Meet Arizona Agriculture's Gertie and Bill Hickman

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Communication Director: You really need to visit with Gertie Hickman, Gertrude Lupita Hickman. She has the kind of laugh that gets you to giggling. Her’s is a genuine belly laugh; her’s is a genuine life.

This genuine life of Gertie and Bill Hickman starts out also as a genuine love story, kind of serendipitously as all good love stories do, but one that built an unintentional grand story, full of trials, challenges, fun times and I suspect a lot of laughter. They recently celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary.

She’s also candid, unpretentious and will always share a great story. The genesis of Hickman’s Family Farms started like so many American business stories: Let’s go from here to there because we want a better life, not always imagining how big a dream can grow but imagining opportunity. Could you conceive of growing a business from 500 chicks to 8 million?

And, while we've profiled the Hickman family before, this story just has to be shared. You'll identify with some of the commonalities and celebrate with them what is unique. 

An interview with Gertrude Lupita Hickman – Litchfield Park, Arizona

 Part of an ongoing series about Arizona farming & ranching families.

Tell me where you grew up: I was born and raised in Glendale, Arizona. My father had retail clothing stores and my mother played mini-farmer. We had our share of horses and cows and one pig. One of my dad’s customers gave him a pig in place of money for their charge account, so we ended up with Judy the pig. We had chickens and bunnies, you name it. We had our share of everything. We had cats and dogs, and my brother even had a guinea pig.

I got exposure to the farm life through other family members too. My grandmother, originally from Ohio, had a home on Glendale and 7th Avenue. She had chickens and we used to gather the eggs and clean them and take them across the street to Mr. Fireman’s Grocery Store and trade them for Barq’s Root Beer and Aunt Hattie’s Bread.

Tell me how you met your husband, Bill: Bill was a friend of my brother-in-law, Albert Vizcaya. The Vizcaya family had a big dairy, big in that day. My sister and Albert were married and Bill was one of Albert’s friends. We kind of met up that way.

At the time, Bill was pumping gas at Standard Station and I was taking as many of the family vehicles to Standard Station as I could so I could meet him. I didn’t start liking Bill for his trustworthiness, his honesty his partnership – qualities he had – none of that.

Gertie and Bill on their wedding day.

He had served his time in the army and saved all him money; sent it home. And with his money, he had his parents buy him a 1956 Ford Victoria and it was black and white. I took note of that. Then, one day my brother-in-law came home and I was over visiting with my sister, and Albert said, “My gosh you ought to see the boat the Hickman’s ordered. There’s not anything like it in the state of Arizona, It’s a Chris Craft Inboard.” I had no idea except that it was a boat and I thought, “Man, if Albert’s so impressed with this guy I need to meet him.”

Nothing to do with his good qualities. Bill was blonde, blue-eyed, six-foot-two and in later years he looked like Robert Redford to me. He was probably the only unmarried one of that age group. In fact, he was dating my Pom coach in High School at the time.

Marriage right away? No. I had spent three years at Arizona State; wonderful school everyone ought to go. Our first date was to a Desert Boat and Ski Club meeting. None of the ladies there liked me so I had to sit with all of their husbands and I had a wonderful time. At the next Boat and Ski Club meeting all the women made sure that I was included in their group. Anyway, we started dating and I don’t know which one of us proposed but somehow or another we ended up getting married. We got married in August and we’ll be celebrating our 58th wedding anniversary. We bought our first 500 baby chicks a few months later, in November.

So you got into the chicken farming business right away. Bill’s mother had chickens and he said she made a little bit of money from it. Bill decided he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life at Standard Station pumping gas into other peoples’ cars so we ended up buying the baby chicks and using their facilities while we built our first building and hung the first cages and so forth. We had no obligations except feeding those baby chicks so I started delivering eggs door-to-door three days a week until my babies started coming and then I had to turn over my egg routes to other people. The chickens had to pay their own way. We had to pay the feed bill by Friday afternoon or they wouldn’t send us feed for the chickens on Monday morning. It was a pretty intensive selling job that I did all around Glendale.

The brood of Matthew, Glenn, Billy, Clint and Sharman on Easter.... So appropriate. 

Tell the story of working with the chickens while you were having children. My poor little first son. As soon as he was big enough to ride on the cart and hold his head up, well, for a long time I didn’t have a cart but I couldn’t get the eggs in the basket without them getting cracked because I had to carry the basket and gather the eggs. But then Bill’s dad and his friend fixed up an egg cart for me. After Matthew came we were able to put, or kind of bend, a piece of pipe into a ‘U’ shape and I’d put him in the middle of the ‘U’ in the front of the cart and then tied him into the pipe arrangement with one of the long diapers so that he could ride with me while I gathered eggs.

Bill and Gertie are celebrating 58 years of marriage.

