Pardon Me! Foster Farms to provide presidential turkey

07/15/2010 11:39 PM

07/16/2010 8:18 AM

If you want a pardon from the president, you'd better be on your best behavior.

Same goes for turkeys.

Foster Farms is raising the bird that will be "pardoned" by President Barack Obama this year in a Thanksgiving tradition dating to 1989.

Thursday morning at a company ranch east of Modesto, the Foster Farms folks talked about how this turkey will be chosen from 25 candidates that hatched a week ago.

A calm demeanor amid a crowd of people is vital, because the pardon will be issued at a White House media event.

"Hopefully, it will behave on national TV," said Ira Brister, who oversees all of Foster Farms' live turkeys and will help present the bird to Obama just before the holiday.

The turkey also will have to get used to being loaded into a travel crate for the flight to Washington, D.C., and sitting on a table next to the president.

"Good table manners" is how Brister put it.

Oh, and it should be good-looking, not an easy thing for these craggy-faced critters.

"We look for white, full feathers, nice-looking tail feathers and things like that," said Yubert Envia, vice president for the Foster Farms turkey division.

Envia will officially present the bird to Obama because he is chairman this year of the National Turkey Federation. The group has given turkeys to presidents since 1947, when Harry Truman was in office.

At first, they were eaten. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush started the pardon tradition, which has spared the turkeys from the ovens that await their brethren across the nation.

Two birds are chosen — the presidential turkey and the vice presidential turkey, the latter stepping in if the top gobbler cannot fulfill its duties.

This is the first time the turkey will come from Foster Farms, founded near Modesto in 1939 by Max and Verda Foster and now based in Livingston. The company has become a leading poultry producer, with operations in seven Western and Southern states.

Half a dozen media outlets turned out for Thursday's gathering at a Wellsford Road ranch, one of about 70 that raise Foster Farms turkeys.

Stand-ins used

The pardon candidates were not on hand, as they are still in a facility for newly hatched birds south of Ceres. The company instead used full-grown stand-ins and a small employee-training barn to show generally how turkeys are kept.

They eat corn and soy and get no steroids or hormones. They have room to roam on a floor covered with wood shavings.

It's not all pastoral. To prevent the spread of poultry diseases, Thursday's visitors had to don rubber boots, disposable coveralls and other garb that had them looking like a toxic spill cleanup crew. They signed forms stating that they had not been around any kind of live bird for 72 hours.

This is serious stuff, but Foster Farms still had a little fun with the event. The "official seal" of the presidential turkey hung on the front of the barn, with the bird mimicking the eagle in the president's seal. Red, white and blue bunting stood above it.

November will bring yet more pomp. The chosen pair will fly to Washington on Turkey One, courtesy of United Airlines. They will stay in the ornate Willard Hotel, which has hosted many presidents.

After the reprieve, both turkeys will be flown to Disneyland for its Thanksgiving Day parade. They then will go to a farm in the park's Frontierland to live out their lives, which can be as long as three years, if no one is lurking with a baster.

Obama talked a little about the history of turkey pardons when issuing his first one last year. Flanked by his daughters, he gave new life to a 45-pound tom from North Carolina named Courage: "Today, I am pleased to announce that thanks to the interventions of Malia and Sasha — because I was planning to eat this sucker — Courage will also be spared this terrible and delicious fate," the president said.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at 578-2385 or

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