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Willmar area students work Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011, with the group of turkeys from which the bird to be presented to President Obama later this month. Photo by Gary Miller/Forum Communications Co.

Willmar students caring for presidential turkeys

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WILLMAR -- The assignment: At 1500 hours, four secret service officers rendezvous daily at a top secret location at 45.13N latitude and 95.06W longitude to prepare 30 recruits for a possible assignment at national headquarters with the Top Chief codenamed "Renegade."

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The assessment: The special agents, along with the primary subject and its undercover double, are awaiting final orders for delivery.

The translation: At 3 p.m. four Willmar FFA members meet weekdays at a turkey barn near Willmar to feed, primp and pamper 30 turkeys that are in the running to be the official National Thanksgiving Turkey in Washington and be pardoned by President Barack Obama.

The four students and two prize tom turkeys will leave Willmar next week for the White House.

For 64 years there has been a National Thanksgiving Turkey at the White House. Until 1989 those turkeys ended up on the Thanksgiving Day table. Since then, the act of getting a presidential pardon has become a popular media event and an opportunity to promote the turkey industry.

This year the official bird is coming from Willmar, a town that's done more than its share to make Minnesota the number one turkey-producing state in the country.

Rick Huisinga, chairman of the National Turkey Federation and executive vice president of the Willmar Poultry Company, will make the official presentation of the turkey to President Obama on Nov. 23 at the White House.

Preparing a turkey for national duty has been an interesting process, said Jenn Baumgartner, from Willmar Poultry Company.

Huisinga invited the Willmar High School FFA to participate in the process to turn the gangly young birds into stately, mature presidential turkeys.

For the last two months, four Willmar FFA students have been grooming the birds for the occasion.

It's been a unique hands-on experience for the students that combines farm chores, education, public relations and affection.

The turkeys need "care and love," said Brianna Hoover, one of the students who has invested hours of time with the birds.

Choosing the National Thanksgiving Turkey started with a batch of run-of-the-mill commercial turkeys that were hatched July 7 in Kandiyohi County.

At 10 weeks of age, 30 turkeys were "selected" from a barn that contained a thousand birds. By "selected," Baumgartner means they were the 30 turkeys that were cornered and caught.

The all-male group of birds, called toms, has been housed in special locked quarters that are kept exceptionally clean. The location is kept private because of bio-security issues.

The students work in teams and spend at least an hour every weekday with the birds. Willmar Poultry Company personnel provide care on weekends.

The small flock of birds has been getting top care that goes beyond food, water and shelter. They have been cuddled, petted, cleaned, sung to and hoisted onto tables to prepare them for their televised appearance in front of President Obama.

The students have done everything possible to get the birds comfortable being around people and noise so that they are well-behaved during the public appearance.

"The birds really know the kids," said Baumgartner, adding that the turkeys have become "pets to these guys."

"It's really been fun watching them tame down," said Preston Asche, a junior at Willmar Senior High School. "You don't necessarily see a bird like this fall asleep next to you like they do with us. A lot of times we'll just sit in the pen with them and they'll just fall asleep," he said.

The students and representatives of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association have also taken the 40-pound turkeys to metro-area elementary schools where they have served as the star of the show in an educational program about how turkeys are raised.

The birds performed well there and "didn't freak out at all," said Brenna Ahlquist, who hopes that behavior is replicated for the president.

The final selection of which bird and a back-up will travel to Washington, will be made a day or two before the departure date. Appearance and manners will be key factors, said Baumgartner.

Being involved with the project has been an "adventure" and a big responsibility, said Val Brown. "It's been a privilege being able to raise the birds."

A send-off for the "heir and a spare" will be Nov. 21 in Willmar before the birds go to St. Paul for another send-off. They'll be driven to Washington, where the birds will have their own hotel room, said Baumgartner.

The students will travel with the birds and watch the presentation at the White House.

The trip is icing on the cake for the students.

The best part of the experience was "just being able to do chores for them and having the pride of doing this," Asche said.

After appearing at the White House, both birds will spend the rest of their natural lives at the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.

The remaining 28 turkeys left behind in Willmar will be processed and the meat donated to area food shelves, according to Baumgartner.

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