Iowa turkeys ‘Corn’ and ‘Cob’ go to Washington
WALCOTT — Each November, the presidential pardon of the national Thanksgiving turkey makes big headlines across the country. This year marks the eighth time in 73 years that this prestigious bird has come from an Iowa farm. While adults like to hear about the VIT’s (Very Important Turkey) visit to Washington, D.C., young students in Iowa had one burning question: What do turkeys do for fun?
“The kids asked me that during a Facebook Live interview from our farm in early November,” said Ron Kardel, 68, chairman of the National Turkey Federation (NTF) and a sixth-generation farmer who raises turkeys near Walcott with his wife, Susie. Two turkeys (“Corn” and “Cob”) from their flock headed to Washington, D.C., recently to be pardoned on Tuesday by President Donald Trump.
Two turkeys are selected each year for this prestigious–if quirky–honor. One turkey functions as the “backup” in case the first turkey can’t complete its duties as the national Thanksgiving turkey.
Corn and Cob made themselves right at home at the posh Willard InterContinental Washington hotel after they arrived in Washington, D.C., according to the NTF. Staff rolled out the red carpet, literally, for the famous birds. The VITs settled into their own room at the famed hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Other notable hotel guests through the years have included Presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, William HowardTaft, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding, along with Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, P.T. Barnum and Mark Twain, who wrote two books there in the early 1900s.
Each year the national turkey comes from the state where the current NTF president resides.
“When I started raising turkeys 41 years ago, I never thought I’d get to be the one supplying the national turkey someday,” said Kardel, who has farmed full-time for 46 years.
Turkey helps feed Iowa’s economy
While some historians debate the origins of the presidential Thanksgiving turkey tradition, history is clear that the first presentation of a turkey by the NTF occurred in 1947 during President Harry Truman’s administration.
Since then, Iowa has supplied eight of the Thanksgiving turkeys pardoned by various presidents. Prior presidential turkeys have hailed from Ellsworth, West Liberty, Dike, Story City, Early and other communities. The birds have represented Iowa during the administrations of President Lyndon Johnson (1964), President Gerald Ford (1976), President Ronald Reagan (1983 and 1988), President George Herbert Walker Bush (1991), President George W. Bush (2008), President Barack Obama (2016) and President Donald Trump (2020).
The annual White House turkey pardoning ceremony signals the beginning of the holiday season and reflects a spirit of gratitude. The presentation also highlights the contributions of America’s turkey growers, as well as the important role of agriculture in modern America.
Iowa ranks seventh in the nation in turkey production, with 130 turkey farmers raising 11 million birds a year, according to the Iowa Turkey Federation. Iowa is the also the fifth-largest turkey-processing state. The turkeys from Kardel’s farm are processed at West Liberty Foods, which supplies turkey to Subway restaurants and other food retailers.
Corn and Cob move to ISU
The 2020 presidential turkeys hatched in mid-July in South Dakota, arrived at Kardel’s farm as one-day-old poults and grew to more than 40 pounds by November. Kardel selected 30 birds from his commercial flock that he thought might have potential to become the presidential turkey.
“I picked ones that looked good and had a calm personality,” said Kardel, who raises 4 to 5 million pounds of turkey a year.
The selected birds lived a fairly pampered life in custom-made, 10-by-24-foot building on Kardel’s farm, complete with ventilation, heating, air conditioning and a little patio outside. Ultimately, two turkey toms were chosen to make the trip to Washington, D.C.
“It’s nice to have something good happening in 2020, especially since it’s been a tough year for some many people and so many businesses,” Kardel said. “COVID really hurt.”
The COVID-19 pandemic slashed the turkey industry’s market, as restaurants closed their doors starting in March, said Kardel, vice chairman of West Liberty Foods. The good news for consumers is that the cost of turkey is at its lowest in 10 years. At roughly $1.21 per pound, turkey is the lowest price since 2010, according to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s 35th annual Thanksgiving survey.
Corn and Cob weren’t on anyone’s Thanksgiving table, however. They returned to Iowa to live out their days at Iowa State University (ISU). The famous birds will be available for public viewing at ISU beginning Dec. 5 at 10 a.m.
“We are excited to welcome these national Thanksgiving icons onto our animal science farms,” said Dr. Dan Thomson, professor and chair of the Department of Animal Science at ISU.
The university plans to build a new, state-of-the-art turkey production facility in the spring of 2021. This is good news, says Kardel, a 1974 ISU graduate who is grateful he had the opportunity to supply the 2020 presidential flock. “It’s an honor to be part of this proud tradition.”