Cargill Puts Va. Turkeys Through Charm School Before Presidential Pardon at White House

11/17/2012 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

HINTON, Va. — This is Bob Evans’ recurring nightmare these days: chasing after a distraught turkey on the White House lawn, with the president of the United States looking on and the TV cameras rolling.

It’s not entirely a baseless fear.

Evans, a senior veterinarian for Cargill, will serve as turkey-handler-in-chief next week as part of a Shenandoah Valley delegation traveling to Washington, D.C., to present President Barack Obama with a Thanksgiving turkey.

And so, Evans — along with Cargill’s agriculture manager, Patrick Evick, and agriculture controller, Lee Ann Jackson — has started the presidential turkey flock on a daily training regimen, offering treats and gentle words as reward for good behavior as he handles them.

Jackson holds out a candy corn, but the turkeys show no interest. They are a bit more receptive to chocolate chips and M&Ms, but only a bit. Because this sort of thing isn’t part of Cargill’s standard production model, there’s an element of trial and error at work here.

Saltine crackers, fortunately, appear to be a clear hit, and are promptly designated the official training treat of the 2012 presidential turkey. Maybe, if all goes well, Jackson says, she’ll see if the president’s daughters want to give the turkey a saltine during the ceremony.

There are now 15 birds in the flock; very soon, they’re going to whittle that down to five or six real candidates. And on Monday, two — the No. 1 choice and the first alternate — will travel to Washington, where they’ll spend two days in a conference room at the posh W Hotel before their 15 minutes of fame at the White House on Wednesday.

After the traditional presidential pardon, both turkeys will live out their days on the grounds of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

Since July, Cargill grower Craig Miller has been raising the presidential turkey flock on his farm a few miles west of Harrisonburg. Miller, who has more than 25 years of experience in poultry and a farm within easy reach of Cargill’s Harrisonburg offices, also had the perfect place to keep the birds: a small old barn that used to house his kids’ 4-H livestock projects.

Miller first heard about the idea in February, when he got a call on the matter from Evick, who himself had just gotten a call on the matter from Steve Willardsen, the president of Cargill’s turkey division and this year’s chairman of the National Turkey Federation, who had been tasked with the special assignment of presenting the president a Thanksgiving turkey.

After Miller’s old barn got a bit of a facelift and remodel, 39 tom turkeys arrived July 13 — a Friday, as it happened. Miller fed them every day. He played them country music on the radio, and tried to keep a lid on the whole thing.

Once the party arrives at the hotel in Washington, the Secret Service is going to be keeping a close eye on everything, but before that, both Cargill and Miller wanted to minimize the chances that someone would monkey with the birds.

Through the summer and fall, the flock shrank as individual birds were pulled out for PR appearances at places like the county fair. (For biosecurity purposes, they can’t come back to Miller’s farm once they’ve left.)

As final cuts are about to be made, Miller and Evick are working to get another few members of the flock into local classrooms to educate kids about turkeys — another way of capitalizing on the distinction of raising the president’s turkey.

Cargill has been taking this very seriously.

“We just want it to be perfect,” said Jackson.

They’ve been having weekly conference calls to talk things over as Thanksgiving approaches.

“It’s an honor,” said Miller, who raises three flocks of turkey hens per year. “It’s not about politics. It’s about the National Turkey Federation and anything we can do to promote (our industry).”

He and his wife and their two children — who will fly home from Kansas and Montana — will also attend the White House ceremony.

“Our whole family is really excited about going,” he said.

As turkey training wraps up for the day, discussion turns to the Monday send-off event they’ll hold at the Ruritan park near Miller’s farm. Jackson, Evick, Evans and Miller review logistics, discussing where and how they’ll put the turkeys on display for the media, and where the band will set up. (The Broadway High School Gobblers were the natural choice.)

Evans, still wary of some spectacle unfolding under his watch in D.C., reminds them that delivering a healthy and happy turkey to the president is still the main objective.

He’s all for playing this up, but he’s worried about the toll it might take on his turkeys.

“We gotta have a live bird come Wednesday,” he reminds the group, as the daily training session winds to a close.

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