wildlife program manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), has long told me that hunters are the best “deer managers,” in that they are the prime players in keeping a herd healthy and in balance with the environment.
Nelson Lafon, deer project coordinator for the VDGIF, says deer hunting is an “economical, practical, effective means of controlling free-ranging deer populations on a landscape scale.” Deer hunting, says the biologist, is necessary to maintain the integrity of our ecosystems, and hunters have taken the place of predators in the modern landscape.
Without hunters, says LaFon, society would be forced to use expensive nonhunting methods to control whitetail numbers. So sportsmen not only save conservation dollars, but we also generate large amounts of revenue through our various gear purchases, and we buy licenses that help fund state wildlife agencies.
Experience the field
Hunting also affords one the little things while afield, listening to songbirds, identifying trees, analyzing signs made by a variety of animals, and much more. In the fall, I especially enjoy identifying migrating hawks and songbirds. These are major reasons why many hunt, indeed, our time outdoors and studying the natural world may well be the prime motivating factor for many.
Ask a hunter who’s been at it a while, and there’s really not much that compares to watching the sun come up in the forest, observing the squirrels, and trying to be completely in tune with one’s surroundings. It’s a feeling that never gets old.
Donate your excess
Part of our heritage as humans, actually a part that has been neglected throughout our history, is taking only what you need, while not being greedy. In the event that your freezer is full and your woods are still crawling with deer and you feel the need to reduce numbers, consider donating your harvested venison.
Laura Newell-Furniss operates Virginia’s Hunters for the Hungry. Newell-Furniss says that about half of our states have similar programs, and a national group exists as well, Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry (www.FHFH.org, or call 866-438-3434).