For the first time in history, FFA students help raise the specially trained Presidential Flock...
UPDATE, Nov. 23: Meet Liberty, the 2011 National Thanksgiving Turkey
UPDATE 2, Nov. 23: Read about the perfect Pardon Ceremony
Two glorious gobblers will be spared the fate of the Thanksgiving plate when they're granted an official pardon from President Obama during a Rose Garden ceremony at 10:30 AM next Wednesday, Nov. 23, to "celebrate the 64th anniversary of the National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation." The decades-old White House tradition is "one of the most important duties that I carry out as President," Mr. Obama joked at last year's event, which has been orchestrated by the National Turkey Federation (NTF) since 1947. (Above: The President pardoning last year's turkey with daughters Malia and Sasha)
Chairman Richard Huisinga will present the yet-to-be-named turkey to the President. The tom and his alternate will be selected from a 35-member Presidential Flock that has been raised by Huisinga's family-owned Willmar Poultry Company at AgForte farm in Willmar, Minnesota.
Turkeys from Minnesota have starred in the White House pardon ceremony eleven previous times, NTF spokesperson Sherrie Rosenblatt told Obama Foodorama, most recently in 2005. The lucky toms, hatched on July 7th, are "hybrid broad-breasted white” turkeys that have been specially trained for their White House debut by a group of teen FFA (Future Farmers of America) members. The gobblers will be ensconced at a DC luxury hotel during their visit. Yes, really: Last year's Top Toms had a swank stay at the W hotel. (Above: One of the Presidential Turkeys, just days old)
Minnesota is the largest turkey producer in the US, thanks to the massive Willmar Poultry, which is responsible annually for 45 million of Minnesota's 47 million birds. The company is a breeding operation, focusing for the last six decades on genetics, biotechnology, and vaccines, and is an affiliate company Life-Science Innovations. Its fast-growing, meaty birds are sold to farmers as day-old poults, who then raise them. America produces 244 million turkeys a year; Willmar sells about 600,000 poults weekly.
Dancing With The Stars...er, the turkeys...
The National Turkey--who is always male--will weigh about 45 pounds by the time he meets President Obama. Huisinga will select the official turkey and his feathery stunt double on Nov. 18th, the day before they are driven to Washington for their moment in the Presidential spotlight, according to Wilmar spokesman Jenn Baumgartner. A second turkey is always chosen in case the first gets ill, or can't "perform his duties."
Last year, President Obama likened the selection process to a popular reality TV series, noting that the wannabe National Turkeys had to "strut their stuff for a panel of judges."
"It’s kind of like a turkey version of “Dancing With the Stars," except the stakes for the contestants was much higher," President Obama said, to laughter. "Only one pair would survive and win the big prize: Life --and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington."
FFA students raise the Presidential Flock...
In a twist that Rosenblatt said is a first for the National Turkey Federation, four students from Willmar High School who are members of FFA (Future Farmers of America) have been charged with many of the responsibilities for the Presidential Flock. The two girls--Brenna Ahlquist and Brianna Hoover, and two boys--Val Brown and Preston Asche--have also been on a tour of Minnesota schools to introduce some of the Presidential birds to youngsters, many of whom have never had the opportunity to visit a farm. They've discussed their months of work raising the turkeys. (Above: Team Obama Turkey)
"I'm so proud of these kids," Baumgartner said. "They've taken this very seriously."
Training the turkeys: Rock & Roll!
The flock has been raised in identical conditions to turkeys that are sold to the public, with plenty of vitamin-enriched Minnesota corn and soy and water, in an open pen with a flooring of litter that allows full movement and plenty of light, according to Baumgartner.
"They eat as much as they want, and grow really fast. But they're raised just like commercial birds."
Well, sort of: Commercial birds are typically raised in flocks of about 10,000 in massive poultry barns. And the Presidential Flock has undergone weeks of training with the FFA students to ensure that the two who visit the White House will be unruffled. There's always a huge scrum of media on hand to capture the historic moment when the President meets poultry, and the training is designed to ensure the National Turkey will keep calm and carry on, so to speak.
The FFA teens have spent loads of time in the pens with the Presidential Flock, exposing the toms to plenty of flash cameras, and plenty of noise--in the form of rock & roll music. The birds have also been taught to stand on a table, to replicate what goes on at the pardon ceremony, when the National Turkey is placed on a table for easy presidential access. (Above: One of the FFA students with a Presidential Turkey during the taming training)
"They're getting a lot of hands-on attention," Rosenblatt said.
The turkeys will travel to Washington in the back of a van that has been designed to replicate their pen on the farm. Once in DC, the turkeys will be staying at a five-star hotel, which has requested anonymity to protect the birds. The FFA kids will also be traveling to Washington for the ceremony, and Baumgartner will be along as a chaperone.
Name that turkey!...
The White House will announce the name of the National Turkey and the alternate on the day of the ceremony. The Minnesota Turkey Growers Association has been running a name-that-turkey contest for state residents, and the White House will ostensibly select the birds' names from their short list. Last year President Obama pardoned a California turkey named Apple, and his alternate was Cider. President Obama's 2009 turkey, raised in North Carolina, was named Courage, and his double, though also a tom, was Carolina. Other Presidential turkey duos have been named Marshmallow and Yam, Flyer and Fryer, Pumpkin and Pecan. (Above: The Presidential Flock)
After the ceremony, the turkeys will live out their days in the nationally recognized livestock facility at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, the glorious, historically preserved farm/estate of the first American President, George Washington. It's located in Virginia, about a half hour from the White House. Apple and Cider were sent there last year, in a first for National Turkey duos; previously, the birds were sent to be the Grand Marshals of the Disneyland Thanksgiving Parade.
Related: In 2009, President Obama's first pardoning ceremony was held under the North Portico, because it was raining. Much more about the history of presidents and turkeys is in this post.
*Top photo by pool; others courtesy of Minnesota Turkey Growers Association