WINSLOW, Maine — Back in 1992, Joseph “Rocky” Gravel and his father-in-law, Ed Grenier, embarked on a bold adventure. A man up the street was getting out of the meat-cutting business. For $500 bucks, he’d sell the equipment.
G&G Custom Deer Cutting was born.
Then November rolled around, and Gravel, a full-time firefighter for the town of Winslow, got to work.
“That was the year I got married,” Gravel said with a chuckle. “In fact, I came back from my honeymoon, got home, left my wife standing at the door, and came over here [to the butcher shop].”
It wasn’t that he was happy to abandon his new bride, of course.
But duty called.
“It was the first day of deer season,” Gravel explained. “She wasn’t very happy.”
Now, 24 years later, Gravel and Grenier, along with Rocky’s son, Matt Gravel, are still hard at work, processing as many as 150 deer per year for the region’s successful hunters.
Given the space, they could cut even more.
“If they came in at a steady pace — say five or six a day — that would be fine,” Gravel said. “But typically, your weekends are a lot busier, so you’ll get maybe 10 or 15 in a weekend day. That’s what makes it hard.”
On a recent weekend during the peak of deer season, Gravel said he had to turn 30 hunters away. There just wasn’t enough room in the tidy shop to take care of the deer in a timely fashion.
And that’s saying something: Gravel said with three men working without interruption, they can process an entire deer — from skinning to cutting to wrapping in vacuum-sealed plastic — in about 45 minutes.
And around the state, dozens of other local cutters are performing the same tasks, mostly on a part-time basis during a brief, four-week window of opportunity.
Filling a void
Keel Kemper, a regional wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, has been visiting local butcher shops to gather deer data for the past 28 years. Kemper describes his area of responsibility — known as Region B in department-speak — as “ground zero” for deer hunting, as it covers much of the state’s most productive deer territory. That region, according to Kemper, roughly stretches from Penobscot Bay to the Androscoggin River, and from Skowhegan to Monhegan.
“These guys, this is generally not what they do for a living. This is what they do for the month of November,” Kemper said. “They crop up like little mushrooms on the landscape.”
Some cutters take larger animals, like moose. G&G Custom Meat Cutting only cuts an occasional moose for family or friends, choosing to focus on deer season.
Other state biologists, who visit meat cutters in different regions, say they’ve seen a bit of a trend over the years. Years ago, a vast majority of hunters did their own butchering. Now, with custom butcher shops scattered across the state, some choose to let others do the dirty work.
Still, finding a meat cutter who has time to do the job can be a challenge, especially in smaller towns.
“Numbers-wise, the majority of hunters still cut up their own deer or have a friend or relative that helps,” Kendall Marden, who works out of the DIF&W’s Sidney office, said in an email. “Consequently, the more rural an area, the slower [a new meat cutter] pops up to replace retirees, as there is less work to make it worthwhile.”
Kemper said in Winslow, there are four meat cutters able to fill the burgeoning demand.
Randy Cross, a biologist who focuses on bear management, has become familiar with plenty of meat cutters in Waldo County over his 36 years with the department. He said there are fewer cutters available today than in the past.
“Most of [these] cutters are meat cutters by trade, [working in grocery stores], making money on nights, weekends and time off from their regular meat-cutting jobs,” Cross said in an email. “[This area] has lost three out of five in the past two years … Hunters may need to go back to carving their own deer like the old days.”
Marden, who is also an avid hunter, said he enjoys the social aspect of gathering up friends and family and cutting up a deer. He also said he still remembers his first attempt at home butchering with a dull knife.
“I certainly relish the memories of talking to my family over a cutting board, or giving a neophyte friend a hand with my now-sharp knife and my $2 yard sale meat grinder,” Marden said in an email.
State biologists have predicted an increased deer harvest this year, which might lead to more people needing to take matters into their own hands, Marden wrote.
“I would say that given the harvest expected … we are in a demand/bull market,” Marden wrote. “That may encourage a few more folks to dip their boning knives in the water (as my grandfather would plausibly twist a cliche).”
So you just shot your deer. Or you’re planning to. This is the year. And, unfortunately, you don’t know the first thing about actually butchering that critter yourself.
That’s where shops like G&G Custom Deer Cutting come in.
And Gravel has a couple of handy tips.
First: Although other hunters, family members and assorted experts might tell you to hang your deer in a backyard tree for several days before taking it to a butcher shop, Gravel has other advice.
“If you don’t have a place to keep it [where it will remain] in the 40- to 45-degree range, I would recommend getting it to the butcher as soon as possible,” Gravel said.
Warm deer means rotting meat, which means that Gravel and his crew will have to cut off more waste before packaging the useable meat.
And second? Colder is not necessarily better.
“If it’s cold out and you leave it hanging, and it freezes, we can’t do anything once that deer is frozen,” Gravel said. “Typically, a lot of the small deer-cutting businesses don’t have a lot of area to hang deer [to let them thaw]. We can’t afford to let a deer sit in our cooler for 7 to 10 days.”
Not that he hasn’t tried to work with a few frozen deer, of course.
“I tried to skin a couple of frozen deer when we first started and I almost cut my hand off,” Gravel said. “It’s that hard to skin.”