Every once and a while he would pick up an egg and splatter it on top of the other eggs. He did learn how to gather eggs finally. Many years later Sharman followed me into the chicken houses. When we moved locations we didn’t have a crew of boys there at the time so I would pick her up from pre-kindergarten and we would have lunch and then we would go out and gather eggs for a while until I noticed she was getting kind of slow and wanting to go inside and take her nap. I’d wait until she was sound asleep and then I would run back out and gather and run back in every once and a while to check on her. When the boys came home from school they would get their flats and start doing the afternoon gathering, and that’s the way we worked it on 91st Avenue for quite some time.

For how long was your family involved in the farming at that personal level? Well Matthew had to get up and feed the chickens before he ever could eat breakfast in the morning and get ready for school. I think that’s typical of all farm kids in that age group. They all had chores to do before they could go in and have breakfast and get ready and catch the big yellow school bus to go school. It was very hands on. Like my husband says, “Our most advanced piece of machinery was the wheelbarrow and a shovel.”

Tell us a little bit about your first encounter with the privacy curtains that have been installed for your chickens in the new Barns: I laughed when I saw that and I asked Billy, “What’s that red stuff hanging in the cages?” and he says, “It’s a privacy curtain” and I said, “What?” He said “The chickens like to get behind it and hide and lay their eggs behind the curtain” and, I said, “Oh, my gosh! I had you five kids and I never had a privacy curtain. Everybody was in there with me.”

Son, Glenn, with Gertie making omelets at a soup kitchen. 

Former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Gertie Hickman deep in conversation. 

Gertie gave former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords a tour of the family operation a few years back. She could reflect on all the changes made over the years beginning with those 500 chicks bought to begin the family farm.  

What surprises you the most about how far you’ve come since getting those 500 chicks? That these feel-good people want to take us back in time and turn the chickens loose on the ground and let them eat what they can scrounge for whether it’s their own manure or something the cows did or, you know, you can do a lot for chickens by just getting them up off the ground on wire where they get clean food and clean water. It stops a lot of problems from happening.

What are you most proud of? My children and what they’ve done with the business. Bill and I were at one point became older and not quite the drive, or vision, to carry forward and our children came into the business and stepped right up and took hold and made it what it is today. Glenn oversees everything and Billy is in charge of production and construction, Sharman does the public relations work and Clint’s in sales, along with his county supervisor position, so I just stand back and am so grateful for everything that’s happened.

The good Lord has blessed us so many times with our children and with our business.

Do you see any of the next generation of the Hickman family entering the business? I think everybody is discussing that with their children. Glenn has one son that is intense with the business, and then Billy’s two older sons are both involved in the business too. One of them just moved up to Colorado to take care of what we’ve got up there and another is working out in Arlington so we do have that next generation coming on.

I’ve got a granddaughter at Texas A&M University and I don’t know what her goals are but I think all the younger ones are probably looking toward coming in to the business in some capacity.

What strikes you as impressive about your mom? (To Gertie’s daughter, Sharman): She often says that she and Dad didn’t have the drive the next generation did, but yet I don’t know if there’s been a year where she hasn’t delivered eggs with me to an event or set up some deviled eggs or shown up to a radio station for a taping because I’m not as organized as she is and she had five kids. They say that they’re not as driven but I don’t know of anybody in my age group that thinks that my mom is not as driven.

My peers and everyone younger than me always congratulates me on how active my mom is and how she inspires everybody around her to be giving to the point where she’s tireless. She has a heart for everybody no matter who you are. Plus, wherever we are she’s always looking at going to help somebody that needs a little help.

She’s chasing after 14 grandkids despite that they’re in different states. She’s the first grandparent that all of the teachers meet and the front-office lady knows her by her first name; and that’s for all the schools. She says she’s not as driven but I think the reason why my brothers continue to pursue their dreams is because of watching my mom and dad.

Gertie, as the Hickman Family Farm grew, any other insights on how you had to care for the chickens? My cousin’s husband used to work at Arizona State University when they still had the poultry farm. It was part of the curriculum. I called my cousin, Francie, at the time because our baby chicks were pecking each other. Since my dad’s store had plenty of old shoe boxes available, I went down and got a bunch of shoe boxes to separate the baby chicks. We were living in an eight-by-thirty trailer and I had these shoe boxes all over the floor with baby chicks in them that had been pecked and had little blood spots all over them. With the information from my cousin, we smeared red-food colored Vick’s on the baby chicks.  We dyed the Vicks red so when the baby chicks saw red, they pecked it, discovered they didn’t like it because of the Vick’s and eventually the chicks stopped pecking each other. So for a while, you saw all these little red-dyed chicks running around; it worked. What a nightmare at the time.

We’ve had to fly by the seat of our pants at times.

Our trailer was right in the middle of the chicken yard. I could check brooders to see where the baby chicks were. I could see into the laying buildings. I could keep track of everything because I was right in the middle of everything with my own little brood.

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