Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Today: President Obama Will Pardon "Liberty," The 2011 National Thanksgiving Turkey

After a night at the W hotel, the glorious Minnesota gobbler is ready to make history...
UPDATE, Nov. 23: Read about the perfect Pardon Ceremony
Liberty is the name of the 2011 National Thanksgiving Turkey that President Obama will pardon at 10:30 AM this morning during a special ceremony under the North Portico at the White House, it can now be revealed. Ahead of his star turn in the decades-long White House tradition, started in 1947, the magnificent, 20-week-old, 45-lb Minnesota tom made his Washington debut on Tuesday afternoon, acting impressively regal--and calm--as he met the media and a handful of excited tourists in the rooftop lounge at the W, the tony Washington, DC hotel. (Above: Liberty looks out at the White House, before enjoying special W "gourmet" turkey chow)

With 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue glimmering in the foggy distance, the fine fellow strutted his stuff for close to an hour, joined by the four FFA (Future Farmers of America) teens who have raised him under the guidance of National Turkey Federation chairman Richard Huisinga, co-owner of Willmar Poultry Farms, in Willmar, Minnesota. That's where the tom was hatched on July 7th, into a special Presidential Flock with 34 companions. Liberty's alternate is Peace, and he also stayed at the W, and will be at the White House today. They're "hybrid broad-breasted white” turkeys.

This year marks the 64th anniversary of the Federation's National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation and Pardon.

Last week, a different tom from the Presidential Flock got a little feisty during a pardon ceremony with Minnesota's Governor Mark Dayton, flapping his wings and astonishing the gathered crowd in a momentary escape attempt. But Liberty was a model citizen during his Tuesday debut. The months of training the FFA students have poured into prepping him for the Pardon Ceremony have paid off: The glorious gobbler was immune to the noise and flash photography surrounding him as he met his enthusiastic public. Above, from left, the FFA students are Preston Asche, Brenna Ahlquist, Brianna Hoover, and Val Brown.

In addition to their care duties for the Presidential Flock, the teens spent weeks sitting in the two huge pens where the gobblers lived at Agforte farm, getting the toms used to human contact--as well as plenty of noise and lights.

"We played ringtones, and flashed cameras at them," said Hoover.

Led Zeppelin's song "Kashmir" got an especially big response from the toms, said Willmar's Jenn Baumgartner, who joined the kids as a chaperone.

The turkeys have very distinct personalities, said Brown.

"They're very smart, and curious. Some were more aggressive than others."

The toms were driven to DC in a special van that replicated their living quarters; their human counterparts flew.

Turkey room service? Yes, says the W...
Why was the turkey meet n' greet at the W hotel? Liberty stayed there ahead of his Presidential moment, of course. Yes, really: For the second year in a row, the W--which has both a good sense of humor and a strong devotion to US history--ensconced Liberty and Peace in a special room, from which furniture had been removed so they could spend the night in the lap of luxury. The National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation and Pardon ceremony has gone on through 11 Administrations, a tradition started in 1947. The W was thrilled to host the turkeys, said Ed Baten, the W's General Manager. The hotel gets an incredible amount of publicity by playing up the "pampered poultry" angle.

During his media meet n' greet, Liberty dined on gourmet turkey chow, "specially prepared by the hotel chef," said Baten, with a blend or organic soy beans and cranberries. Minus a spa visit, the turkeys were afforded all the amenities that guests enjoy at the W, Baten said, and laughed when asked if the minibar in the birds' room was intact: No, the turkeys were not enjoying shots of Wild Turkey during their visit, Baten said.

The turkeys actually spend the night in a room that has been cleared of most furniture, with a special enclosure installed so they don't injure themselves. The floor is covered with straw and bedding. They eat their regular turkey chow, lest they get ill.

Today marks the 12th time a Minnesota turkey receives a Presidential pardon, something President Obama joked during last year's ceremony is "one of the most important duties that I carry out as President." 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. (Above: President Obama pardoning Apple the turkey in 2010)

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. The US produces 244 million turkeys a year; Willmar sells about 600,000 poults weekly. Americans will eat 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving Day. 2005 was the last year a Minnesota bird had the distinction of a Presidential pardon.

The Pardon ceremony is typically held in the Rose Garden, though in 2009 President Obama granted his first turkey pardon from beneath the safety of the North Portico, because it was raining. The historic "front porch" of the White House, the North Portico is where world leaders arrive to enter the halls of power. Today's ceremony will be under the North Portico, too: It's been raining for two days in DC. Liberty will no doubt perform just fine, inclement weather notwithstanding.

What happens to the rest of the Presidential Flock?
The remaining members of Willmar's Presidential Flock will be "processed" next week, and donated to a local food pantry in Willmar, said Steven H. Olson, Executive Director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. They'll be providing sustenance for hundreds of families. The teens, after their months of close contact with the birds, are unperturbed by the prospect of bidding their companions farewell.

"It's part of the education element of the FFA program," said Olson. "These kids were raising food animals. That's something that's important for everyone: Knowing where your food comes from."

A life at Mount Vernon...
Knowing where your food is going is also important. After President Obama grants his pardon, Liberty and Peace will not be processed. 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. The bird will be on display during the seasonal holiday program, Christmas At Mount Vernon, through Jan. 6, 2012. The historically preserved plantation estate is located in Virginia, about a half hour from the White House. The President's 2010 turkeys, Apple and his alternate 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.

Apple and Cider died last March, according to a Mount Vernon spokesman, living for less than a year after their Presidential pardon. Like Liberty and Peace, they were also "hybrid broad- breasted white" turkeys, and these birds are bred solely to be food animals, gaining weight fast and having a short life span. Liberty and Peace are expected to live no more than a year, according to a Willmar spokesman.

Related: Much more about the history of presidents and turkeys is in this post.

Update: The First Family visited Capital Area Food Bank on Wednesday afternoon to participate in a Thanksgiving community service event, helping pack holiday meals for the needy. The 2011 White House Thanksgiving menu is here.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama