Egg Farmer Sows Sustainable Lessons in Customer Engagement

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Outreach Director: Recently, an end customer of Hickman’s Family Farm sent an email to Chief Operating Officer and President, Glenn Hickman. In the course of the often enlightening and always entertaining time that I’ve come to know the Hickman siblings, I’ve witnessed them respond to customer concerns about how they raise and care for their hens.

I’ve read more than one of Glenn’s response letters, heard sister, Sharman, or brother, Clint, chat with customers face-to-face. To read or hear their dialogue is an instructive case study in positive public engagement. Something all of us in agriculture could do more of and with their confidence and grace. Granted, you and I probably would never get the kind of admonishing email Glenn often gets.

Whether it's a rolling-down-the-road wrap on a delivery truck or one-on-one conversations, the entire Hickman family has been taught to never dismiss a customer's question. Most of all, they are commited to public engagement. 

I earned the opportunity to read another one of them. This time, I asked Glenn if I could share his email exchange with this customer. The only thing I’ve done is keep our Concerned Citizen anonymous to protect their privacy.

Hi Mr. Hickman,
My name is [Concerned Citizen] and I usually buy my eggs at my local Costco.

A couple years ago, I became aware of the cruel way the egg industry raised chickens and laying hens. I made the decision to stop buying any chicken or egg products that weren't cage free and didn't clip beaks or toes/feet. Yes, I know these animals are raised and alive for the sole purpose of becoming my next meal. In my opinion that fact does not mean we have any less responsibility to humane treatment and care while the birds are alive.


I am sorry to have jumped on my soapbox, but I felt I should let you know why I will not be purchasing your product in the future.  I called your offices today to inquire about the eggs you sell at Costco. For whatever reason, I could not get your site to completely load onto my phone. For the past month or so the eggs I have been buying at Costco have been out of stock. They were cage free medium 1 dozen crates. I'm not sure if they are one of your products. I called your offices about 3:10 pm and I believe Lucy answered your phone. I asked her about your product and how your chickens were housed and if they were clipped at the beak and toes. I found her response evasive, to say the least. No, the Costco eggs are not cage free. No, I am not allowed to tell you how our chickens are housed. Let me get someone who can answer your questions. After several minutes she came back on the line to tell me everyone was gone and all she could say was you are in compliance. I asked her what that meant and I was told she didn't know. She didn't ask for my contact number so a more informed employee could call me back.

I went back to see if your site had loaded while I had been on the phone and it had. Your site sparkles, it looks on the surface that you are a cage-free supplier until the reader goes deeper into all of the hype. All I wanted to know was if you were a humane supplier and if your chickens weren't cage free were they at least able to move around, their hen houses and were they free from mutilation.

Mr. Hickman, your employee was so guarded in speaking to me she made me uncomfortable, I can't imagine what I did to her. You put your staff, or worse family member, in a position she was ill prepared to address. Her uneasiness on the phone left me feeling that maybe you aren't as open and concerned about your customers as your site would like me to believe.

 
The point of this very long e-mail isn't to chastise you about your business but to let you know how very happy and anxious Lucy was to get off the phone. No one should ever be put in that position. I felt very sorry for even reaching out to you almost as soon as she answered the phone. I definitely felt sorry for Lucy.

Glenn Hickman’s Reply

Hi [Concerned Citizen]:

First, thank you for reaching out, even if the message was a little difficult to hear.  I'm sorry that the response and even the way Lucy responded was less than satisfactory.  Our "customer service" desk is geared toward handling customer (grocery stores and warehouses) complaints or challenges, not really consumers, so it's a little misleading.  Lucy is usually tracking delivery vehicles via GPS to determine when a given delivery will be made.  Or settling invoices when a grocery store unstacks a pallet and discovers the hidden damage.  When she was away from the phone, she was probably looking for someone better able to handle your inquiry but found out that we are a little thin on Friday afternoons.  The good news is you didn't let the subject drop, and you reached out to me directly.  Thank you.  I always like to answer any questions regarding our practices, including poultry husbandry directly, so I get a chance to tell our story completely and honestly.

