Minnesota turkey goes up for presidential pardon

Turkey hangout
Badger, Minn., farmer John Burkel built a special backyard shed to train turkeys for a Thanksgiving presidential pardon ceremony.
Shane Reetz/ For MPR News

BADGER, Minn. -- What does it take to be the nation's top turkey? Turns out, it takes some pluck.

"You can kind of tell who's the one," said John Burkel as he walked among six toms living the dream in a small backyard training facility he built just for them on his northern Minnesota farm. "I'd like to get him comfortable enough that he goes into full proud, where they display all the feathers and really gives you the tough guy look."

One of Burkel's birds will stand still, hopefully, next week on a White House table, let out a few well-timed gobbles and not interrupt or attack the president. For that, he'll be pardoned, spend the holidays at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate and then retire to a Virginia farm.

Preparing an adolescent-aged turkey with raging hormones to calmly withstand the hubbub of a White House ceremony takes some work.

Burkel and his five kids spent a lot of time with the turkeys the past few weeks. They fired camera strobes. They've played music ranging from Vivaldi to John Mayer to rap.

Sometimes, he said, he'll catch the turkeys gobbling along with the music.

"I think it really comes down to how they respond to you and will they let you handle them and getting them used to sitting on top of the table and will they stand still," said Burkel, who leads the National Turkey Federation this year and will be part of the turkey entourage at the White House.

While the Thanksgiving holiday dates back to Abraham Lincoln, the tradition of a farmer presenting a turkey to the president began with Harry Truman in 1947. The official pardon became part of the tradition in 1989.

Turkey on the table
This tom turkey appears to contemplate his fate November 8th on the John Burkel farm near Badger, Minn., as he practices standing on a table in preparation for a Thanksgiving presidential pardon ceremony.
Dan Gunderson/ MPR News

The tradition, though, brings with it unpredictability. Most of the turkeys raised by farmers are hens. But the male or 'tom' turkey is chosen for the pardoning ceremony because it's more colorful and looks more like a traditional Thanksgiving turkey. The wrong bird can make a mess of the ceremony.

"It really is about sexual maturity," said Burkel, referring to the turkeys. "They're ready to... they'd love to have a hen in here, let's put it that way. Yeah, they're just displaying really, showing who's the tough guy on the block."

While the music and noise training help get the birds ready, Burkel also has a secret weapon: children.

On this day, 15 second-graders from nearby Badger Elementary School line up outside, the turkeys start to strut their stuff.

"It's really helped to have elementary kids come out," he said. "The kindergarten class really had them going. When these kids come and start talking to them, they'll gobble. They always do."

The students lean on the fence and chatter excitedly. Burkel scooped up his favorite tom and put him on the table where the bird stood a bit uneasily, keeping an eye on the students.

If the turkey manages second-graders, he should be OK for a calm peaceful meeting with the president next week that will lead to the bird's freedom.

His fowl colleagues on Burkel's farm near the Canadian border may not be so lucky this holiday season, although they are expected to be delicious.