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Turkeys — conventional, organic and wild — take spotlight as Thanksgiving pardoning approaches

The success of the conventional turkey industry, the popularity of organic turkeys and the needs of wild turkeys all came up today when two birds that President Barack Obama will “pardon” on Wednesday were presented to the news media.

The White House, meanwhile, launched a contest to decide which of the two conventionally-raised birds — they are named Gobbler and Cobbler — will be declared the “National Thanksgiving Turkey.”

Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill Value Added Meats Retail who serves as chairman of the National Turkey Federation, introduced the birds to reporters on the rooftop of Washington’s W Hotel, which is located across the street from the Treasury Department and about a block from the White House.

Cargill Value Added Meats Retail is based in Wichita, Kan., but Willardsen explained that the chairman of the National Turkey Federation can decide the origin of the birds donated to the White House, and that he had asked Craig and Nancy Miller, who raise turkeys for Cargill in Rockingham County, Va., to provide the turkeys this year.

At the news conference, Craig Miller explained that his farming operation raises three flocks of 43,000 hens per year, but at the request of Cargill agreed to furnish two toms for the White House pardoning ceremony. The birds were prepared by being separated from the rest of the flock and exposed to music and human handling so they could handle the stress of meeting the press and the president.

Willardsen said that Cobbler and Gobbler had been raised conventionally on a corn and soy diet to an age of 19 weeks and a weight of 35 to 40 pounds. A W Hotel official noted that the hotel’s chefs served the birds a special organic mix of grains and cranberries.

Miller and Willardsen said the turkeys had different personalities. A White House statement encouraging the public to vote for one of the birds noted that “Cobbler craves cranberries, is known for his strut, and enjoys the musical stylings of Carly Simon. Gobbler, a patient but proud bird, loves to nibble on corn and enjoys any music with a fiddle.”

(The White House also carefully noted that, although only one turkey would be declared the National Thanksgiving Turkey, both would be “pardoned” and be put on display for visitors at Mount Vernon, the Virginia estate of George Washington, through January 6 and then live in a custom-made enclosure at Mount Vernon.)

The W Hotel statement that the birds had been fed an organic diet for the last two days was the first mention of organics at the news conference, although Obama Foodorama had already reported that the White House would be serving an organic turkey to the first family on Thanksgiving Day.

Willardsen said that Cargill does not raise organic turkeys, but that they are becoming so popular it is “looking at” going into the organic turkey business.

A spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association said organically-raised turkeys are not caged, have access to the outdoors and are fed only organic feed and never given antibiotics in the feed or water.

“Buying an organic turkey means supporting a system of agriculture that is good for the land, good for the farm family raising the bird and the wider environment because of the practices used and avoided,” the spokeswoman said.

The historically authentic option would be to serve wild turkey on Thanksgiving, but because federal law prohibits the retail sale of game birds, the only way to get wild turkey meat on the table is to hunt for the birds or get the meat from family or friends who hunt, said a spokesman for the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Representatives of the National Wild Turkey Federation were present at last year’s White House pardoning ceremony. Although they said that the federation has no aspiration to make a wild turkey declared the National Thanksgiving Turkey or have their birds pardoned, they hoped to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining farm bill conservation programs that preserve wildlife habitat.

A federation spokesman said today that hunters are particularly concerned about future funding for the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program as well as the Forest Legacy Program.

The federation, he said, has managed to increase the population of wild turkeys from 30,000 in the 1930s to 7 million today, but that it’s still necessary to “stay on top” of the need for wildlife habitat because other birds such as quail are not as abundant.

As far as cooking goes, organic turkeys may be prepared like conventional turkeys, the spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association said. But wild turkey meat is leaner and should be prepared in a slow-cooker or deep fried, a Wild Turkey Federation spokesman said, rather than put in an oven for several hours, and is excellent if wrapped in bacon while cooking.

The National Turkey Federation said in a news release that 88 percent of Americans are expected to consumer 46 million birds on Thanksgiving Day. Per capita consumption has almost doubled in the last 25 years to about 16 pounds of turkey a year, the group said, with only 21 percent of consumption occurring during the winter holidays, compared with 50 percent in 1970.

President Obama today also issued a Thanksgiving proclamation.