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With Gov. Mark Dayton behind Willmar FFA members, Ted the turkey poses for photographers. FFA members from left are Prestin Asche, Val Brown, Brianna Hoover and Brenna Ahlquist. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

Thanksgiving: Ted can't wait to get in front of cameras

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ST. PAUL -- Ted is ready for the spotlight. Really ready.

In fact, he is so ready that he escaped from his cage in a dark corner of the governor's reception room Friday, and made a break for the bright television lights. Ted proudly strutted past the gubernatorial podium and into plain sight in a large empty area in front of it, where still cameras clicked, video cameras whirred and reporters scribbled notes that looked like turkey scratching.

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Val Brown quickly launched into action, and as the Willmar FFA's chief turkey handler saved the surprised politicians and media from Ted.

Gov. Mark Dayton, who just had visited Ted in his cage and declared "I'm better with dogs than I am with turkeys," joined U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and other dignitaries and the media in a round of laugher seldom heard during politicians' news conferences.

The occasion was the official state sending-off of Ted and flockmate Ray, one of whom President Barack Obama will "pardon" Wednesday in the traditional Thanksgiving eve White House event.

Willmar FFA members raised a 30-bird flock and picked Ray and Ted (Obama actually will give his pick an official name next week) as the best-behaved and prepared for the big appearance.

Four FFA students will travel to Washington and attend the Rose Garden ceremony: Brianna Hoover, Brenna Ahlquist, Val Brown and Preston Asche. The two birds will leave, via van, after a 10 a.m. Monday send-off from the Willmar Senior High School Theater.

The birds, provided by the Turkey Growers Association and Willmar Poultry Co., not only will be saved from the White House dining room table, but they will live out their lives at George Washington's Mt. Vernon estate. The other 28 turkeys will join millions of others that face a different fate on Thanksgiving Day.

Brown has raised turkeys on his family's hobby farm, but his three fellow FFA members have not. At least not until they were picked for the assignment of preparing turkeys for the White House. They played loud music and flashed lights on them to get ready for Wednesday.

"I didn't think it would go this far," Brown said of the students' Washington trip.

It took a lot of hard work to prepare the birds, Ahlquist added.

If Obama asks them about agriculture, Hoover said, she will tell him that it is important.

Presidents have pardoned turkeys since Harry Truman began the tradition in 1942.

Ted or Ray will become the 10th Minnesota turkey to receive a pardon, and the first from the state since 2005.

While Ted stole the show, Minnesota turkey producers also donated $11,000 worth of turkey meat, enough to feed 13,000 people, to Hunger Solutions Minnesota. The turkey is to be distributed in many places around the state, including, Perham, Thief River Falls and Frazee.

Jeff Lindell of Cannon Falls, Minnesota Turkey Growers Association president, said today's turkeys "eat better and live in better environments" than in years past.

Steve Olson, executive director of the association, reminded the politicians in attendance that Minnesota holds a solid position as top turkey producer in the country. The state produces 46 million turkeys a year, 20 percent of the entire United States.

Even though feed costs have soared, turkey production remains profitable, Olson said. Turkey prices in the stores are up a bit this year.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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