Joel Brandenberger’s organization presents the National Thanksgiving Turkey, which the U.S. president pardons each November.
"If you're dealing with a live animal and the president, anything can happen."
Texas Tech University alumnus Joel Brandenberger knows that fact better than just about anyone else. As president and CEO of the National Turkey Federation, Brandenberger has had his fair share of encounters with both. You see, while the National Turkey Federation is primarily a trade organization that advocates for America's turkey industry in Washington, D.C., they're perhaps most well-known for one annual event.
Each November, the National Turkey Federation presents the National Thanksgiving Turkey, which the President of the United States pardons.
So how does a person become the head of such an organization? For Brandenberger, it was an unexpected route, although every significant point along the way ties back to Texas Tech.
Freeway to farmland
Born in raised in urban Houston, agriculture was pretty far off Brandenberger's radar, but when he was in high school, his mother got a new job. Formerly the public relations director for the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Jane Brandenberger packed up her family and moved to Lubbock in 1975 to become Director of University News and Publications at Texas Tech. The transition was like something out of "Green Acres."
"When we moved out, we didn't just move to Lubbock; we bought a place in Ransom Canyon, when it looked not a thing like it does today," Joel Brandenberger remembered. "I wound up going to Roosevelt High School. I went from a school that was right next to Loop 610 in Houston to one where, if the ball went over the fence, there wasn't really a fence – it was in the cotton field.
"It was a change."
As he settled in, Brandenberger made friends and began to learn about his classmates' lives, which were so different from his own up to that point.
"The majority of kids there were from farm families," he recalled. "I would help my friends sometimes with stuff they had to do around the farm, hoeing out in the field, helping them move irrigation pipe, etc. That's how my experience with agriculture started."
Brandenberger took a part-time job delivering newspapers. Occasionally he visited his mother's new office at Texas Tech. "He always seemed to be a nice, smart kid," remembered Sally Post, who worked in the office at the time.
Brandenberger was already interested in journalism as a possible career field, and for financial reasons, he wanted to go to a state-funded university in Texas. At the time, that meant he had two options: the University of Texas, which was bigger than he wanted to deal with, and Texas Tech.
"I already was considering Texas Tech," he noted, "but when my mother took that job and I got to spend time around the campus while I was in high school, that sort of cinched it, in my mind."
Into the media
Brandenberger majored in journalism and worked his way up to editor of the campus newspaper, then called the University Daily. Upon graduating in May 1982, he took a position as a general assignments reporter at the Amarillo Globe-News. Because the paper was between agriculture section editors at the time, he covered agriculture-related stories as needed.
In January 1983, he was offered the position of Farm and Ranch Editor. The alternative was to stay as a general assignment reporter and change his work week to Sunday through Thursday.
"The Super Bowl was two weeks off, and I didn't want to miss that, so I took the agriculture job," Brandenberger joked, then continued, "In all seriousness, at the Amarillo newspaper, given the Panhandle and what drives the economy, the agriculture and energy beats were the two best beats to cover in terms of things happening to move the area, so I was excited to do that. I covered agriculture and some politics on the side."
In the course of his job, he formed a working relationship with Amarillo-based State Sen. Bill Sarpalius, a fellow Texas Tech alumnus who represented the 29 counties of the Texas Panhandle. By late 1984, Sarpalius had decided to hire his first full-time press secretary, so he turned to Brandenberger.
"Journalism and politics were the only two things I really ever thought I might want to do as a career, so I thought I'd give that a try," Brandenberger said. "He ran for Congress in 1988 and won, so I wound up in Washington."
On Capitol Hill
In his positions as press secretary and legislative director for then-U.S. Rep. Sarpalius, Brandenberger continued to work with media and agriculture, particularly related to Sarpalius' role on the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee.
In Washington, D.C., he encountered other Texas Tech alumni. Eddie Aldrete, a journalism graduate in the class of 1981, dropped by to catch up. He had recently left a position at the National Turkey Federation to start working on Capitol Hill.
"I was happy for him and glad he got the job," Brandenberger said, "but I didn't think anything of it."
That is, until another Texas Tech alumnus nudged him. Daniel B. Waggoner, a 1983 animal sciences graduate and, by then, staff director for the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry, suggested Brandenberger apply for the job Aldrete had vacated at the National Turkey Federation.
Brandenberger replied, "Why? I'm from Texas. I know cows; I know cotton. What do I know about this?"
But Waggoner had the right response.
"He said, 'It's a perfect situation. You wouldn't have to create the lobbying program, but it's still so new there that you would have a chance to grow it, and it has a press component, too,'" Brandenberger recalled. "So in May 1991, I came to the National Turkey Federation to do lobbying and some media work. I thought, 'I'll try this for two or three years and then decide if I want to come back to Texas or do something else.'"
He's now been there almost 30 years.
National Turkey Federation
And what a 30 years it's been.
"Our membership here is amazing," Brandenberger said. "Trade association politics in some places can be cutthroat – members fighting each other, perceiving their association as favoring one company or another – but there's none of that here. It's a membership that pulls together and pulls in the same direction. They don't care if we work hard for a member company on a specific thing, so long as it doesn't cause detriment to anybody else, because they know we'll work hard on something for them when they have a challenge that comes up. So it is really rewarding working with them."
