Turkeys must strut stuff

MINNEAPOLIS — What makes a good presidential turkey? Showmanship. A readiness to strut his stuff and gobble on command, yet enough restraint to stay on a table for the big photo op.

So say a Minnesota turkey farmer and 4-H kids who raised the turkey that will go to the White House for an official pardon from President Donald Trump today. It’s the 70th anniversary of the National Thanksgiving Turkey tradition.

Here’s a little deeper look at the event and what goes into it:

The tradition

White House archives show that Americans have sent presidents holiday turkeys at least since 1873 under President Ulysses S. Grant. But the National Thanksgiving Turkey dates from 1947, when the National Turkey Federation became the official supplier and presented a 47-pound gobbler to President Harry Truman. In those days the turkeys were destined for dinner.

Formal pardons began with President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

Minnesota’s gobblers

The perk of taking presidential turkeys to Washington goes to the chairman of the National Turkey Federation. This year that’s Carl Wittenburg, from the Minnesota town of Alexandria.

Wittenburg recruited five Douglas County 4-H members to help. Now they’re all going to the White House to help oversee the bird, though Wittenburg’s 19-year-old son, Wyatt, will lift it up onto the table.

The Wittenburgs raised the presidential flock on their hobby farm near Alexandria. The birds hatched in late June. The star and an understudy who would step in if there’s a last-minute problem will be around 47 and 37 pounds respectively by pardoning time.

The stars

The team selected the two best birds from a flock of about 20, They looked for showmanship and character with an absence of any stage fright, Wittenburg said. They wanted turkeys that would strut and gobble for the cameras and the president yet remain calm on the table, he said.

The birds got officially named Drumstick and Wishbone on Monday, and the White House opened a Twitter poll on which one Trump should pardon. They stayed at a hotel near the White House for the run-up to the big show. A flock-mate was pardoned by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday.

The presidential birds will finish out their lives in leisure at Virginia Tech, joining the 2016 winners, Tater and Tot, at Gobbler’s Rest in Blacksburg. With luck, they might live another year or more. A few of their predecessors have hit the ripe old age of 2. Very few domestic turkeys live that long. The vast majority get sent to processing plants when they’re between 14 to 20 weeks old.

Turkey facts

Minnesota is the top turkey-producing state, with 450 farmers raising about 46 million turkeys this year. North Carolina is No. 2. They’re among six states that account for nearly two-thirds of U.S. turkey production. The others are Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri and Virginia.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that farmers will raise nearly 245 million turkeys this year. The National Turkey Federation estimates that Americans will eat about 46 million for Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas and 19 million for Easter. But most turkeys are destined to become deli meat, sausage and other products.

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