VIP (Very Important Poultry)
Nov./Dec. 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Barbara Arciero
Photos by Matt Salvo
Californians chosen to raise the nation's top turkey.
The turkey that will be given to President Obama for the annual Thanksgiving pardoning ceremony is being raised at a Foster Farms ranch in Modesto. Ira Brister, left, and Yubert Envia selected the Nicholas Strain breed of turkey for the ceremony.
There's a cacophony of sound coming from the tidy white house in Modesto where Ira Brister is raising 25 tom turkeys, and the noise is more than just a gobble gobble here and a gobble gobble there. There's also music—everything from Mozart to Metallica.
Listening to the radio is just one way the turkeys under Brister's care are preparing for a visit to a larger, more ornate white house. In a tradition dating back to 1947, one of the 25 California birds—along with an alternate—will be selected as the National Turkey and given to President Obama during a lively, well-attended ceremony a few days before Thanksgiving.
"We find radio stations that play classical, country and head-banging pop, and we visit the turkeys as much as we can, so they get used to people and commotion and still remain calm," Brister explained. "When we set the turkey on the table at the White House, there's no telling how the press will respond—whether they'll be whistling and hollering—plus all of the other activity."
The highlight of the White House ceremony typically comes when the president grants the National Turkey and his alternate an official presidential pardon, which means the birds will be able to retire at the ripe old age of 20 weeks.
By the time the National Turkey and his alternative board a commercial jet bound for Washington, D.C., they'll weigh about 45 pounds each.
The privilege of raising the National Turkey traditionally goes to the chairman of the National Turkey Federation. Fresno-based Zacky Farms did the honors in 1995, making this the second time Californians have raised the birds. Today Yubert Envia, a vice president for Turlock-based Foster Farms, heads the federation, and Brister is the Foster Farms grower charged with overseeing the flock of Very Important Poultry.
Brister and Envia say they're excited about having the opportunity to put California agriculture in the national spotlight. The breed they've chosen as this year's National Turkey—Nicholas Strain—originated in California and is prized for its broad breast, brightly colored head and thick, white, smooth plumage.
The 25 candidates for the National Turkey spot, which were hatched July 10, are being raised in a specially designated house. They move about freely in the open-floor building. The floors are covered with comfortable bedding materials such as rice hulls and wood shavings. And a veterinarian and full-time turkey nutritionist monitor their health and diet, which is rich in corn and soy meal fortified with vitamins and minerals.
"Their diet is a lot better balanced than most of ours," Envia said, cracking a smile. But both he and Brister are quick to point out that this kind of turkey TLC isn't reserved just for the presidential flock.
"That's just how we do business," Brister said of the family-owned company that raises about 8.3 million turkeys a year on nearly 70 contract and company-owned ranches. "We are very focused on taking care of our turkeys."
By the time the presidential pair boards a commercial jet bound for Washington, D.C., they'll weigh in at about 45 pounds each.
Brister and Envia say that while they may have some favorite birds now, they won't select the top two turkeys until the day before they head east.
"I figure we'll walk into the house and the first two that volunteer, those are the ones that will go. Everybody has an opportunity, so we'll see which ones step up first," Envia said. "We want the friendly birds. The friendlier they are, they'll walk up to you. You don't want a nervous bird out there."
- Turkeys are social birds that prefer to stay in a flock.
- Male turkeys are toms and are the only turkeys that gobble. Female turkeys are called hens, and they communicate with clicking noises.
- Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as the official bird of the United States, citing its courage and native origin.
- Although the official presentation of a National Turkey began in 1947, it wasn't until 1989 that President George H.W. Bush began the tradition of granting the bird a presidential pardon.
- U.S. growers raised 247 million turkeys in 2009.
- California is among the nation's top 10 turkey-producing states and last year produced about 15 million birds. Most California-grown turkeys are raised in Fresno, Merced, Stanislaus, Kings and Tulare counties.
- While often associated with holiday meals, turkey is increasingly recognized as a year-round source of protein. (In fact, June is National Turkey Lovers' Month.)
- Per-capita consumption in the United States has more than doubled since 1970 and last year was nearly 17 pounds.
Sources: National Turkey Federation and U.S. Department of Agriculture
For more information about the 2010 Presidential Turkeys, including blog, photo gallery and activity guide for teachers, visit www.LearnAboutAg.org/turkeytour.
Barbara Arciero is the managing editor for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.