Rick Wilson didn't know what to expect that September morning as he pulled to the side of the road 15 years ago. All he saw was a woman by her car and she looked in need of help.
The woman asked Wilson if he could follow her into the bushes. Warily he did, eventually coming upon a dead six-point buck in the brush. Soon Wilson realized the woman wanted help getting the road kill into the trunk of her car.
Wilson, a veteran hunter, warned her of the potential citations she could receive if caught carrying an untagged deer.
"I don't care," the women replied. "My kids and me are hungry."
It was then that Wilson realized something must be done. That same year he followed through, founding Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry (FHFH), a Christian ministry that helps hunters donate deer to be processed and delivered to local food banks and feeding programs.
In 2012 the program is stronger than ever, as hunters continue to get the word out about donating for a good cause.
"The main thing that drives this program is compassion," says David McMullen, the coordinator for participating butcher shops in Anne Arundel County. "It all works because hunters have the compassion to feed the hungry … the compassion to feed their fellow man."
Originating in Maryland, FHFH has spread to 28 states and even internationally—there are now chapters in Canada and Kenya. But Maryland still leads the way, comprising three percent of the total donations from last year, McMullen said.
Combined, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties donated 519 deer last year or 25,950 pounds of venison, creating 103, 800 meals.
Despite the economic downturn the last few years, FHFH has been thriving. In Maryland, the program has seen an increase every year over the past three years and program officials expect there to be even more donations this season.
One reason for Maryland's success can be attributed to the state's liberal bag limits. Within certain hunting regions, hunters are allowed to kill an unlimited amount of antlerless deer with a bow and arrow and 10 antlerless with a firearm or muzzleloader.
Brian Eyler with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources estimates the deer population at roughly 235,000, which has remained steady over the past five years.
This is also the first year in Maryland where the program can take crop-damage deer — deer hunted through farming permits to protect their crops.
FHFH receives funding through a series of fundraisers and grants. In addition, the ministry received $238, 000 from Maryland this year.
The funds allow the program to pay for 100 percent of the processing fees — usually around $65 to $75, but participating butchers process at a 20 percent discount — costing the hunters nothing. In the past funding has been known to run dry late in the season, forcing butchers to turn away potential donations or help them find other butchers.
Back 40 Deer Processing, a butcher shop tucked away in Harwood, Md., owned by David Scheler and Bradley Doepkens, is in its second year working with FHFH and was third in Anne Arundel county for donations last year.
"When we started cutting deer we thought [FHFH] would be a good thing to add to the shop," Doepkens said.
FHFH is always looking to expand, searching for new butchers to participate in the program and spreading the word to the hunters. Promotion comes in many forms, as the program is featured in safety courses, hunter safety books and at sportsman shows. Doepkens and Scheler also put pamphlets in every order they process.
"There are a lot of good guys out there," McMullen said. "And this program is a way for them to use their God-given skills as hunters to help others."
"Hunters are proud to tell me that they donated last year," says Rick Ellis, coordinator for Central Maryland's butcher shops.
Hunters like Justin Foster and Eric Brown, employees at Back 40 and two of the shop's most avid donators. Brown has brought in five deer for FHFH, while Foster has donated six this year.
"You're basically helping your neighbors and community," Brown said. "Hunters have a bad name just because we are killing stuff. And then to be able to give back through that, through hunting, is cool."
"It shows people we are out for more than just trophies," Foster adds.
As Back 40's evening processing is in full swing, the shop receives a call from two hunters looking to donate two does for FHFH.
The men, Sam Fletcher and Robert Poe, arrive within the hour, pulling up in their truck.
"I love the fact that the [needy] are going to get something to eat and enjoy," said Fletcher, who has donated before.
Poe, a first-time donator, has had a successful hunting season, something he has not been accustomed to in the past. For the first time he has a completely packed freezer at home.
"It's been good," Poe said. "So share the wealth."
Once the deer are unloaded from the truck bed and the proper forms filled out, there is nothing left to do but head home. Fletcher and Poe climb back into the truck and start the engine.
"That's a good thing we just did," Poe said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun