Iowa has more than 80 custom meat lockers that process farm-raised pork and beef, but at this time of year, they’re busy with another type of meat — venison. John Lawrence, a livestock specialist at the Iowa State University extension, says many consumers are turning to venison as the costs of more traditional meat products rise.

He says as venison grows in popularity, it’s keeping many small town facilities busy. “Particularly at this time of year, we think about deer season and the number of deer that are processed through these small plants to the point that if I wanted to have a hog butchered to put in my freezer, I might have to wait until February to get it in because they’re processing the deer from hunting season.”

Although there’s nearly one of these processing facilities per county, many struggle to pay a competitive wage while at the same time being large enough to support any family members who may eventually take over. Lawrence says while these facilities have plenty of work for the next few weeks, it’s sometimes a struggle the rest of the year.

He says, “Many of those same business challenges we see in agriculture and up and down Main Street, and if we aren’t able to bridge those gaps and solve those problems, we see a lot of those smaller, family-owned businesses go by the wayside.” Lawrence says in some cases, the custom processor brings more business into town when people come to pick up their meat.

According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture’s website, the state has 83 custom meat lockers, with another 38 state-inspected facilities.