Lessons from the hen house

Lessons from the hen house  Yes, this is Drovers/CattleNetwork and no, your eyes aren't deceiving you. We're writing about a chicken farm. Producers across animal agriculture face many of the same challenges and, these days, fight the same misinformation and distorted perceptions in the public arena.

Strategies for changing those perceptions generated some interesting discussions at last month's National Institute for Animal Agriculture conference, particularly during a presentation from Clint Hickman. Hickman is vice president of sales and marketing for Hickman's Family Farms, a large, family-owned egg operation based in Buckeye, Ariz.

Hickman's Family Farms has grown from "a flock of less than 500 in grandma Hickman's back yard" to 300,000 hens in 1998 and more than 5 million today, with facilities in Arizona, California and Colorado. While its size makes the company subject to "factory farm" stereotypes, the family invests extensively in efforts to enhance and protect their public image.

Those efforts fall into two main categories, with the first being on the production side, where the family invests in facilities, equipment and processes focused on animal care, environmental protection and food safety. The hen houses are brightly lit, well ventilated and constantly cleaned, using a high degree of automation. The company composts all of its chicken manure, along with damaged eggs and dead poultry, and markets the end products through its fertilizer division. The fertilizer is available in several formulations and in quantities ranging from 20-pound bags for home gardeners to semi-loads for commercial farms.

The family focuses heavily on animal welfare and developed a "Chicken Bill of Rights" outlining their policies for treatment of animals. They post the bill on every building and instill the standards into day-to-day activities for their employees.

The next tier of their overall public-image effort is to operate with a high degree of transparency and community involvement.

One example illustrates the value of trans-parency and also the benefits of taking a proactive approach to head off potentially negative publicity. A few years back, Hickman says he was watching the popular Discovery Channel program Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe. Seeing the show, he predicted that Rowe eventually would visit an egg farm, with the resulting episode either positive or possibly negative for the industry. To help assure the former, Hickman took a chance and invited Rowe and the Dirty Jobs production team to his operation. As a result, the show's viewers got to see a clean, well-run operation with a focus on animal welfare and responsible waste management. Since then, Rowe has become an outspoken advocate for farmers and ranchers and a valuable ally for animal agriculture.

In another instance, Hickman invited an area newspaper columnist to visit after she wrote a negative article about "factory farming." The Hickman operation includes facilities with cages and a cage-free facility, and after visiting, the columnist wrote a much more positive article, essentially saying the caged production system can provide chickens with a comfortable environment and protect their health and well-being.

The Hickman family also welcomes tour groups, at least in select cases. They can't allow visits from every group that asks, due to biosecurity needs and potential disruptions to operations, but instead focus on groups or individuals who can make a difference. One example is a recent visit from influential women bloggers participating in the "Farm to Table Mom Blog Tour," organized by the Good Egg Project, a national effort supported by American egg farmers.

The company encourages employees to serve as ambassadors to the communities where the Hickman farms are located. All the company's vehicles prominently display the Hickman's Family Farms logo, and employees commonly wear company T-shirts and hats, supplied by their employer, as they go about their work and private lives. "We encourage them to tell our story," Hickman says.

Leading up to the Easter holiday, Hickman's Family Farms donated approximately 700,000 eggs to food banks across Arizona, as well as in Hawaii, Nevada, Colorado and California. The donation is a long-time Hickman's family tradition before Easter and has been part of the United Egg Producers contribution to Feeding America's national campaign for the past four years.

The family's website, Hickmanseggs.com, provides background on the operation and its products, company news, facts about eggs and nutrition, and photo galleries.

All these efforts, Hickman notes, make the company a more difficult target for animal-rights and environmental activists, and generate support at the community level, helping promote a positive public image for eggs, commercial egg production and animal agriculture overall.