It was Gov. Tim Walz’s first go-round with the Minnesota tradition of facing a roomful of reporters alongside a turkey he was powerless to save.
Walz talked about how Minnesota farmers are feeding the world. He complimented the bird. But one word was notably absent Wednesday: Pardon.
Iowa pardons a turkey. So does North Dakota. And President Donald Trump proclaimed a pair of the animals, dubbed Bread and Butter, as free birds this week.
Why, in Minnesota, does the fate of that 16-pound hen likely reside alongside some family’s gravy and stuffing? The Star Tribune’s Curious Minnesota project typically answers readers’ pressing questions, but this one comes from the reporter who stared the turkey straight in the eye.
Former Gov. Mark Dayton once joked that he lacks the legal authority to pardon a bird, saying “Every time I exceed my executive authority, somebody files a lawsuit.”
But really it was the state’s turkey farmers who made the call, said John Zimmerman, past president of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.
The growers decided years ago that the animal who gets the honor of a gubernatorial meet-and-greet should not be free from the harsh reality that befalls its flightless brethren on the last Thursday of November.
“That live bird there will be harvested, processed and given to a needy family so they can consume it on Thanksgiving,” Zimmerman said. “We just feel as growers that that’s what we do for a living. We provide high-quality protein in the form of turkey meat. And we don’t raise the turkeys to be pardoned.”
Star Tribune archives show that wasn’t always the case. In 1999, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura similarly gathered with turkey farmers before the holiday.
“But don’t worry about the feathered spectator who attended the annual Thanksgiving turkey presentation to the governor. It will be spared, and the University of Minnesota will receive it as a donation,” the Star Tribune reported.
Sometime in the early to mid-2000s farmers decided to start sending that very fresh bird to a family in need, according to Steve Olson, who served as executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association from 2000 until earlier this year.
As for Bread and Butter, they are retiring to “Gobblers Rest” at Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences after their big performance in Washington.
While there’s value in the “warm and fuzzy” presidential pardon — which is still intended to highlight the turkey industry — Zimmerman said Minnesota farmers did not want to confuse consumers.
“In order to not have a cross message that we’re pardoning them and they’re pets, we want that meat to go to a deserving family,” he said.
The nameless bird who met the governor Wednesday is also headed to college. She will go to the University of Minnesota’s meat lab, said turkey farmer Paul Kvistad, on her way to a Roseville food shelf.
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