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Local ‘Toms’ Ready For Their Close-Up

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HARRISONBURG — It was no coincidence the two most-famous turkeys in Rockingham County were unfazed by the big crowds and constant camera flashes they endured on Monday.

The two birds, named "Cobbler" and "Gobbler," chosen as the 2012 National Thanksgiving Turkeys were grown by Craig and Nancy Miller on their Rockingham County farm. President Barack Obama pardoned the turkeys in a ceremony Wednesday in the White House Rose Garden.

The turkeys were given a celebrity send-off Monday as they embarked from the West Rockingham Ruritan Park for Washington, D.C. The aptly named Broadway High School Gobblers marching band and cheerleaders performed prior to a host of dignitaries — Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Todd Haymore, Virginia Poultry Federation President Hobey Bauhan and Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill’s turkey processing business — wishing the now famous turkeys well in their travels.

Craig Miller said their upbringing was unlike that of the other 43,000 turkeys his farm produced at the same time. For one thing, the farm normally grows only hens, so these two “toms” had to be raised separately in their own 1,000-square-foot dwelling.

They even had their own handler — Bob Evans, a Cargill veterinarian — responsible for their care.

“I’ve been calling him the turkey whisperer,” joked Miller.

The Millers began with 40 turkeys born on July 13. Those were whittled down based on looks, health and personality to the final two.

Evans said he’s been working with the two turkeys more intensively over the last three weeks, to get them used to human interaction and handling.

“They like to be brushed,” he said.

Other tactics included playing music and turning on a strobe light to imitate the noise of large crowds and camera flashes.

Evans is confident the toms are ready for their national appearance. Miller, who with his family will be accompanying the birds to the White House, said he is still a little wary about their encounter with the president.

“I’ll feel a lot better at around 3 p.m. on Wednesday,” he said, adding that “it’s an honor” to be invited to the event.

Willardsen served as this year’s chairman of the National Turkey Federation, a title that allows him to choose where the national turkey is grown.

He said he chose Virginia for its status as one of the nation’s largest poultry suppliers, but also “because my wife and I lived here for eight years.”

The Rockingham County toms spent two nights at the luxury W Hotel before Obama publicly “pardons” one bird from becoming a Thanksgiving Day entrée at around 1 p.m. Wednesday. By tradition, two turkeys are brought to Washington each year in case one falls ill, but both get a “pardon” either way.

The duo will be retired to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, where the lucky birds will live out their lives.

The presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey is a long-standing tradition between the White House and the National Turkey Federation.

Bauhan said the first national turkey was presented to President Harry S. Truman in 1947. Although the national bird has come from Virginia seven times, including this year’s selection, this marks the first time the commonwealth has supplied one since 1994.

“This is a special day for Virginia agriculture,” said Haymore, who also said he plans to lobby for a Virginia bird next year as well.
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