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It's the season to cut up deer: The side hustle

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Tony Styx holds a cut of meat from a buck.
Tony Styx holds an long back-strap from a buck.
John Enger / MPR News

Editor's note: This story is part of an occasional series on solo entrepreneurial ventures known as "side hustles."

On the outskirts of Crosby, a small town 15 miles northeast of Brainerd, a hand-lettered sign points to a garage.

Inside, Tony Styx keeps a fire going in a wood stove while he deconstructs deer carcasses. 

"You just run the knife right down by the bone," he said, as he worked a hefty buck haunch. "Look at the grain on this meat. Beautiful." 

Styx works full time framing homes and hanging sheet rock. For nearly two decades, he's spent a few weeks in the fall cutting up deer for people.

Venison side hustles are seasonal and largely unregulated, so no one is sure exactly how many people hang out the shingle each deer season. But side hustles in general are on the rise.

Census Bureau data show more Minnesotans working on their own. About 390,000 people have an entrepreneurial venture, often on top of a day job. Included in that number are self-employed construction workers.

Deer processing is a pretty reliable seasonal side hustle in northern Minnesota. Around opening weekend of the deer gun hunting season, signs pop up along county roads. 

They're usually pretty simple and often homemade. "Deer Cut Up," or "Deer Processing," they say.  

Bringing in a buck.
Jeremy Chambliss, left, who goes by the name Chewy, helps Tony Styx lift a hefty eight point buck into Styx's garage/seasonal butcher shop on the outskirts of Crosby, Minn.
John Enger / MPR News

Some of the places are fully licensed year-round butcher shops. But many are seasonal, family operations — basically a guy in his garage who will cut up a deer for $50 to $80.

Styx began butchering in the hopes of leaving construction for something less physically strenuous.

As it turns out, butchering deer is pretty hard labor and Styx still works construction. But both pursuits are deeply satisfying, he said, and too much fun to give up. 

"I love them both," he said. "So this time of year, I just go without sleep."

With some wrapping help from his wife Lois and a few family members, he can turn a dead deer into a stack of neatly packaged steaks and chops in about an hour and a half.  

Deer usually yield one-third their field dressed weight in venison, something between 50 and 90 pounds generally. Styx charges a flat rate $70 per deer. 

The regular firearm deer hunting season runs this year from Nov. 8 to 16. But in some hunting zones it ends on Nov. 23. It's projected to be a slim harvest, but Styx expects to see about of 70 animals. 

He sells the hides for $4 each to a local taxidermist, and cleaned carcasses to a nearby dog sled racer. All told, the hustle nets roughly $5,000 for a month's worth of nights and weekends — enough for Christmas presents, Styx said, and maybe a vacation.   

Many seasonal deer processors like Styx aren't inspected or licensed by the state. But they're still legal. 

Under state law, venison isn't classified as food unless spices or another type of meat is added to it, said Jennifer Stephes, a meat inspector with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. That means an operation like Styx's can't turn out venison sausage. 

That works out great for Styx. If he were processing meat legally defined as food, there'd be a long list of legal hoops to jump through. A month of deer cutting wouldn't be worth the effort. 

While Styx carved out a roast from a carcass, Jeremy Chambliss, a blaze orange-clad fellow who introduced himself as Chewy arrived with an eight-point buck. Styx took the back legs and helped drag the animal into his shop.

"That's a great looking buck," Styx said.

"Get as many steaks out of him as you can," Chambliss said.

Previously:
• Fixing guns to make ends meet: The side hustle
• A hard day of ricing makes the beer go down easy
• Skinning hides to pay for fun: The side hustle