Although in the early years Brandenberger helped with media relations, his main job was helping legislators understand the issues faced by turkey producers and how their decisions would affect the turkey industry.
"From a regulatory standpoint, we have food safety, animal welfare, animal health and welfare, environmental labor issues, etc., that all require our focus," he said. "Not every decision the government makes is going to break your way, but you want to make sure that whatever decision comes down, you're confident that you've been able to convey to the regulators and legislators all the facts and information that's pertinent to the decision.
"I think that's probably the biggest misconception of how lobbyists work, and it's actually why I enjoy it; it's not too different from being a newspaper reporter. You gather information and you try to disseminate it."
One notable example was a major avian flu outbreak in 2015. It impacted the turkey population first before spreading through other bird species, so the National Turkey Federation played a pivotal role in both explaining to Congress what turkey producers were doing to combat the virus and hearing legislators' expectations of the industry.
"From mid-March 2015 until sometime in early August, it was brutal hours, brutal work," Brandenberger said. "But although you hear a lot of negative stories from Washington, that was one case where I think most people would have been really pleased to see how things worked. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials were accessible at all hours when problems came up, helping us try to figure out the best solution to contain the disease.
"Congress obviously wanted to have hearings to understand what happened but they also were respectful of the time that was needed to get it under control, so hearings didn't occur until things were more under control. There was no partisanship at the hearings, no one trying to say the administration didn't do things they could, it was just, 'What can Congress do going forward to try to help?' A couple years later, Congress did pass some legislation to streamline animal-health research and the availability of banks of vaccines and medicines. It was actually the kind of thing that reaffirms your faith in how things work."
Eventually missing the media component his job once offered, Brandenberger found other ways to fill that gap in his life. He became a member of the advisory board for Texas Tech's College of Media & Communication, and in 2015, he was named one of the college's outstanding alumni. Since that year, Brandenberger and his wife, Susan Revello, have been the owners of FORWARD Florida, an award-winning economic development and business issues magazine.
And since he took the reins as the National Turkey Federation's president and CEO in December 2006, he's also participated in the annual media spectacle surrounding the presidential turkey pardoning.
Although the National Turkey Federation's governmental relations work is nearly a year-round endeavor, there's definitely a busy season.
"As a good friend said, 'I'm always queen for a month, starting in late October,'" Brandenberger laughed. "Thanksgiving is still a busy time for us, extremely busy."
For many years, the federation was barraged by hundreds of calls, from media inquiries to proper turkey-preparation questions and everything in between.
"We would have a Thanksgiving bible we put together," Brandenberger said. "We trained everybody on staff on a lot of key questions, and you could listen throughout the office and you'd hear people answering Thanksgiving questions as they came in."
Over time, the way people seek out information has changed, but the questions continue. Most people now visit the website or social media accounts of the National Turkey Federation, one of its member companies or the USDA instead.
"Some of the general consumer calls to the office have slowed in the last five to seven years, compared to where they used to be," Brandenberger said, "but it's still busy around Thanksgiving."
That's because the National Turkey Federation has one duty every November on a much larger scale than answering cooking questions.
The National Thanksgiving Turkey
Of course, the preparations for each year's event begin much earlier. And as Brandenberger says, "It's not a thing like whatever you might have seen on 'The West Wing.'"
The chairman of the National Turkey Federation's Executive Committee, elected from the federation's member companies on a rotating basis, is in charge of having the turkey raised and, later, presenting the chosen bird to the U.S. President.
Soon after hatching, a small flock of about 25-30 young turkeys is separated from the rest and placed in a special barn. They're fed, watered, medicated and raised the same as any other turkey, with one notable exception: the people responsible for their care acclimate the turkeys to a more public environment.
"They take a boombox in and play crowd noises, they do a little bit of hand-feeding sometimes – anything to make the turkeys more accustomed to being around people so when the bird winds up in the Rose Garden, it doesn't freak," Brandenberger said.
As Thanksgiving approaches, the chairman narrows it down to the final two birds that make the trip – usually by car – to Washington, D.C. The turkeys stay for two nights in a suite in the Willard Hotel, near the White House.
"In reality, we cordon off a section of the suite and put shavings down so there's not a mess, but there are more than a few photo ops where they're having the run of the suite," Brandenberger said. "We do that, which is fun; we do a press event the day before, so the media up here can meet the turkeys.
"Usually, our chairman will have a pretty good idea of which one is going to be up on the stand in the Rose Garden, but we always wait to make sure nothing happens, that one of them doesn't get ill or something."
About 90 minutes before the event, the turkeys are brought into the Rose Garden so they can walk around and get used to the new surroundings. The event itself only lasts about 15 minutes. Typically, the president makes his remarks, the turkey is lifted onto a table for people to see and, often, local schoolchildren present are allowed to pet the bird.
"It's a nice event," Brandenberger said, and he knows – since 1991, he's only missed two. But, as he cautioned, with a wild animal and a president, there's always the potential for something to go wrong.
