Stories From the Farm: Linda Butler

Linda Butler – Save Tonopah Oppose Poultry Plant (STOPP)

After four decades in California, Linda and Mike Butler moved back to their native Arizona in search of some peace and quiet.

The night skies, the quiet, the open space, the clean air,  said Linda Butler. You get away from the traffic and the pollution. It’s just really nice and serene out here. 

After eight years of enjoying rural serenity in the small town of Tonopah, the Butlers found their quality of life under threat of a 360-acre egg factory being planned by Hickman’s Family Farms. 

The name might invoke bucolic imagery of a small, family-run farm. Think again. Hickman’s is Arizona’s largest egg producer. It runs two industrial-sized operations in Arlington and Maricopa, housing about 4 million chickens in each.

Hickman’s has been in the spotlight before when the Humane Society highlighted the industrial egg giant over its use of battery cages, which are scientifically proven to cause enduring suffering in the egg-laying hens. Hens in battery cages are unable to move, perch, nest, or dust bathe — all of which ensure their health and wellbeing.

The Tonopah facility is slated to house more than 2 million chickens in the first phase alone, with the potential for 8 million depending on demand. Butler has helped lead the charge against the industrial egg producer, along with hundreds of other residents, and formed a group called STOPP, which stands for Save Tonopah Oppose Poultry Plant.

The Hickman company already has a similarly sized egg facility in Arlington, about 18 miles from Tonopah. It’s a terrifying sneak peek into what could potentially turn into a nightmare for the small community of Tonopah. Butler says she can’t drive by Arlington without rolling her windows up.

An aerial view of the Hickman facility in Tonopah, courtesy of Dave Monaco

An aerial view of the Hickman facility in Tonopah, courtesy of Dave Monaco

They have these lagoons with runoff from dead bodies after they do their depopulation. They go in there and clean up the hen houses, they euthanize the chickens. They run them through mulchers,  said Butler, who added that the chicken sludge  is then mixed with manure and sold as organic fertilizers.

Those lagoons are filled with waste, which then evaporates into the air and surrounds neighboring communities.

The stench is god awful, flies and mosquitoes live off the lagoon,  Butler said. In Arlington, there are vacant homes, people who have walked away from their places because they can’t sell them ¦ We don’t want that kind of stink, bacteria, dander, flies like crazy. 

And those are only the physical effects, Butler emphasized.

The long-term danger is the water and the health issues,  she said. We’ve got pure water, and if the Hickmans come in and their lagoons flood over in the monsoon rains — which is very likely — the runoff from the chicken manure gets down into our aquifer. 

The factory is not only a threat to the community’s groundwater, it could also impact the nearby hot springs that Tonopah — meaning hot water under the bush  — is named after.

If your water is ruined, you’ve got no more town,  Butler said. People are going to end up having to haul water. It’s going to devastate the community. 

The Butlers and the Tonopah community at large were nearly blindsided by the egg factory moving into town. Shortly after the Hickmans bought the property in late 2013, Linda Butler said mumblings started about the neighborhood.  By December, there was an impromptu community meeting held at an RV park, where about 30 people showed. But within 24 hours, word was beginning to spread through social media and old fashioned word of mouth.

We had a meeting that following Tuesday at the Tonopah Valley Community Council, and we really didn’t know what to do,  said Butler. They thought about starting a petition, but decided to take it a step further. They took the issue up with their local Board of Supervisors and started meeting every week to discuss how to stop the facility from moving into their community.

The meetings started drawing hundreds of attendees, and the community was beginning to rally against the farm. But local government was not providing the support the group needed.

STOPP demonstrators displaying homemade signs

STOPP demonstrators displaying homemade signs for their local representatives

Butler said the Board of Supervisors refuses to comment on the situation and won’t do anything to help Tonopah residents. The board instead refers members of the group to their district representative.

That representative just so happens to be Clint Hickman, of the very same family trying to bring the facility into Tonopah.

That’s supposed to be our recourse,  Butler said. ¦We have emailed him, invited him to meetings. We get absolutely no response, not even an acknowledgement that he received our email. We’ve even sent letters and have gotten no response. 

In late May, Butler and the members of STOPP asked for Hickman’s resignation, citing a conflict of interest and arguing that he has not been performing his duty as district representative. So far, they haven’t gotten anywhere on that front. Butler said the corruption in local government has been one of the most appalling aspects of her fight against the egg factory.

It’s just so intertwined, it’s unbelievable,  she said.

Butler has no background in activism of any kind, and said she fell into this fight by circumstance. She described herself as just a little housewife that loves doing stuff outdoors.

We like to go quad-riding and go out on our horses. We have nothing against farmers,  she said. We moved out here. We don’t mind the cattle or the goats or the chickens that are around here. 

Butler also said the feedlot is also quite a ways away from any business or residences,  unlike the proposed site of the egg factory, which would be surrounded by residences.

We didn’t move to the farm, we didn’t move to the chickens,  she said. The chickens moved to us. 

A sign encouraging citizens to band together and prevent a Hickman facility in Tonopah.

A sign encouraging citizens to band together and prevent a Hickman facility in Tonopah.

STOPP has filed a complaint and is suing the county building department along with assessor’s office, arguing that they should not have allowed an agricultural exemption for the Hickman farm. Butler said the egg factory is the equivalent of putting in an industry, and shouldn’t fall under the traditional agriculture umbrella.

We’re just fighting as long as our money keeps up,  she said. It’s not that we want to put them out of business, we just don’t want them in our residential area right next to town. 