America’s turkey pardon is a silly tribute to big agriculture

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America’s turkey pardon is a fabulously silly tribute to big agriculture

The tradition likely doesn’t rank near the top of any president’s list of most important duties, but it’s one that no president has been willing to put a stop to.

America’s turkey pardon is a fabulously silly tribute to big agriculture
THE TURKEY

On Monday, President Joe Biden will pardon two turkeys, Chocolate and Chip, raised near Monroe, North Carolina, as part of an annual ceremony that has survived two of the presidents who started the tradition.

The National Turkey Federation has taken ownership of the turkey pardon, designating a “presidential” flock each year, in what they likely see as a great PR stunt for the industry.

The turkeys themselves get some prime treatment — a night at the Willard Intercontinental luxury hotel before the event.

The two turkeys pardoned this year will live out their days at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

THE STUFFING

Though President Abraham Lincoln is sometimes credited with inventing this tradition in 1863, according to the White House Historical Association, its origins are more modern, dating back merely to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

But there is an older tradition of simply giving a turkey to the White House. Organizations from around the country used to send turkeys to the president as early as 1914, often having a bit of fun with it. “A Harding Girls Club in Chicago outfitted a turkey as a flying ace, complete with goggles,” in the early 1920s, according to former White House curator Betty Monkman.

The present-day version of the turkey pardon, with the White House Press Corps gathering before Thanksgiving to watch the president let turkeys live out their days instead of landing on the dinner table, began with Bush in 1989, who was quipping about animal welfare activists protesting nearby, “But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy.”

Love it or hate it, we’ve been stuck with the event ever since.

A SIDE OF POLITICS

It’s a popular tradition that only gets good press

The annual turkey-pardoning tradition probably doesn’t rank near the top of any president’s list of most consequential presidential actions, but it’s one that no president has been willing to put a stop to. Even President Donald Trump, who broke all kinds of norms — like canceling the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, among others — stuck with the turkey pardon.

Our personal favorite: Watching President Barack Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, attend the turkey pardon for eight years — going from smiling young girls excited to be there to eye-rolling teenagers, a sentiment that some Americans share about the somewhat silly tradition.

So why won’t a president stop the tradition … cold turkey? The answer is likely that the agricultural industry has a ton of bipartisan support. We all need to eat, and there’s no real reason for a president to annoy an industry as central to most Thanksgiving tables as the turkey industry.

— Kay Steiger

TURKEYNOMICS

How much does all this cost?

Before they are considered for a presidential pardon, turkeys are given red carpet treatment at the luxury Willard hotel in Washington, D.C. But before you start complaining about your tax dollars flying out the window, the National Turkey Federation — a trade group representing the turkey industry — foots the bill.

In addition to the National Turkey Federation’s role in the pardon event, disclosure reports filed with Congress show it spent $140,000 in 2021 lobbying the federal government on issues including covid-19 financial assistance for turkey growers, indemnification due to highly pathogenic avian influenza, and appropriations for research on treatment and prevention of histomoniasis, a poultry disease spread by roundworms.

As for what a turkey will cost you this year, assuming you aren’t putting your bird up at a fancy hotel the night before, the price should actually be quite reasonable despite inflation.

While the American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that turkeys are selling at $1.81 cents per pound (up 21 percent over last year), grocery stores are prioritizing discounts for turkeys this season.

Data from the National Turkey Federation indicates the typical grocer sells turkeys for 97 cents a pound — soaking up some of the turkey price to get consumers in the door to buy other food.

— Kay Steiger and Steve Reilly

LEFTOVERS

Do the turkeys actually avoid getting gobbled up?

Out of more than 200 million turkeys produced for human consumption each year in the United States, roughly 1 in 5 are killed for Thanksgiving meals.

Because turkeys who are candidates for the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation are typically selected from a commercial turkey farm, they have beaten enormous odds to have their life spared by the president of the United States.

Their freedom, however, is usually short-lived. While a wild turkey has a life span of three to five years — and can survive up to a decade — turkeys bred and raised on commercial turkey farms are usually dead within a year of their birth because their breeding and diet are focused on meat production rather than giving the turkeys long, healthy lives.

The turkeys have been sent to various farms, universities and estates to live out the rest of their lives. It costs an estimated $20,000 to $25,000 to care for the birds post-pardon, one caretaker told USA Today.

“The bird is bred for the table, not for longevity,” Dean Norton, a director in charge of livestock at Mount Vernon in Virginia, where many presidentially pardoned turkeys have been sent, told CNN for a 2013 report. “Some of [the pardoned turkeys] have been pretty short-lived.”

The short lives of the pardoned birds are typically at odds with the tongue-in-cheek magnanimity of the presidential remarks pardoning the birds.

“I want to take a moment to recognize the brave turkeys who weren’t so lucky, who didn’t get to ride the gravy train to freedom,” President Barack Obama said in 2016 as he pardoned Tater and Tot, two 18-week-old turkeys from Iowa. Their freedom did not last long. Both Tater and Tot were dead by Thanksgiving 2018.

— Steve Reilly

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

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