Arizona Agriculture's "Eggcellent" Conversation with Hickman's Family Farms' CEO

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: As a well-known new California law dealing with animal confinement went into effect on January 1, 2015 -- known simply as Prop 2 --, Hickman’s Family Farms has been in expansion mode. In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 2 by a nearly 64 percent majority. Today its the law of the land. 

Many suggest that Prop 2 was the most popular ballot measure in California history. According to a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey of California voters conducted last month, support for Prop 2 has grown even stronger in recent years. More than eight out of nine Californians believe chickens should be raised cage-free, and more than seven out of eight believe six years was “a reasonable amount of time” for egg producers to come into compliance with Prop 2.

Glenn Hickman suggests farmers will continue to micro-market to several constituencies within their customer base.

And while Arizona has no such law, if an egg producer in Arizona wants to sell eggs in California, the farm must comply. Currently in Arizona, the only large-scale, commercial egg producer is Hickman’s Family Farms, a family farm operation that has been in existence since the 1940s.

For the Hickmans, they saw the new law as an opportunity in the market and began to build for it; ready to satisfy the consumer market in the New Year. I recently exchanged emails with CEO Glenn Hickman asking a number of questions regarding Prop 2 and what Hickman’s Family Farms has been doing. Glenn was gracious enough to answer my questions. They follow below.

January 1 has come and gone and the deadline date for implementation of California’s Prop 2 is official. What are the implications of the deadline for 1) the egg industry, and 2) the consumer? Prop 2 has yet to be defined. The voters in the State of California only wanted hens in their state to have an undefined amount of space, but enough to perform certain natural activities like flapping of wings, and comfortably turning around. Most cage systems allow this to happen already, if fewer hens are placed in the cage. Each farmer is free to determine what “enough” space is. The voters placed that trust with the California farmer.

Subsequent legislation and regulation was passed by the Laying-hen industry that extended the intent of Prop 2 to eggs sold in the state. The current shortage is the result of the local industry passing trade barriers to protect their self-interests.

Why haven’t egg farmers in California prepared better for this deadline? A lot of various legal challenges were filed, from trying to get better definition to outright reversal of the initiative. During this time, egg farmers in California did not know the potential outcomes, and delayed any modifications or expansions without precise knowledge of the legal, and regulatory landscape.

As a result of lack of preparation by Californai chicken farmers, what does this mean for average consumers? The basket of regulations only effects the shell egg part of the industry. So users of processed eggs won’t see anything unusual. On the other hand, California consumers are already paying more for their eggs than eggs in other states. The market in California is currently more than a $1/dz higher than Eastern markets — and climbing.

What does this mean for egg farmers short- and long-term? Consumers profess to want to know more about their foods’ origin and production practices, whether eggs or eggplant. Most farmers who market directly to retailers know this and offer choices already. This trend will continue to cause farmers to micro-market to several constituencies within their customer base. Egg farmers must consider husbandry practices as a choice that must be offered to consumers.

What does this mean for consumers short- and long-term? The short answer is you get what you pay for. In farming, volume = efficiency= lower cost. Short term, the consumer in California will pay extra. Longer term, farmers farm. As more farmers commit to the new production practices, the price for consumers desiring specialty eggs will reflect costs incurred, not supply constraint.

How has Hickman’s Family Farms prepared for this change? We have been pouring concrete for new barns forever. In one year’s time, we will have doubled our production space in Arizona in order to supply our California customers. We are also addressing the desire for cage free eggs. We started 2014 with 35,000 floor hens, we will end 2015 with 10 x that many.

If this means an egg shortage in some regions of the country, is this more reasons for families with the energy and time-commitment to start their own backyard chicken coops?  If a family wants to produce any of their own food, whether from livestock or gardens, for whatever reason — except economics, then they should. However, when producing food from livestock, it should be remembered that the animal needs constant care to flourish, weekends included.

Share your thoughts on AG-oriented initiatives like this that have broader consequences than initially anticipated? Julie, my position has evolved. Folks everywhere say one thing, and do another, especially when effort or cost is involved. Food sourcing is no different. But for every 10 people who say they want “ethically sourced” coffee, Gluten free granola, or free range eggs, 1 or 2 may actually buy it. But we have a big country and those onesies and twosies can add up. We are looking at our production practices and are attempting to incorporate practices that address social movements, and may have some tangible benefits for the hens. In 1900, the standard work week was 6 days and 10 hours. We are almost half today, when paid vacations, breaks and other benefits are factored in. I’m assuming all agriculture will continue to evolve as well.

What have I not asked you that you’d like to share? Farmers of all types should be proud of our vocation. When we are working the 7th day, or don’t see our homes in the daylight for weeks on end, it’s a calling, not a job. Yet we still are shy about identifying ourselves with our efforts. All farmers need to continue to publically advocate for our industry and livelihood.

I know that you are tired of me harping on this, but each of us feeds and clothes about 200 people that take our mission for granted. The efficiency gains in farming, absolutely paved the way for the industrial revolution, which became the current information revolution. I feel personally responsible for allowing the likes of a dweeb like Mark Zuckerberg the time to dream up Facebook. If he was out hoeing weeds in a beet field he’d probably have starved to death. 

Editor's Note: I never tire of hearing Glenn's insights on agriculture and what consumers demand today in the market. And, I think Glenn has it exactly right about advocating ... we need more of it from our farmers and ranchers. 

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