ALEXANDRIA, MINN. – There will be no controversy over this presidential pardon.
A Minnesota-bred gobbler will be officially named the national Thanksgiving turkey next week and receive a pardon from President Donald Trump at a White House ceremony on Tuesday.
But it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.
Minnesota, the nation’s No. 1 turkey producer, actually is sending two birds to Washington. They’ll travel by truck in carriers emblazoned with the “Seal of the National Turkey of the United States.”
Only one will get the pardon, however, with the other standing by in case of an accident or barnyard scandal. Which bird gets picked will be decided by the White House. If it were up to the birds’ foster parents here in Douglas County, they’d pick Bow, a 36-pound showoff who loves to strut, preen and dance to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill songs.
“He’s got more personality,” said Kodi Bundermann, one of five local 4-H members who helped raise the two 20-week-old toms from birth. Tie, Bow’s brother, “is more of a follower,” she added. But at 47 pounds, he’s the bigger bird.
The birds were raised in a special “presidential suite” on the farm of Carl and Sharlene Wittenburg in rural Alexandria. Carl Wittenburg, a second-generation turkey farmer, is this year’s chairman of the National Turkey Federation, and the honor of providing the national bird always goes to the chairman’s home state.
The presidential flock started with 80 poults, or young turkeys, and was whittled down to 30, then to seven before the Wittenburgs and the 4-Hers chose two birds for the White House. A third flockmate also was honored, going to St. Paul on Friday for a Thanksgiving ceremony with Gov. Mark Dayton.
The National Turkey Federation began presenting a bird to the White House in 1947, with President Harry Truman getting the first one. For years after that, the national turkeys were destined for the dinner table. That changed in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush began the tradition of issuing a pardon.
This year marks the 13th time Minnesota has provided the presidential bird.
Several of the five Douglas County 4-Hers who raised the presidential birds this year live on farms, but none was familiar with turkeys. They were selected after completing a Science of Agriculture Challenge sponsored by 4-H and the University of Minnesota Extension.
“We knew nothing about turkeys,” said Christina Kuismi, whose family raises goats, rabbits and chickens. “This has been an awesome learning experience. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
With guidance from the Wittenburgs, the 4-Hers — all high school girls — showed up at the farm five days a week to care for the turkeys. They monitored the birds’ food and water, cleaned the pen and got the birds used to being around people. They even taught the turkeys to gobble on command.
“My 4-year-old cousin was here and she hurt her leg and started to cry,” Bundermann said. “When she did that, the turkeys started gobbling. So I started doing a kind of fake cry to get them to gobble.”
They placed a radio in the suite and experimented with different music.
“We’ve concluded their favorites are country and classic rock,” Kuismi said. “They like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. They strut and gobble like their own dance party.”
The birds are friendly but mischievous. They love to peck at rings, hair, zippers and shoelaces. “They’re very good at untying shoelaces, but they haven’t learned to tie them,” said 4-Her Kerryn Lund.
The Wittenburgs and the 4-H girls — Katie Kent and Kayla Egenes round out the group — will all be onstage at Tuesday’s White House ceremony before returning to Minnesota. But the birds won’t go home with them. To forestall any risk of bringing back disease, the turkeys will live out their expected two-year life span at Virginia Tech University with last year’s national birds, Tater and Tot.