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Iowans sending turkeys for pardoning

By Staff | Nov 21, 2008

Farm News news editor

ELLSWORTH — Each Thanksgiving, the U.S. president ceremonially pardons a turkey in the Rose Garden, at the White House in Washington, D.C.

This year, the subject bird will come from Iowa, and particularly a bird that has been raised in Hamilton County.

A pair of turkeys has been carefully selected from Circle Hill Farms, one of several turkey producers in the county, all growing birds for West Liberty Foods, which supplies most of the turkey needs for Subway restaurants.

Two birds are chosen in event something happens to one of them in transit. The pardon is actually a real one, not just ceremonial, noted Nathan hill, one of the primary interest holders of Circle Hill Farms, along with his father, Paul Hill and brother-in-law Noel Thompson.

This is the 61st year that the official Thanksgiving Day bird has been provided by the National Turkey Federation. It's also the 60th anniversary that the Hill family has been in turkey production.

“While (the birds) are in Washington, on the same day and at the same time, their contemporaries will be at West Liberty’s processing plant,” Hill said.

The Iowa birds were chosen because Paul Hill serves as chairman of the National Turkey Federation’s executive board. “It’s a perk of the chairman to send the turkey to the president,” Paul Hill said.

The actual candidate birds were grown on Nathan Hill’s farm. A total of 13 birds were selected, all of them Hybrids, although Circle Hill Farms also raised Nicholas turkeys as well. Over the past several weeks, the 13 birds have been separated to their own pens and Nathan Hill started working with them, to get them accustomed to being around people, handled and to sit quietly on a table.

Disney sent music tapes to be played for the birds in their enclosures to get the birds accustomed to a lot of sounds.

When asked why Disney sent the music, the hills explained that after the presidential pardoning ceremony, the birds and the family would fly first class, at Disney’s expense, to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., where the birds will be grand marshals of the Thanksgiving Day parade. Following the parade, the birds will be taken to FontierLand’s Big Thunder Mountain in the Magic Kingdom, where they will be retired and live out a natural life.

The birds currently are 20 weeks old and weigh 42 pounds.

Paul Hill said it is a privilege to send the official Thanksgiving Day bird to the president.

“This is designed to showcase the turkey and to highlight the turkey federation and its animal welfare practices. There’s also a focus on the health in turkey meat.”

Although there are several large corporations who vie for their share of the turkey industry market, Hill said, that for this event, “It’s important that we keep our individual brands deep within ourselves and show off the industry.”

Traditionally, the birds are to get named by the president. The Hill families have sent in possible names such as Sub and way, Cy and Hurkey, Food and Freedom. The family also joked of sending in Bail and Out, but thought better of it. The president will make the official name. Last year’s birds, from Indiana, were called May and Flower.

Paul Hill is the sixth Iowan to be selected to send the presidential bird, in the 61 years that presidents have pardoned birds, dating back to Harry Truman. It’s been 20 years since the last bird came from Iowa.

The Hill family members will fly to Washington, D.C. next week and be housed at the luxury Willard Hotel, across the street from the White House. The two turkeys will be transported in the back of a minivan in free-range style and will also stay at the Willard Hotel.

Circle Hill Farms is a 1,600-acre family corporation. They market 700,000 turkeys annually, all were sold to West Liberty Foods. All of the turkeys are owned by Circle Hill Farms.

The family operation got its start in 1948. Paul’s father, Hubert, raised 1,000 birds that first year “and didn’t make any money,” Paul Hill noted. But the next year he raised another 1,000 turkeys and made $10 on each. “But that’s the way the turkey business has always been,” Paul Hill said.

Mary and Paul Hill took over the operation in 1967, which has gradually grown into the three-farm family corporate entity it is today.

Contact Larry Kershner at kersh@farm-news.com.

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