Sharing the Harvest
One by one the five antlerless deer filtered through the hedgerow that serves as a boundary line between our farm and the neighbor’s. Pausing momentarily to scan the fourteen-acre field, the five then made a hasty dash across the southwest corner where they entered a brushy woodlot. Unbeknownst to them on this cold December morning, a hunter was sitting in a ladder stand just off their path of travel. It was me. A carpet of new snow revealed their movements despite the thick cover, where their trotting had now been reduced to a mosey. But once again they halted, all ears cupped forward, listening closely for anything that might turn them off. I froze!
Satisfied, they continued their passage, steering single file toward a shooting lane that stretched thirty yards below my stand. When the second doe stepped clear of the brush, her mature stature put me in motion. Centering the crosshairs square on the neck after my whistle stopped her, I pressed the trigger on the 50-caliber muzzleloader, and a cloud of ignited powder filled the air. Four deer fled the scene. The doe that hit the ground was entered in my notes that evening—December 8—as deer number thirty-three that our family and other hunters had taken so far on our property since the archery opener. That may sound impossible to some, but the truth is, thirty-three was actually just slightly over half of the preseason harvest goal that we had set for that particular hunting season.
The doe that fell to my muzzleloader was tagged with a property-specific Deer Management Assistance Program tag. Being enrolled in the program obviously illustrates that there is an overpopulation of deer presently on our farm, and the severity of our crop damage justifies the need for such enrollment. Pennsylvania hunters may possess up to two DMAP permits per enrolled property. That’s in addition to the regular antlerless licenses that are applied for through the county treasurer’s offices. What that means is—besides their buck tag—today’s hunters have access to multiple antlerless tags, but having a need or freezer space for that much venison often deters hunters from filling them all. The solution? Pennsylvania’s venison donation program: Hunters Sharing the Harvest, which is where my muzzleloader doe ended up.
For nearly thirty years, HSH has been supplying food banks across the state with hunter-harvested venison donations. The current goal for HSH is to process and distribute at least 100,000 pounds of venison from each hunting season. This outreach program channels the wholesome venison through a network of approved deer processors and food banks, ultimately ending up at thousands of hunger-relief charities in urban and rural communities.
Former Majority Policy Chairman for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and a lifelong resident of Lancaster County, the late Kenneth Brandt has been credited as the founder of Hunters Sharing the Harvest. In the late 1980s, Ken approached John Plowman, the Director of Legislative Affairs for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, with an idea—the concept of sharing excess deer taken by Commonwealth hunters with those in need of food assistance. Deer populations at that time were on the rise, seasons were being stretched out, and doe license allocations had enabled some hunters to obtain additional tags. Since the need and requests for food assistance was growing, hunters could be credited for doing a positive and compassionate gesture by donating the meat to those in need.
With the support of the statewide food bank system, the Department of Agriculture, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, and a number of sportsmen’s groups, Ken Brandt and John Plowman’s collaborative efforts launched the program in 1991. Back then, with very little revenue, hunters who donated a deer were asked to contribute a copay to help with processing costs. But in recent years that fee has been eliminated, thanks to the many individuals, businesses, clubs, and corporations who have contributed crucial funds. During the 2018/2019 statewide hunting season, HSH set an all-time record of coordinating the processing and distribution of 149,137 pounds of venison from 4,093 donated deer. Comparatively speaking, a total of 3,840 HSH deer were donated from 1991-2003.
Today’s hunters now have access to multiple tags because of the continual increases in doe license allocations and a spike in DMAP enrollments. Most hunters can’t utilize all the deer that they can legally harvest, but they like to hunt. And when deer populations in certain areas warrant lowering their numbers, that’s where HSH can assist the hunter.
Here’s how it works. A hunter kills a deer, but doesn’t want the meat. He or she takes it to the nearest participating HSH deer processor, where all or just a portion of the carcass can be donated. The hunter then fills out a simple donor receipt form, which records hunting license information for donation acknowledgement, food safety, and tracking purposes. The processor then grinds all the meat into burger; it’s then packaged and frozen. Periodically, that venison is collected by the state’s seventy-six county and regional food banks, then eventually redistributed to churches, homeless shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens, facilities whose mission involves helping the 1.6 million people in Pennsylvania in need of food assistance.
An integral side of the operation of HSH lies in its team of sixty-three volunteers currently serving as county coordinators. These individuals were appointed to help locate new processors, link hunters to those processors, and coordinate the deliveries of the processed venison to the food distribution centers.
HSH is a 501c3 non-profit organization founded as the signature mechanism for Pennsylvania hunters to maximize the best utilization of a valuable wildlife resource. Unsurprisingly, it has developed into a nationally-recognized model that many other states have replicated. For more details about donating a deer in your neck of the woods, or if you’d like to support or join this unique social service program, visit sharedeer.org.