Strategies for changing those perceptions generated some interesting discussions at last week’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 managing 300,000 hens in 1998 to more than 5 million today, with facilities in Arizona, California and Colorado. While their size makes the company subject to “factory farm” stereotypes, the family invests extensively in efforts to enhance and protect their public image.

Hickman says the family spends over $1 million annually in voluntary fees to USDA and others for oversight and documentation of the company’s biosecurity, animal care and safety practices. The family 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.

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 potentially very 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. 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 some cases. They can’t allow visits from every group that asks, due to biosecurity needs and potential disruptions to operations, but focus on groups that can make a difference such as a recent visit from influential “mom bloggers.”

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.

All these efforts at best management, transparency and communications, 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.