COLUMBIA - Deer hunters can no longer rely on a popular meat processor when hunting season begins next month.
After more than 50 years of providing the service, Jennings Premium Meats in New Franklin will no longer butcher deer brought in by hunters. The business recently mailed letters to past customers notifying them of the change.
Dale Jennings, managing partner and son of one of the three founding members, said business has grown in recent years, particularly in out-of-store retail, and accommodating the extra workload during deer season is no longer worth the trouble.
Fewer deer being brought in for processing, the start-up of more seasonal, deer-only processors and the liability of hiring inexperienced seasonal workers also factored into the decision, Jennings said.
The business will continue to turn boneless venison brought in by hunters into such specialty products as jerky, summer sausage, snack sticks and bratwurst.
Another commercial meat locker in the area won't be taking deer at the beginning of the hunting season. Tim Schwennesen, owner of Tunes Locker Plant in Centralia, has shut down all operations after an equipment malfunction. He anticipates remaining closed for "at least the next couple of months" for a complete freezer rebuild.
Jennings estimated that hunters brought in about 1,200 deer for processing at his New Franklin operation during the 2007-08 season. Seven or eight years ago, when Missouri deer hunting permits hovered near all-time highs, Jennings Premium Meats carved up as many as 2,000 deer in a season. The added workload meant that Jennings Premium Meats traditionally hired between three and four part-time employees to keep up with the seasonal rush.
Jennings said that hunters tend to bring in the bulk of their deer during the first weekend of the firearms season, meaning that Jennings Premium Meats processed something like 500 deer in a single weekend last season. He recalled years when deer season meant nights with just one hour of sleep.
"You have time to go home to shower and eat breakfast, then it's time to go back to work," Jennings said.
One year, right after the firearms season opened in November, "we had deer lined up for blocks," Jennings said. "It was around 80 degrees, and hunters bought up all the ice in the area to stuff in the deer. And by the end of the day we got all of them into the cooler."
Decades of experience led to a streamlined and efficient deer processing operation at Jennings Premium Meats. An assembly line effort could get a single deer completely skinned and into the cooler in five minutes.
Jennings won't lose any sleep over the change during deer season.
"I won't miss it, not really," he said. "It'd be kind of like missing a rotten tooth."