Minnesota turkeys headed to White House for presidential pardon

Turkey hangout
After the White House ceremony, the turkeys will return to Minnesota, where they’ll live out their lives at the University of Minnesota.
Shane Reetz for MPR News 2013

They’re definitely lucky ducks — or rather, lucky turkeys.

Two turkeys from west-central Minnesota are headed to the White House to receive an official Thanksgiving pardon from President Joe Biden.

The birds hatched in July on a farm near Willmar, Minn., that’s part of the Jennie-O Turkey Store, a subsidiary of Hormel.

Jennie-O's president, Steve Lykken, also is this year's chairman of the National Turkey Federation. He said the turkeys are getting a luxury trip to the nation’s capital in a stretch black Cadillac Escalade.

“They’ve already had one hotel stay,” Lykken said. “And they’re on their way in a pretty lavish coach, to be honest.”

Lykken said the turkeys will receive a red carpet greeting at the luxury Willard Intercontinental hotel in Washington, D.C. They also will appear at a press conference on Sunday before the official pardoning ceremony on the White House lawn.

The tradition of a U.S. president sparing a turkey from the Thanksgiving dinner table dates back to the Harry Truman administration, and became a regular tradition in the 1980s. Jennie-O last sent turkeys to the White House 30 years ago.

“I think it’s a great honor for anyone involved in this kind of business, which is a difficult business. It’s not five days a week,” Lykken said. “We’re super thankful to have this opportunity to showcase really what our teams of people do every single day.”

Minnesota is the nation’s largest turkey-producing state. Stearns County tops the list of turkey-raising counties, with Kandiyohi — home of Jennie-O — is a close second.

“For turkeys grown in the great state of Minnesota to go to the White House for the ultimate honor of being pardoned by the president is wonderful for the turkey industry,” said Ashley Kohls, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.

The positive attention is especially welcome given the destructive avian influenza outbreak of the past two years, she said. The total number of domestic birds killed in this fall’s outbreak in Minnesota now tops 1.5 million.

“There’s been a lot of heavy news and heavy items that we’ve had to deal with,” Kohls said. “So to have something that’s fun, that can draw positive attention to our industry, is very welcomed.”

Kohls said avian flu is not a food safety issue, and people can eat turkey this Thanksgiving with confidence that it’s safe.

“We also remind folks that turkey growers work year round in regards to biosecurity, to prevent anything from making their bird sick,” she said. “Their number one goal always is to have happy, healthy birds in their barn.”

Not everyone plans to eat turkey this holiday. The animal welfare group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, staged events in the Twin Cities urging people to enjoy a vegan meal this year. 

Lykken said people have a right to choose what they eat.

“If people want to be vegetarian, I think that’s fantastic. That’s certainly their choice,” he said. “To us, this is about a different time, and not to get into that debate. It’s a special opportunity, and that’s what we’re really looking forward to.”

After the White House ceremony, the turkeys will return to Minnesota, where they’ll live out their lives at the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, cared for by veterinary students and professionals, Lykken said.

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