Two Foster Farms turkeys were selected Thursday morning for an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. They’ll stay at The Willard hotel, where Barack Obama spent the night before being inaugurated, take a motorcade to the White House and visit the Rose Garden, where – and here’s the real prize – one will be presented as the National Thanksgiving Turkey and receive a presidential pardon. The second, or backup, turkey also will be spared.
The selection of the two turkeys was made with great fanfare Thursday at a ranch on Wellsford Road in Modesto. Fifth-graders from Eisenhut Elementary, dressed head to toe in biosecurity gear, got to weigh in on the turkeys selected from 20 finalists. The kids were given little U.S. flags and Foster Farms Imposter Turkey plush toys. When the two birds, for now dubbed Tom 1 and Tom 2, were selected, they were placed in a cage bearing the Seal of the National Turkey of the United States. No eagle on this official-looking seal, though, but rather a turkey in a Pilgrim hat.
Readying the candidates for selection of the presidential turkey is a 17-week process, said Joe Hedden, Foster Farms “growout” manager, who was in charge of raising and training the birds.
All the presidential turkey finalists are of the breed Nicholas White, which originated in the Sonoma Valley. The feathers have no pigment, so neither does the skin, meaning it browns evenly when cooked, said Foster Farms spokesman Ira Brill. With bronze or black turkeys, that feather pigmentation carries over to the skin.
Yes, in addition to a turkey hitting a weight of about 40 pounds and having impressive posture, gait, personality and plumage, Hedden said, the bird has to be socialized for the White House presentation and all that comes before it.
Monday, the birds’ journey begins with a motorcade to San Francisco International Airport to board a United flight dubbed Turkey One. “Temperament really matters because there will be probably 100 people plus media at the Rose Garden,” said Foster Farms spokesman Ira Brill. “You want the ceremony to go right. One year, the bird they were to give to President Reagan got a little agitated, so they had to use the backup bird.”
This year’s finalists were exposed to regular radio play, to accustom them to different voices and sounds, and were handled – picked up, led around, etc. – twice a day. “They become a pet more than a farm animal,” said Hedden, a third-generation turkey farmer, adding that it’s a great honor to play a role in a tradition that goes back to 1947. “I can say I’m one of the people who’s helped raise a presidential turkey.”
And while there’s no denying the selection and pardoning of a presidential turkey is a media event, it’s also the real deal. After its pardon, the chosen turkey (and its backup) goes to live out its natural life at the Turkey Hill Farm in Morven Park, on the northern edge of Leesburg, Va., which once was the home of Virginia Gov. Westmoreland Davis.
Selection of the poultry producer that raises the presidential turkey is made by the National Turkey Federation’s executive committee chairman. This year, the chairman is Dr. Jihad Douglas, president of Aviagen Turkeys Inc., a Redondo Beach a supplier of turkey breeding stock.
Foster Farms spokesman Ira Brill shared this presidential turkey joke: If turkeys could talk, they’d say, “If nominated, I will not run. If selected, I will not be served.”
As a California resident, he said, he wanted to partner with another California company in presenting the presidential turkey. He approached Foster Farms, which also supplied the bird in 2010.
The selection of Tom 1 and Tom 2 was made by Hedden and staff, but the Eisenhut students were “pretty good handicappers,” Brill said.
“They pretty quickly got an understanding of what we were looking for in size, strutting and other criteria,” Hedden said.
The kids chanted “Turkey, turkey, turkey” as birds were paraded before them. They called out impromptu names like “Gobble” and, when a turkey would ruffle its feathers impressively, “Showoff.”
Like little emperors choosing the fates of gladiators in an arena, some gave thumbs up or thumbs down to the birds. There were judgments called out, such as “Too small!”
Student Adia Jones, pointing at Tom 1 after he was declared best of the best, said, “I voted for that one because it liked to show off.”
But not all the kids voted for the birds they thought were the best. “I was voting for one of the nervous ones,” said Jenna Shana, “because I think every turkey should be given a chance.”
To learn more, visit presidentialturkey.com.
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327