So far, this Minnesota turkey is one lucky bird

(MCT) – Preparing a turkey for 15 minutes of fame, it turns out, is a lot more involved than preparing it for the oven. Not that the turkey should complain.
Nov 28, 2013
(Olivier Douliery • Abaca Press • MCT) President Barack Obama pardons the 2013 National Thanksgiving Turkey Popcorn during the annual event Wednesday on the North Portico of the White House in Washington.

(MCT) – Preparing a turkey for 15 minutes of fame, it turns out, is a lot more involved than preparing it for the oven. Not that the turkey should complain.

In a monthslong effort mindful of "American Idol" only with much higher stakes, a select group of turkeys – now down to three -- on a farm in far northwestern Minnesota has been in training for the opportunity to earn a pardon at the White House next Wednesday from President Obama.

The turkey presentation ritual dates to 1947, giving presidents since Harry Truman a chance to reflect on the meaning of Thanksgiving – and send one lucky bird to an easy life free of bread stuffing nightmares. It officially became a pardon under President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

John and Joni Burkel and their five children (kindergarten to college age) have been preparing the "presidential flock" of turkeys since they arrived as day-old poults in July. Away from the large, low-slung turkey barns clustered on their farm in Badger, Minn., the turkeys live in a shed specially built to resemble a miniature White House complete with pillars. The Burkels and two birds will make the journey to Washington D.C., flying out of Grand Forks on Saturday. They will be joined by the senior class from Badger High School, all 16 of them.

John Burkel's election to the National Turkey Federation's executive board in 2007 meant that he would become chairman of the nationwide group this year.

"I've known for two years this was coming," he said, of the responsibility to provide the bird to be granted clemency. "But it's kind of been overwhelming."

The Burkels raise more than 70,000 turkeys on the farm each year, enough to feed about 2 million people, said Burkel, a fourth-generation turkey farmer. The presidential flock was selected from a promising-looking bunch of 80 (all toms, or males), which was winnowed down to three finalists.

"I pretty much know which two I'm taking to Washington," he said. One turkey is a backup; the pardoned turkey will move first to Mount Vernon until Christmas, then to Morven Park, a historic mansion and farm in Leesburg, Va.

Tending the special flock became part of the daily chores on the Burkel farm. The birds lived comfortably, soothed by the music of Vivaldi and John Mayer. Burkel was looking for a calm, unflappable demeanor, a willingness to sit still on a table, and a tolerance for commotion, flash of cameras and being handled by people.

"What really helped me whittle them down is which ones matured the fastest, which ones cooperated with me the most," he said. Mature birds developed a social quality, which made them more cooperative. "Those are the ones I got more attached to."

The goal is to have a smooth, incident-free presentation to the president. "It comes down to being able to pick them up without getting a wing in the face," he said.

School days

One of those turkey semifinalists has been making the rounds of Twin Cities schools, including on Tuesday morning in Sally Hopkinson's fourth-grade classroom at Nativity of Our Lord School in St. Paul. The presentation, led by Steve Olson and Erica Nelson from the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association (MTGA), included lessons on raising turkeys, their role in Minnesota's economy and insights into where the food on their table comes from.

All that's left, Burkel said, is naming the two turkeys. The MTGA also ran a naming contest for the two birds on its website, with the three finalists sent to the White House for a final decision: Viking & Gunnar; Gobblynob & Butterfluff; and Ole & Sven.

As for the little White House on the Burkel farm, it will become a garden shed – something Burkel said his wife has wanted and is a 25th anniversary gift. "We're only going to do this once, so we wanted to do something memorable," he said.

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