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Presidential turkeys visit North Trail Elementary

Two Minnesota turkeys will be spared a Thanksgiving dinner fate after they receive pardons from President Barack Obama Wednesday. This week, North Trail Elementary School first and second graders got to meet one of the two Presidential turkeys.

Tom the Turkey and friends from the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association stopped at North Trail Thursday morning to gobble up a little time with students before heading to Washington, D.C., to meet the President.

Tom and his friend, Tom, are the only two turkeys selected to receive the Presidential pardon, which they will receive during a pre-Thanksgiving ceremony next Wednesday.

According to MTGA executive director Steve Olson, the Presidential pardon of turkeys is a tradition that started in 1947, when Harry S Truman was President. Though the Truman Library has no such records, many sources believe the tradition started while Truman was in office. What is for sure, though, is that the National Turkey Federation presented Truman with a turkey in 1947. Some presidents in the 64-year history chose to eat the birds, but in 1989, George H. W. Bush officially pardoned the first turkey, saving it from becoming Thanksgiving dinner.

The tradition of the National Turkey Federation giving a turkey and an alternate to the President of the United States has carried on. Typically, Olson said, the Presidential flock is raised by the NTF chairman. This year's chairman is from Willmar.

This is the tenth time a Minnesota turkey grower's birds have been given to the President, Olson said, because 10 NTF leaders have come from the state. Producing more than 46 million turkeys annually, Minnesota's turkey industry is the largest in the United States. Olson credits that to the number of third- and fourth-generation turkey growers in the state, as well as the easy access to corn and soybeans - a turkey's food of choice.

When the Presidential flocks come from this state, it allows the Minnesota Turkey Grower's Association the opportunity to teach a little bit about who they are and what they do.

"We're fortunate to have a holiday that teaches our product," Olson said.

When it became evident Minnesota would be home to the Presidential flock, the MTGA started to look for schools that promoted agriculture education. They came up with a list of about 15 schools, which was then narrowed to six. North Trail Elementary was on that list.

"Farmington has done a lot with agriculture in the classroom," Olson said. "The schools here have been a real advocate for agriculture so it was a natural fit."

Tom the Turkey is white, not one of those colorful Bronze turkeys so often associated with the holiday. Actually, Olson said, the Bronze turkeys are more native to Minnesota turkeys, but spots from where tail feathers had almost stained the meat made some think the turkey meat was bad. Over time, through selective breeding, the white turkeys became the norm for holiday meals.

In preparation for their time to talk turkey with the President, Tom and Tom have been socialized by members of Willmar's FFA chapter. By nature, turkeys are curious creatures, Olson said, but they also get nervous around flocks of humans. The FFA students have been handling the birds, spraying them with water to keep them cool and playing music for them. By doing those types of exercises, turkeys are more prone to stay put when they're put on exhibit or pardoned, as the case may be.

When Tom and Tom get to the White House next Wednesday, President Obama will give them their new, official names during the ceremony - another custom that has emerged over time. Last year's Presidential turkey was named Apple, and his alternate was named Cider. Others have been named Marshmallow and Yam, Flyer and Fryer and Pumpkin and Pecan.

The ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday morning. After they've received their pardons, Tom and Tom will be retired to a livestock habitat at Mount Vernon, where they will reside for the remainder of their lives.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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