Thursday, November 21, 2013

President Obama To Be Presented With Minnesota Turkey At 2013 Thanksgiving Pardon Ceremony

Burkel with a tom from his Presidential Flock
Fourth-generation farmer John Burkel raised the Presidential Flock; White House ceremony will be the twelfth starring a tom from the North Star State, the nation's largest turkey producer...
Washington, DC - A tom from Badger, Minnesota, will be offered a holiday pardon from President Barack Obama next Wednesday, Nov. 27 during the 2013 National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation.  

The bird has been raised by fourth-generation turkey farmer John Burkel, current Chairman of the National Turkey Federation, which annually orchestrates the ritual.

The White House tradition, started in 1947, is now in its 66th year.  A second tom will also receive clemency from President Obama; an alternate always accompanies the principal to the White House, in case anything should go awry.  

The toms hatched on July 8th, and are part of a six-member Presidential Flock that Burkel has honed from a group of eighty original contenders, said Lara Durben, a spokesman for the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association (MTGA).

Burkel annually raises approximately 70,000 turkey hens for Northern Pride, Inc., a grower-owned turkey processing facility in Thief River Falls, founded in 1989.

The White House honor is big news for the tiny town of Badger, population 375 in the 2010 census and located in the farthest reaches of rural Minnesota in Roseau County, just miles from the Canadian border.  

But offering Presidents fine young toms is now a longstanding tradition for the North Star State, the nation's largest turkey producer.  Burkel and his turkeys will be the twelfth team of Minnesotans honored with a White House visit.

"Our first was in 1949 with President Truman," said Durben.  "We're thrilled."

The toms are the second Minnesota duo for President Obama, who pardoned Liberty and his alternate Peace during the 2011 ceremony.  They were raised in Wilmar, Minn.  

Burkel and wife Joni have five kids ranging in age from kindergarten through college, including daughter Andrea, a senior in high school.  Vanessa, a college sophomore, Alex, a high school sophomore, Jack, 5th grade, and Emily, kindergarten, will all travel to the White House to meet the President.

So, too will Badger High School's entire Class of 2014--all fifteen of them, Durben said. On Friday, Nov. 22, the Presidential turkeys will get a send-off at Badger High; Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, the comic-turned-lawmaker, will attend, as will Robert Bergland, the 20th Secretary of Agriculture who served under President Jimmy Carter.
  A tom strolls in front of the turkey house
Special training for the big day...
Burkel is keeping his Presidential turkeys in a special heated garden shed on his farm that looks like a cottage, complete with patriotic bunting on the windows.  As with all turkeys who get a reprieve from the Thanksgiving table, Burkel and his kids are teaching the flock to be unflappable for the Rose Garden ceremony.  

The chosen tom will be required to stand calmly on a table as President Obama grants the pardon.  So the birds are being exposed to bright lights and loud noises to replicate the experience of being surrounded by an excited crowd of White House guests and a huge scrum of media with flashbulbs popping.  

Other than that, the birds are being raised the same way as other turkeys headed for market, with a diet of turkey feed made of corn and soy, Durben said.

MTGA ran a Facebook contest to generate a list of potential names for the turkey pair for the White House, and the top three contenders from the state that is known for its Scandinavian heritage are Viking & Gunnar, Gobblynob & Butterfluff, and Ole & Sven.  The White House is expected to announce the names of the duo on Tuesday, Nov. 26.

Burkel kids Andrea & Alex training one of the toms
Special accommodations...
Ahead of the White House ceremony, the Burkels and the birds will be treated to a stay at the historic Willard hotel in DC, a change from past years when the turkeys and their entourages were ensconced at the W hotel.  The Willard is located a block from the White House campus.

After the ceremony, the pardoned birds will be on display to the public at President George Washington's historic Mont Vernon Estate and Gardens in Alexandria, Virginia for the Christmas at Mount Vernon program, which runs Nov. 29-Jan. 6, 2014.  

In a change from a practice that began with the 2010 ceremony, this year's pardoned birds will not live at Mount Vernon after the holidays.  Instead, their "permanent" home will be at Morven Park in Leesburg, VA, said Keith Williams, a spokesman for the National Turkey Federation.  

Mount Vernon has decided to no longer house pardoned turkeys after Christmas because they are not historically accurate, Williams told Obama Foodorama (read about that issue here).  

MTGA's Facebook graphic for the turkey naming contest
The Minnesota gobblers online..
MTGA is hosting and maintaining a special section on its website chronicling the Burkel project at  It includes pictures, video and a weekly blog written by the Burkel family chronicling the care, management, and the flock's visitors.  They're also on Facebook at and Twitter @MinnesotaTurkey.  

President Kennedy at the 1963 ceremony
 66 years of tradition...
All of President Obama's pardoned birds are now dead, including the Virginia pair pardoned in 2012, Cobbler and alternate Gobbler, 2010's California pair Apple and alternate Cider, and 2009's North Carolina pair, Courage and Carolina, as well as  Minnesota's Liberty and Peace (read more on the topic here).

Over the decades of the White House turkey presentation tradition, some Presidents have eaten their birds, or donated them to be eaten.  In 1963, just four days before his assassination, on Nov. 18 President John F. Kennedy was famously given a bird that had a sign hung around its neck with a string.  It read "Good eating, Mr. President!"  Kennedy did not grant the bird an official pardon, but responded "Let's just keep him."

It wasn't until 1989 when President George H.W. Bush granted clemency to his presentation turkey that the tradition of the annual pardon began, the White House says. Every President since has offered the presentation turkeys a reprieve from the Thanksgiving table.

The National Turkey Federation estimates that more than 46 million turkeys will be eaten this Thanksgiving.  In 2011, more than 248.5 million turkeys were raised in the US, with more than 219 million consumed, says the Federation.
  *Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and John Burkel; Kennedy photo from the National Archives