The weekend after Thanksgiving was cold, but the atmosphere is festive at Bruck’s Bucks, a home-based wildlife butcher shop in Accord owned by Tim and Sue Bruck. Inside the house, the kitchen is abuzz with activity. Friends and neighbors are putting together food for those working around back. There are smells of pizza and other hot foods, mulled cider and fresh-brewed coffee. Outside, a crew is assembling a new storage shed to help store what isn’t being worked on at the moment in the unheated butcher space adjacent.
Deer hunting season can get very busy for anyone who cuts game meat. Bruck’s Bucks is also the only Ulster County processor for the Venison Donation Coalition, a program which gets deer meat into food pantries. Bow hunting opened on October 1, but many more hunters come out with their guns from November 17 through December 9. Successful hunters often end up with more venison than they can use, and being able to donate allows them to avoid wasting food.
Tim Bruck’s full-time job is supervising meat operations at Hannaford in West Hurley. He’s taken off Thanksgiving week to keep up with demand. Even with others helping with the cutting and wrapping, he doesn’t really have time to talk about his involvement in the donation program. He’s busy cutting steaks, and there’s three gutted carcasses waiting to be processed.
Bruck’s wife Sue did sit down and answer questions. She’s willing to get her hands dirty: Sue cuts meat alongside her husband and son and several friends of the family while demonstrating how a quality manicure can hold up under that kind of pressure. Sue doesn’t hunt herself, but in some ways she knows more about hunting than the people who bring by the animals. For one thing, the smell of the meat will immediately tell her if this was a quick kill, or if a chase ensued. She’s come to prefer bow season, because the destructive force of high-powered rifles often ruins a good deal of the meat for eating.
Sue manages the Rondout Valley Food Pantry. With Tim cutting as a side business during deer season, the Brucks seem to be the perfect participants in the Venison Donation Coalition. They only discovered the program by chance. They were amazed to learn that no one in Ulster was approved to process donated meat. That prompted them to start a process which took them two years to complete.
Having a space already dedicated to butchering domestic and wild animals was a good start, since it’s absolutely forbidden to cut deer in stores. The Brucks’ shop needed upgrades before it could be approved. They had to learn how to do the paperwork needed. Every package of meat is labeled with tracking information that ties it back to the hunter who bagged the animal in the first place.
Last year saw their first actual processing. Sue’s connection to the local food pantry made it easier. The standard process would have involved the Brucks hauling the donated meat to Latham, from where it would be sold to food pantries. Direct donation to the Rondout Valley Food Pantry is perfectly fine, even though it’s not the standard model. Rondout Valley is also the largest food pantry nearby in terms of space, making it the ideal repository. Folks from the Rochester and Rosendale pantries can also pick up venison there.
Food pantry guests were asking about deer season this year, after enjoying the ground venison they got in 2017. Some 150 pounds of meat were processed and donated last year, all of it ground. The Brucks now have the capability of providing steaks, as well. The amount of meat donated this year is already nearly at the level of all last year, with several weeks left to the season. More hunters have heard about the program, by word of mouth and media coverage, and have offered part or all of their kills in donation.
This year officers from the state DEC have also been bringing by animals seized from hunters not properly licensed or who otherwise killed them illegally.
However, “It is not okay to just leave an animal here,” Sue explains. The paperwork must be properly completed. A deer abandoned is ineligible for donation and thus wasted. Calling ahead to 626-7567 to give warning is the only way to go.
There are benefits to the hunter to stick around. There’s a tax deduction for donating the meat. Hunters can donate as little as two pounds and as much as the entire animal. “Hunters are very generous,” Sue said. Bagging even a single deer might otherwise mean there’s food going to waste if they can’t eat it or give it to friends.
Cold weather makes the work easier. If it warms up the processing has to happen quickly to get the meat into refrigeration before it spoils. This year, the temperatures for the first week have been ideal for this work. The Brucks require their clients take everything back, whether entrails or unusable skin or the meat itself. For donated meat, though, they have arranged to get all the extras disposed of safely.
Hunting of deer is an upsetting concept to many people, and Sue Bruck counts herself as someone who was once in the don’t-shoot-Bambi crowd. However, “I learned at a very young age that it’s a kinder death than starvation.” She said she was incredibly grateful to have this no-cost addition to her food pantry’s options. That 150 pounds donated last year translates into 600 “protein choices,” or servings of a protein that can be included in the selection food pantry guests receive.
While the Brucks have not yet hit their own capacity for processing donated deer — in fact, there are friends interested in learning the art of cutting meat — Sue wants other meat cutters to sign up to join them. “There are people that cut, we know that,” she said. She implores hunters to encourage their regular cutters to sign up at venisondonation.org, or to call Greg Fuerst at 307-382-2062 for information.