So let me start by telling you that we have 3 types of systems today.  Standard cages, (hens are given 67"square), enriched cages, (116" square), and cage free, (144" square).  Each system has plusses and minuses, some are easy to quantify, and some aren't.  The most intensive systems are the standard cage.  Admittedly, the hens don't have a lot of activities to engage in, except to wake up, eat, drink, and lay eggs.  Enriched cages have perches, nest areas with pads, and more space per hen.  Cage free means the hens are free to roam their entire environment, hopefully spending enough time in the aviary that we don't have to go searching for the egg.  Our enriched cages are the most productive and animal-friendly, if measured by the amount of eggs produced and the livability.  Standard cages produce more eggs than cage free, but the hens don't have as much voluntary activity.  In any case, there isn't anything cruel about any of the systems.  Any animal, especially those at the bottom of the food chain, don't reproduce under stress and duress.  Our hens do a spectacular job of producing eggs, so any stress is minimal.  No matter what we do management wise, we cannot overcome the extra costs caused by the reduced density, so cage free will always be more expensive to produce, and hopefully, buy. 

I am not aware of any chicken farmer that clips toes.  I don't know what good that would do, and I'm assuming bad things could happen.

We trim beaks at the hatchery via a microwave that causes the very end of the sharp tip to fall off.  The baby chicks start eating as soon as they are placed in the pullet cages, so there can't be even soreness at the tip of the beak.  The chicks don't have the ability to eat out of the side of their mouth, and they don't use their tongues to lick up the feed either.  We are working with our genetics suppliers to grow a bird that doesn't have as much as a tendency to pick their neighbors.  However, that's a Mother Nature instilled instinct, so the progress will be slow.  As we see improvements, we hope to not have to beak trim at all in the future.

We believe all systems have their place in some markets.  The most efficient way to produce eggs is the standard cage, but that type of system is rapidly falling out of favor with a growing number of consumers.  Farmers are horrible at telling their story and why we engage in certain practices, so even if I feel that the enriched cage is the best possible compromise for bird health, worker safety, food hygiene, etc., we are moving toward cage-free as a company.  In our SNAP-based society's attention span, the cage-free argument will always win out. Our flock of cage-free birds today is almost 1.5 million hens and we are transitioning the balance of our farms, hoping to reach 100% cage-free by 2025. 


In the meantime, we are transitioning our offerings in Costco as quickly as we can to cage-free.  We have converted over half the stores we supply in the past year and will reach 100% by year's end, including those in Las Vegas.  In any case, please know that all of our eggs are healthy, fresh, and nutritious.  Also, please understand that we are not purveyors of animal cruelty in any form.  We will continue to do the best job we can, servicing every consumer, even those whose main concern is price.

Further, I'm BCCing a friend of mine at the Humane Society of the U.S.  Our beliefs and agendas are sometimes conflicted, but our future goals are very similar.  He may have additional information that you may find useful.

I hope that I have answered your questions more completely than Lucy was able.  Our family has been in business for over 70 years.  We are proud of our business and delight in delivering nature's most perfect protein to our markets.  I'm fortunate to be the 3rd generation to participate in our operations, and members of the 4th generation are actively engaged as well.  I'm thinking the 5th generation will be following along soon, but at the present time her limited language skills (18 months old), still leave me a little baffled about her future intentions.

If there is anything else I can do or explain, please reach back out.  Have a nice evening.

Concerned Citizen’s Follow-up

Hello again:

Thank you for taking the time to reply.  Your detailed information was very helpful and has helped to put me in a more comfortable mindset as to how your eggs are produced.  I do understand the limited intellect of the average chicken and am sure they do not need a lot of "play" area.  So your three system hatchery or layery [sic] seems to be very humane in a world that often isn't. 

A few years ago I saw the Temple Grandin movie about the humane slaughter of cows and it was a beginning for me to actively try and purchase as much of my animal protein from humane venders.  I have, to be honest it hasn't always been easy because no one puts a sticker on their product stating cruel or inhumane.  At any rate that is why I have begun to contact companies like yours when I am unsure of their practices. 

Thank you again for taking the time to respond to my e-mail.  It was very kind of you and I do appreciate it. 

Most sincerely,
Concerned Citizen

May God bless and keep you safe

If you read the entire exchange, you’ll note how Glenn was able to dispel some misconceptions but mainly restore this customer’s concern about the family’s animal care practices. The irony is our end customer becomes an “expert” based on a single Google search or watching one movie about supposed modern agriculture practices. Or, maybe it’s not ironic at all. One thing our instant messaging society has learned to do well is advance an opinion, even if it’s built on misconceptions.

Oh, and for the record, after a handful of tours in the family’s barns over the years, I’d describe those chicks as pampered.

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