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Gary Thornton shares his thoughts on the US poultry industry. Thornton discusses legislation, trends, food safety issues and more relating to the poultry and meat industries in the US.

Life of a presidential turkey: farm to the White House

April 8, 2015
It’s part of our national tradition: Each year before Thanksgiving, a pair of turkeys – grown by the reigning chairman of the National Turkey Federation (NTF) – makes it to the White House to be pardoned by the president of the United States.

This past Thanksgiving in November 2014, the pair, named "Mac" and "Cheese," was raised and delivered to Washington, D.C. by Cole Cooper of Cooper Farms. Cole grew them in a fancy turkey barn in his backyard in Fort Recovery, Ohio.

During the ceremony, with Cole and his father, Gary (then NTF chairman), standing nearby, President Obama said, “The Washington Post recently questioned the wisdom of the whole turkey pardoning tradition. ‘Typically, on the day before Thanksgiving,’ the story went, ‘the man who makes decisions about wars, virus outbreaks, terrorist cells and other matters of state chooses to pardon a single turkey plus an alternate.’ It is a little puzzling that I do this every year,” President Obama continued, “but I will say I enjoy it because with all the tough stuff that swirls around in this office, it’s nice once in a while to just say, ‘Happy Thanksgiving!'”

Indeed, it is healthy to have national traditions that neither the opinion of the Washington Post nor the affairs of state supersede. And it is good that the poultry industry is square in the middle of this one.

I had the opportunity to interview the Coopers (Gary and Cole) recently, and they provided some behind-the-scenes details of their trip to Washington with the turkeys.

First of all, the turkeys’ names were actually Virgil and Homer (in honor of the late Cooper Farms founder, Virgil Homer Cooper). But their nickname was "Bob" – both of them. (Sounds a little like a Beatles song, for those of you who may remember.) "Mac" and "Cheese" were the names given to them by the public in a Twitter contest.

Cole and his brother, Luke, drove the turkeys in a van the 515 miles to Washington, where they all stayed on the third floor of the Willard InterContinental Hotel near the White House. The turkeys had their own private room, of course, complete with plastic covering taped to the floors and pine shavings.

Gary Cooper said the turkeys’ presence in the hotel didn’t go unnoticed. Some shavings had escaped the room near the door into the hotel corridor. A lady and a small child slowed at notice of this oddity in a refined and well-kept hotel. At that moment, the turkeys in the room gobbled, and the lady grabbed the little girl in a protective reaction. They were relieved, though surprised, he said, to learn it was two turkeys ready to visit the president in the White House the next day.

On the day of the ceremony, the pardoning went without a hitch; even though the president’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, declined to pet the presidential turkey, "Cheese." But, perhaps the president went a bit far at the end of the ceremony in saying, “I will tell you though; turkeys don’t have the best looking heads.” Cole ventured, in response, “I think they are beautiful.” Gary went so far as to say, “They are very patriotic, Mr. President, because they are red, white and blue.” At this, the president appeared bemused; but from an industry-person’s perspective, I would say the damage was done. It’s not good politics to offend a man’s turkey.
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