Presidential Turkey Grower Joe Hedden Takes Our Questions, Plus: Did You Know That Turkeys Like Country Music?

The pardoning of the presidential turkey is a Thanksgiving tradition as beloved as ogling parade floats and eating pie. But how much do we really know about these remarkable birds?
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The pardoning of the presidential turkey is a Thanksgiving tradition as familiar and beloved as ogling giant parade floats and eating way too much pie. But how much do we really know about it?

Some say the POTUS turkey pardon traces its origins back to Abraham Lincoln, who, legend has it, once pardoned a turkey destined for his family’s Thanksgiving table after his son Tad made an impassioned argument that the bird should be allowed to live. Maybe.

What’s more certain is that handpicked Thanksgiving birds have been presented to presidents since 1893, that the National Turkey Federation took over the honors in 1947, and that, in most cases, the turkeys ended up on the presidents’ holiday tables, served up with all the trimmings. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy unofficially pardoned the turkey presented to him — “We’ll just let this one grow,” he said — and sent it back to the farm from which it came. Subsequent presidential turkeys were then sent on to a local petting farm, and in 1989 President George H.W. Bush made the presidential turkey pardon official.

Historically, the pardoning ceremony takes place shortly before Thanksgiving in the White House Rose Garden, although inclement weather has, on occasion, prompted a change of venue, as in 2009, when President Obama had to move it to the North Portico. Perhaps the location change made the president peckish, because he remarked that he had been tempted to eat the “good-lookin’ bird,” named Courage, but, “thanks to the intervention of Malia and Sasha,” the turkey’s life would be spared.

This year, the presidential turkey will be chosen from a flock of 50 toms currently being raised expressly for this purpose by Foster Farms, a family farm in California’s Central Valley, which also provided the presidential turkey in 2010.

Joe Hedden, presidential turkey grower and a third-generation turkey farmer with Foster Farms, has overseen the care, feeding and special training of this year’s flock. He took time away from his second go at raising the First Bird to answer a few of our questions.

FN Dish: What qualities do the birds in this flock have that make them ideal for this honor?

Joe Hedden: The presidential turkey flock was hand-selected from a larger Foster Farms flock. We chose the top 50 “semifinalists” with the best posture, feathering and sociability.

Tell us about the turkeys in this year’s presidential flock.

JH: The turkeys in the presidential flock are currently 16 weeks old. Two from the flock of 50 presidential hopefuls will be selected to go to Washington, D.C. They are all male toms that are around the same size. By the time they reach the White House they will weigh about 40 pounds.

How are they being prepared for their roles as “public figures”?

JH: Turkeys in the presidential flock are socialized to prepare them for the national spotlight. Turkeys are curious by nature and social with each other but not necessarily with people, so we socialize them by exposing them to large groups of people, talking to the birds, holding and petting them and even playing music. Country music is their favorite.

What will the final selection process be like? Is there an event, like a beauty pageant, where they’ll be judged on specific criteria?

JH: The flock will be narrowed down to 15 to 20 final candidates. Foster Farms will host a selection event, as we get closer to Thanksgiving, where the birds will strut their stuff. Turkeys will be viewed by me and my team and the chairman of the National Turkey Federation. Central Valley elementary students will also be participating. The birds will be judged based on four criteria, including gait, posture, feathering and sociability. They also should be outgoing and maybe a bit boisterous but, of course, well-mannered. The two birds with the highest scores will be presented to President Obama.

Is the turkeys’ everyday routine very different from that of other turkeys?

JH: The National Thanksgiving Turkeys that President Obama pardons are no different than any other bird raised on Foster Farms’ turkey farms. They live in a large open-air barn, without cages, that is climate-controlled, with continuous access to fresh water and vitamin-rich feed. Like all Foster Farms turkeys, the presidential turkeys spend their days wing flapping, feather ruffling, leg stretching and dust bathing. The only difference is that they socialize more with groups of people, they are held and petted, exposed to louder noises and listen to music so they are more comfortable in a public setting.

How will the presidential turkeys get their official names?

JH: As part of Foster Farms’ work with California Agriculture in the Classroom, California elementary students have submitted suggested pairs of names. A short list was submitted to the White House, and they will select the two finalist names. Just before Thanksgiving, the White House will have a contest on Twitter to determine the final name. Until then, they are being referred to as Tom 1 and Tom 2.

What will their travel accommodations be like? We hear they travel on an airplane called “Turkey One” (and they say turkeys can’t fly) and get a fancy motorcade.

JH: Once we make the selection, the presidential turkey and its alternate will fly to Washington, D.C., on a United Airlines flight deemed “Turkey One.” They will be transported in customized carriers and accompanied by bodyguards to the airport. They will be met and whisked away to the Willard Hotel, across from the White House, where they will stay in a special suite. The presidential turkeys will meet the international press before being pardoned by the president.

Will they visit any sites besides the White House while they are in D.C.?

JH: The presidential turkeys meet the president and his daughters prior to the pardoning ceremony and following the event will head straight to Morven Park’s Turkey Hill Farm, [their permanent home] in Virginia.

What are the turkeys’ Thanksgiving plans?

JH: The pardoned turkeys’ plans for Thanksgiving include a deep sigh of relief, celebratory flap of their wings and strut to explore their home at Morven Park’s Turkey Hill.

What will happen to the turkeys in the flock that are not selected?

JH: The turkeys in the flock not selected will live out their days in the presidential turkey barn in California’s Central Valley.

Photos courtesy of Foster Farms
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