I can’t resist writing a response to Katie Pinke’s column in Agweek, “Instead of Pardoning a Turkey, Let’s eat it.”
As the communications director for the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association for two-plus decades, it will come as no surprise that I completely agree with Katie when she encourages readers to eat a turkey. I am all for eating as much turkey as you’d like – and not just at Thanksgiving. All year-round, in fact!
I would, however, like to offer a slightly different perspective on the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation – otherwise known as the pardoning of a turkey at the White House each year.
Katie writes, “Pardoning a turkey is a ridiculous tradition and, quite frankly, needs to stop.” This is where I disagree.
Since 2005, I have worked with four Minnesota turkey farmers who have raised special “Presidential flocks” and brought two turkeys from those flocks to Washington, D.C., to be pardoned during their times as the National Turkey Federation Chairman. It has been an honor and a privilege to do so, and I believe we’ve actually used the pardoning event to our advantage – sharing our farmers’ stories about how they raise turkeys for food.
It's isn’t always about the actual pardoning
In Minnesota and other states in recent years, our turkey industry uses the Presidential flock and the pardoning as a way to engage members of the media about how turkeys are raised – and we don’t shy away from the turkeys as a food conversation.
In 2013, then-NTF Chairman John Burkel from Badger, Minn., welcomed a Wall Street Journal reporter and photographer to his home where they spent hours talking about turkey production. This gave John a front-page story the week of Thanksgiving that by and large wasn’t about the pardoning itself. It was about the economic impact of turkey industry.
Last year, CBS News traveled to Minnesota to interview then-NTF Chairman Carl Wittenburg from Alexandria, Minn., about the pardoning and his Presidential flock. But we also made sure they visited a modern turkey farm in Princeton and provided a story to viewers across the country about what Minnesota turkey farmers do for a living.
Those are just two valuable examples (out of hundreds of media inquiries and stories) of what we are able to share with the U.S. population, most of whom are far removed from agriculture and what’s happening on farms. Would we be able to pitch these stories without the hook of a turkey pardoning at the White House? Maybe – but the reality is, it would be much more difficult.
The pardoning is a teachable moment
In Minnesota during years when we have a farmer raising a Presidential flock, we develop educational materials and videos about turkey production and Minnesota’s turkey farmers for schools along with a website that provides helpful information to teachers, parents, students, and pretty much anyone who has an interest in what’s happening. We also engage urban and suburban schools via in-person visits with a real, honest-to-goodness turkey, and Facebook Live virtual Presidential flock and/or farm tours.
Yes, these are things we do, in part, every year – but adding the National Thanksgiving Turkey ceremony to the mix makes it extra fun for students and gives us all an event to rally around for its tradition and history.
We have also brought in both FFA and Minnesota 4-H members, which has provided multiple opportunities for the turkey industry and the pardoning project. The students have been instrumental in helping raise the Presidential flocks in Minnesota, which has given them hands-on experience with poultry production and exposes them to the career opportunities within our industry. We also have provided media training for the students and encouraged growth in their leadership skills. This, in turn, has allowed the students to showcase the FFA and 4-H organizations to a national audience, many of whom have absolutely no knowledge of what these organizations offer young people.
I’ve seen first-hand how these students grow and learn throughout the project, and it’s exciting to see them navigate the Washington, D.C., media – and yes, even the Oval Office! – when they arrive for the pardoning ceremony. We’ve truly created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them.
The truth: farmers raise turkeys for food
Katie is spot on when she writes: “We need to connect farmers and consumers.”
And I love her idea of sitting down with the POTUS or our state’s governor to enjoy a turkey meal and talk about “modern animal agriculture, feed formulations, affordable protein availability, biosecurity, safe animal handling, healthy food choices and exports.” These conversations need to happen.
Each year in Minnesota, our organization holds a special press conference with the governor to usher in the week of Thanksgiving and talk about Minnesota turkey farmers and food companies. Our event is not a pardoning and the live turkey we bring to the State Capitol is ultimately processed and the meat donated to a local food shelf. Why? Because that’s what turkey farmers do – they raise these birds to feed people and we don’t shy away from that message.
But I’m not ready to do away with an historical Thanksgiving tradition – which is completely nonpartisan, by the way – dating back to the 1940s. I encourage those of us in the turkey industry to use this event to its fullest. Talk with the media about issues that are important to us; visit your local school or a community group and explain how turkeys are raised; tackle a misconception or two on social media. Consumers want to hear from us and the pardoning event is a nice springboard in November to elevate our information and conversations!
The National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation brings our nation’s turkey farmers to the media spotlight every year – that’s a good thing and we’re lucky to have it. Let’s continue to use that time wisely.
(Durben is the communications director for the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.)