'Anything can happen'
One memorable ceremony was that of 2006. President George W. Bush was in a national security briefing in the Oval Office, which would have been visible from the Rose Garden, so Brandenberger, a colleague and the turkeys were instructed to wait in a garden along the east wing. After a little while, the group's White House liaison said the briefing was winding down, so she could escort them to the Rose Garden.
On their way around the south drive of the White House, Brandenberger noticed someone walking the Bush family's two dogs, Barney and Miss Beazley, but he didn't think much about it. Arriving in the Rose Garden, Brandenberger let the first turkey out of its cage.
"Suddenly, Barney and Miss Beazley are running like bats out of hell, flying to the Rose Garden to see the turkeys," he said. "The one turkey that was out kind of freaked and started flapping. Domestic commercial turkeys don't really fly, per se, but it was flapping its wings, going backwards and knocking over chairs."
As a White House employee grabbed Miss Beazley, Brandenberger kept his eyes on the birds to make sure Barney couldn't get to them. But with his focus on the turkeys, he didn't see the door open from the Oval Office.
But a sudden shrill whistle and a commanding "Barney!" caught his attention.
"President Bush had to leave his national security briefing to come round up the dog," Brandenberger said. "This poor woman who was our liaison, her boss happened to be walking through at that moment and she just felt awful. Our liaison's boss called her over and said something to her."
But she wasn't in trouble. "Well," her boss told her, "it doesn't feel like it now, but before long, it'll be funny."
"Sure enough," Brandenberger added, "by the time President Bush came out about 20 minutes later for the event, he had come to see just how funny it was and made a few jokes about it."
A real snafu occurred one year during President Bill Clinton's administration. That year, all the care taken to raise the turkeys around people was for naught. At the last minute, the turkeys' home state encountered an avian pneumovirus outbreak.
"It's not lethal and it's not dangerous to humans at all, but it's an animal disease and we were going to fly the birds that year," Brandenberger said. "The state veterinarian said, 'I cannot sign the certificate for the airline,' so we had to get another member from a neighboring state to grab two turkeys, literally at the last minute, and send them to Washington. These birds had no socialization, no anything. I could tell they were a little wild, a little unruly, and it was my job and one other person's to keep the bird corralled in the corner of the Rose Garden."
Things seemed OK as Clinton came out and began his remarks.
"Suddenly, the bird did a head jerk one direction, took off the other and got away from us; strutted up and down in front of the press corps in the back of the Rose Garden and then headed up the middle aisle, straight toward the podium," Brandenberger said. "Thank goodness that kind of ad-libbing is something President Clinton was very good at. He was good natured about it, and our chairman actually had to come down off the podium to contain the turkey and put it up on the table. It all ended well, but there were a couple of scary moments, and I was always appreciative of President Clinton for handling it so smoothly."
But the most memorable ceremony for Brandenberger was his very first, in 1991.
"It's a miracle I was ever involved after my first year," he said, only half-joking.
Only six months on the job, Brandenberger was in charge of lifting that year's turkey onto the table, so after President George H.W. Bush finished his comments, Brandenberger squatted down and wrapped his arms around the bird. It stepped over his arms, trying to evade his grasp, so he grabbed its leg.
The bird flapped its wings furiously, sending white feathers everywhere and beating Brandenberger around the head briefly as he tried to set the turkey on the table – and it immediately flopped back to the ground. As reporters vocalized their surprise, he resolutely straightened the white cuffs emerging from the sleeves of his black suit, pulled a few stray feathers out of his mouth with a slight head shake, then came at the bird from behind.
In a half hug, half lift-by-the-wings, he raised the bird onto the table. In the background, Bush leaned into the microphone and said, "That guy's got a lot of courage."
Nearly 30 years after that eventful first White House turkey presentation, Brandenberger still keeps a photo of it around.
"That keeps me humble when things are going well,” he laughed. “Remember, if you're dealing with a live animal and the president, anything can happen. You've got to be ready for it."
As it turned out, the need to adapt was a lesson he learned in an unlikely place: an editing class at Texas Tech.
"There was a professor there, easily the toughest professor in the department, a gentleman named Harmon Morgan. Editing was his primary class – I liked it so much I took it twice," Brandenberger laughed.
"He was very tough. He would be the first to tell you there was a certain level of arbitrariness and subjectiveness in how he graded some things, but the grade was less important than whether he thought you had reached your potential before you moved on."
It was the fall of 1980. "The typewriter was beginning to go the way of the dinosaur," Brandenberger noted. The University Daily had just transitioned to word processors with monitors, whereas the editing class was still using older machines.
But Morgan had a word of advice for them.
"Before anyone grumbles about this being outdated, you need to keep something in mind: Technology will change over and over and over again as you go through your careers," Brandenberger recalled Morgan telling the class. "It doesn't matter whether this is older than what the University Daily might have or some other department might have. Technology will change. Everything will change over and over again, and you all have to be able to adapt."
From journalism to governmental relations to heading up the National Turkey Federation, it turned out to be a guiding principle in Brandenberger's career. And the fact that he learned it at Texas Tech is no coincidence.
"Texas Tech is that kind of place," he said. "If you give it a chance, it'll be in your bloodstream forever."