Over the years, Virginia Tech’s research, teaching, and outreach programs have been a driver of the U.S. poultry industry and have helped make turkey a staple of the American diet.
Now the university can add another feather to its cap: It will once again be home to the National Thanksgiving Turkey and its alternate “wingman.”
For the third consecutive year, the famous birds will make the journey from the White House, where the turkeys are “pardoned” by the president in a formal ceremony, to Blacksburg’s Gobblers Rest, where they will live out their days and get to know the HokieBird.
A public open house to meet the two newest members of Hokie Nation will be held Nov. 23 from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. at the Livestock Judging Pavilion at 445 Plantation Road in Blacksburg, Virginia. You can follow the progression of the birds’ journey from the White House to Blacksburg on the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages and post your own photos of the birds using the hashtag #PresidentialTurkeys.
“We love that the birds are coming back to Blacksburg to roost once again,” said Rami Dalloul, a world-renowned poultry immunologist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, who a few years ago sequenced the turkey genome. That discovery opened the door to new levels of understanding of the birds, as well as genetics in general.
“Virginia Tech and the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences have been great partners over the last two years, and we are excited that the National Thanksgiving Turkey and its alternate are again returning to Gobblers Rest,” said National Turkey Federation chairman Jeff Sveen.
This year, the birds are coming from a farm near Huron, South Dakota. After two birds are chosen based on appearance and temperament, they head to Washington, D.C., where they stay at a hotel near the White House as part of a series of media events leading up to the presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey. The college will stream the formal ceremony during a Facebook Live event on Tuesday around 1 p.m. People can participate in a contest to name the birds on the White House’s official social media channels.
The event not only serves as the opening of the holiday season, but also reminds America of the history and role of agriculture, from feeding the world to growing the economy.
Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have pardoned two groups of birds that came to live in Blacksburg. Tater and Tot — the presidential turkeys from 2016 — and Drumstick and Wishbone — 2017’s pardoned turkeys — received world-class care and lived happy lives during their time in Blacksburg. They were famous around the world, as people often stopped by their home at Gobblers Rest to say hello and snap a photo. All four birds have died, which is not surprising given the short life expectancy of domestic turkeys.
The National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation started in 1947. The National Turkey Federation’s first chairman, Virginian Charlie Wampler Sr., was among the first to present a live turkey to President Harry S. Truman.
Years before, in 1922, Wampler was a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent who sought advice from the head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Poultry Science, A.L. Dean, on how to raise turkeys. In the following years, Wampler went on to create a growing business while Dean advised Wampler on turkey-raising techniques. Wampler is regarded as the father of the modern turkey industry and founded the National Turkey Federation in 1940.
Today, poultry makes up the largest sector of Virginia’s agricultural portfolio with more $1 billion in annual cash receipts. The industry provides a direct economic impact of $5,471,601,400 and overall contributes $13,248,985,000 in economic activity in the commonwealth, according to the Virginia Poultry Federation.
The Virginia Tech Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine help expand the state’s economy by conducting innovative research to benefit industry and educating the next generation of poultry scientists and veterinarians.
— Written by Zeke Barlow