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South Dakota to raise turkey for White House Thanksgiving

October 1, 2018

ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — Push away that plate of politics and pile on the turkey.

This will be the first-ever year that South Dakota has raised the bird destined for the presidential Thanksgiving meal at the White House. It’s a 70-year tradition, and a party outside party lines.

“That’s what’s neat about it, it’s a fun thing for our country,” said Jeff Sveen, an Aberdeen attorney and the chairman of the National Turkey Federation.

The Tom will likely get a pardon from President Donald Trump and live out the next couple years at Gobbler’s Rest, an agricultural outreach and education facility at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg.

Providing the turkey is a great opportunity for South Dakota, said Sveen.

“It’s amazing. We’ve never done it before. It’s quite an honor. Just having us recognized as an ag state and now recognized at the White House for a product we produce,” he said.

There’s a flock of 50 hopeful, white-feathered candidates fattening up on an undisclosed Hutterite colony in Beadle County, Aberdeen American News reported. Huron is home of the Dakota Provisions turkey plant, which opened in 2006 and can process 5 million birds a year. Sveen is chairman of the Dakota Provisions board of directors.

The potential presidential birds, hatched in July, are well tended-to by Ruben Waldner, who asked for the privilege. Out of the 50, two will be chosen to make the trip east.

“We’ll pick turkeys that are calm, that are good character, good personality and good looking,” Sveen said. ”(Waldner) hand-tames them. I’ll go in and pet them. We want to expose them as much as we can to people.”

The turkeys are treated like royalty — or at least as royally as poultry can be treated. The two chosen birds will start making their way to Washington, D.C., the weekend before Thanksgiving in a van, escorted by handlers Waldner and Peter Gruhl.

Once they arrive, they will be checked-in at the Willard InterContinental Hotel. The Monday before Thanksgiving is press day when the turkeys are “interviewed” in the hotel room.

“They have their own room, and it’s a nice room,” Sveen said. “They stay a couple nights, then one will go in to see the president.”

At the hotel, for the most part, the turkeys are somewhat confined to an area with plenty of poultry bedding on the floor, Sveen said. They don’t really get to party like rock stars and trash the luxury hotel room.

Sveen followed the Minnesota turkey presenter last year to learn the ropes.

“The turkeys will get into the area of the White House. The presentation is on the Rose Garden of the White house. They’ll have a military band playing music. President Trump will make a feel-good speech. It’s about an hour-long deal,” Sveen said.

It’s not likely South Dakota will get to present a gobbler to a president again anytime soon.

A new leader of the National Turkey Federation is chosen every year, and Sveen was appointed in February. That’s why he gets the esteemed privilege of presenting the turkey. The presidential turkey comes from each chairman or chairwoman’s home state.

The federation is made up of turkey producers from across the country. It has a board of directors, as well as an executive board. Sveen joined the group once the Huron plant was up and running. Since being elected to the board, he said it’s taken about 10 years to become chairman.

By Thanksgiving, the chosen turkeys will be around 45 pounds. Sveen expects that there will be an opportunity to follow along online as they travel. He said there will also likely be gobbler-naming competition for South Dakotans. The president has a naming contest, too.

Last year’s esteemed birds were bestowed the monikers Drumstick and Wishbone.

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Information from: Aberdeen American News, http://www.aberdeennews.com

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