When Colleen Ballantine, Cheryl Sanders and Bradley Kennedy size up meat for their freezers, they're thinking three things: free-range, low-fat, clean of antibiotics.
The three women are deer hunters, and their market of choice is the woods of Maryland. With consumer demand rapidly growing for animals raised humanely and meat free of things not found in nature, supermarkets are stocking bison and pasture-raised beef at premium prices.
But hunters -- especially women -- say white-tailed deer are nearby and plentiful, healthful and economical.
"I cannot say enough good things about venison, and it's a shame that people can't see its value," said Ballantine, 41, a Web designer from Carroll County. "But then, more for me."
A 31/2-ounce portion of panbroiled ground venison has more protein, fewer calories and less fat than an equal serving of 80 percent lean ground beef, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Venison is the all-natural, free-range, no-hormone meat that everyone's looking for in the store but you can get for free in your own backyard," said Patty Allen, coordinator of Maryland's Becoming an Outdoors Woman program, known as BOW.
Deer season in Maryland runs from September through January. In each of the past two seasons, hunters have killed more than 100,000 deer -- the highest totals since modern deer management began in the early 1900s. So far this season, the total is running 4 percent above last year. The most popular segment of the season -- modern firearms -- begins today; it runs two weeks and is responsible for nearly half the annual total.
State wildlife biologists believe the economy has put more hunters in the woods, looking to fill their freezers.
Deer processors such as Sam Poole in Finksburg have noticed. "We've done more than 1,000 deer so far," he said as he carved a carcass into steaks and roasts. "We can't stop or we'll be overrun."
The economics are simple. Once a hunter passes a free hunter safety course, buys a basic license for $24.50 ($6 each for muzzleloader and bow stamps) and buys or borrows a shotgun, the supermarket is open. A hunter taking advantage of all seasons and regulations could bag 42 white-tailed deer annually.
A 145-pound deer yields about 65 pounds of meat. Depending on the size of the deer, basic butchering averages $60. (Orders for bologna, sausage and jerky add to the price tag.)
"It's nice to put meat in the freezer that doesn't cost $3 a pound," said Sanders, 44, of Harford County. "And you can't get more organic than venison."
The field-to-freezer philosophy appeals to Ballantine.
"Three to four people touch your venison while it remains in your own ZIP code. Dozens of unknown people touch beef as it is shipped across country in -- fingers crossed -- refrigerated trucks," she said.
The two-day BOW deer-hunting clinic, sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources, routinely sells out. This year, it attracted 28 participants, two-thirds of whom had never hunted before.
Kennedy, 28, is a former vegetarian and self-described foodie who prides herself in buying only sustainably and ethically produced meat.
"Normally, I buy pasture-raised meat from the farmers market, but as a biologist I was interested in venison as the ultimate environmentally friendly food," she said. "I participated in the BOW hunt this and last year and didn't get a deer either time -- although I did get one during regular firearm season last year. It's produced some epic meals thus far."
Nationally, the number of hunters has been declining over the past 16 years and now stands at 14.3 million. But the number of women hunters has held steady at 1.2 million since 1996, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics.
Dawn Webb has spent the past 16 years teaching wild game cooking classes to men and women as part of her job at the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife.
"At first, it was men bringing their friends and then husbands bringing their wives and now you get the women coming by themselves," she says. "Once they figure out how to use [game], they like it. You have to play around with it, use it in favorite recipes."
Her newest kick is curing venison in corned-beef spices.
Kennedy says she makes borscht and chili, but her favorite way of fixing venison is a gyro recipe with spiced meat and homemade pitas and tzatziki sauce that she adapted from Cook's Illustrated.
"It's to die for," she said.
Another inspiration? The vegetarian Moosewood Cookbook.
"I just add meat," she said.