With thousands of Minnesota deer hunters participating in the firearms season, the Minnesota Hunter Harvested Venison Donation Program is once again gearing up to provide hunters with the option to donate venison to help feed hungry Minnesotans.

The venison donation program is operated by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and state food shelves.

The program provides a source of protein to people in need while helping reduce local deer populations.

Minnesota hunters donated 421 deer to the program in 2011, which provided 15,520 pounds of processed venison to Minnesota food shelves. Funding for the program comes from a $1 surcharge placed on deer bonus permits.

To be eligible to donate venison to the program, hunters must have their deer processed at a state-registered meat processing plant that has agreed to participate in the program.

A list of processors can be found online by typing "venison processors" into the search field on MDA's homepage at www.mda.state.mn.us.

In Houston County, Bluff Country Meats, 106 E. Main St. in Eitzen is participating, (507) 495-3336.

In Fillmore County there are two choices - Oak Meadow Meats, 50 9th St. NE, Harmony, (507) 886-6328, and R Four Meats, 24 SW 2nd St., Chatfield, (507) 867-4180.

Hunters are urged to contact the processor before bringing in a deer to make sure they are still able to handle the animal.

Only entire carcasses with the hide attached can be donated. Cut and wrapped meat will not be accepted for donation. Hunters and processors must also adhere to specific standards designed to prevent food-borne illness. Processors may only accept carcasses for donation that are:

• Free from signs of illness;

• Field dressed with the hide intact;

• Free of visible decomposition or contamination; and

• Properly identified with a Minnesota DNR registration tag.