As the CFO of Hickman’s Family Farms, I feel it is important that I speak up on behalf of all the employees here who are upset about how we are depicted in a recent documentary, in court hearings and now in the West Valley View. As a group, we are proud to work here, proud of providing millions of safe, high-quality eggs to families throughout the southwestern United States, and proud of the community work our company does. And I say “our company” because we feel we are Hickman’s as much as those who have that last name.
In last week’s paper, there was a story about the documentary “Right to Harm,” its showing in Tempe and the panel discussion featuring some residents of Tonopah. Unfortunately, the article spent no effort to either substantiate or repudiate the claims made in the movie and by the Tonopah people. It did include some of a statement Hickman’s had provided the director of the movie, and to his credit, he played that in full at the showing. The problem with running an article such as this is that what is already described by the director as a biased documentary is given more validity by a story in a newspaper that does nothing to refute its inaccuracies. To this paper’s credit, it has offered me the opportunity to tell our side of the story.
The first and most important point is that the three individuals from Tonopah portrayed in the documentary have sued Hickman’s, seeking money. It is in their best interests to exaggerate at every turn the extent of the issues they claim we are causing in Tonopah. This is especially important in that no governmental agency has ever detected any harmful level of any toxin emanating from our facility in Tonopah. And we have been inspected many, many times.
In the second paragraph of the story, it was reported that Sonia Lopez’s son’s health improved when they moved 26 miles away. What it doesn’t say is that they only lived that far away for a little over a year and have subsequently moved back to Tonopah. Residing now about a mile and a third due north of the farm, Ms. Lopez claims the air is much better and her kids enjoy swimming outside once again. For her, a little over a mile is fine, yet Dan Mack lives over four miles away and continues to claim Hickman’s affects his life.
The film claims, and the paper restates, that CAFOs release more than 160 toxins. And it is interesting they say “release,” not may or could release. It is stated as a fact. We do not release harmful levels of any toxins, and if we did either the EPA, the county or the state would shut us down. But the conspiracy theorists have an answer for that: Clint Hickman.
In the movie, in the panel discussion and in just about every other public forum at which the Tonopah plaintiffs speak, they mention the incredible power and influence of one of the farm’s owners and current county supervisor. They claim he should be removed from office for the conflict of interest inherent as a business owner and an elected representative. His not getting involved in this dispute, on either side, is exactly what an elected official is supposed to do in these situations. He has recused himself from playing any role in this conflict. This, the Tonopah plaintiffs claim, robs them of representation. But it also robs us of that same representation. If you are looking for a corrupt official, you best look somewhere other than at Clint. He is as honorable and ethical as they come. And to suggest that he has power over the EPA or the state of Arizona is just absurd. He is a supervisor of Maricopa County. To think, as it has been suggested, that he could call the EPA and demand an end to an investigation is beyond silly. It shows a fundamental lack of knowledge of how governments work.
Both Dan Mack and Danielle Diamond, attorney, claimed the residents of Tonopah weren’t given a say on whether Hickman’s could build there. Yet, they did give their tacit approval when they chose to buy and live in an area zoned such that it allows for nonresidential agricultural enterprises. Even if they didn’t read that in the paperwork they signed when they purchased property there, they had to be aware of it as there were and still are farm fields and dairies all over Tonopah. Zoning laws exist so that people understand what can be built in their area. That way, as long as the building or operation is legal under the zoning laws, a new enterprise doesn’t need the approval of the rest of the residents. They gave their approval when they moved into an agricultural area.
Another oft-repeated fallacy is that we collect some sort of government subsidy. The movie producer found one economist to agree with his points and then quotes him repeatedly. This economist states that if we didn’t receive subsidies, smaller farms could exist. There are two problems with that statement. First of all, we receive no government subsidy. Second, economics are what are driving larger and larger farms and squeezing out smaller ones, just as large retail chains have driven out hundreds of small mom-and-pop grocery stores by offering a larger selection of goods at a cheaper price. The habits of consumers supporting these large retailers have sealed the fate of smaller stores. There simply is no going back to Kansas. That is a fact of our economy.
The documentary claims CAFOs foul the water tables when their manure is spread over farm fields. We don’t spread our manure over fields. And what option do these people suggest to replace manure-based fertilizer? Chemical fertilizers have the same potential hazard if misused and are disdained by some to the point that organic crops can only be grown using animal-based fertilizers.
Finally, attorney Diamond suggests we change our business model to something perceived to be less harmful. She (Editor’s Note: the article) didn’t say to something that is less harmful, but to something perceived to be less harmful. Perception by definition is in the eye of the perceiver, and we have no control over that. And Dan Blackson suggests we should simply comply with the laws and regulations. Which we do.
Every day, over 400 employees go to work at our various farms. Never has one filed a worker’s comp claim stating he or she has health issues because he or she was exposed to harmful levels of ammonia or hydrogen sulfide. None claim they cannot breathe, get nose bleeds or have dogs that contracted diabetes because of their exposure to the air around our farms. Only those residents looking for a big payday from Hickman’s have made those claims. It is important to always keep in mind the motivation behind statements that are not backed up by science. Hundreds of thousands of potential dollars may make exaggeration seem like a good idea. Say things often and loud enough and people will begin to believe they are true. After all, I saw it in a movie.