When Greg and Julie Peters started their 10-acre fruit farm in Target Range, naming it was easy.
“We had a red hen who would lay eggs everywhere around, even in our cars,” Julie remembered, “ … and she was the smartest one. Foxes came and annihilated our entire flock, and she was hiding on the fence in the back, and she and one other chicken didn't die, so we thought, ‘That tenacious, crazy little hen.’”
Red Hen Farm and Orchard has now supplied individual customers and some Missoula restaurants for about five growing seasons. But the farm spent the past week embroiled in controversy over White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — all because of its name.
It shares the moniker “Red Hen” with a small farm-to-table restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, where Sanders arrived to dine last Friday before co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson asked her to leave. The Associated Press reported that Wilkinson had consulted with her staff, for whom the Trump administration’s policies on gay and transgender issues had been especially concerning, before making the decision.
Her actions drew the ire of Trump supporters, who have picketed The Red Hen and even lobbed chicken dung at the small brick building. But social media saw the most protest. The restaurant’s posts on its Facebook page about wine tastings and limited-time coq au vin offerings drew thousands of comments condemning the decision — and a few praising it.
In the frenzy, some seem to have missed the mark.
Unaffiliated businesses with “Red Hen” in their names, from a bakery in Vermont to a bar and grill in California, have spent the last few days fielding angry social media posts. In Missoula, Red Hen Farm and Orchard wasn’t spared.
“We got messages that just were very unkind,” Peters said. “People wrote, like, ‘This is a bigoted place,’ ‘I'll never go there again,’ ‘Nazi-like treatment of people,’ … just real disparaging comments.” Others, meanwhile, “came out on the other side and they were like, ‘Thank you so much for getting rid of this terrible person.”
Peters estimated there was no more than “a handful of people” commenting on either side, But she still worried about fallout from the negative comments.
“One guy in particular, Michael Snyder, gave us just a one-star rating and just [wrote] this whole paragraph of how we're terrible people.” As with the other commenters, they messaged him a correction. But while other posts were deleted, Snyder’s remained.
In an age when the internet often guides shopping and activity plans, that could have spelled trouble for the business, Peters explained.
“The more I started thinking about it, the more I was realizing that over time, people will look at this and they won't remember Sarah Huckabee Sanders … but they're going to see that we have [comments] like, "you are a bigoted, terrible organization,’” on the farm's Facebook page.
“If you were someone of color or someone from out of state, you would assume different things” than what the commenters had actually meant, she said.
“We wrote [Snyder] again and said, ‘You have to take this down, this is defamation,’ and so finally he did.” He even wrote a post apologizing and praising Red Hen Farms, but the dispute smoldered on: “Hey moron, you got the wrong red hen,” commented Facebook user Dan Landeck, before calling Snyder something too vile for print.
“It’s hard not to be frustrated,“ sighed Peters. “People don't really look to see who they're sending it to, and how they might be affecting a business that really has nothing to do with it.”
This isn’t the first Montana business to suffer a Trump-era case of mistaken identity. In November 2016, when Vice President-elect Mike Pence saw “Hamilton” on Broadway, actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressed him personally from the stage after the show, calling on him to “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Trump voters took to social media to denounce “Hamilton: An American Musical” — and their anger reached the Hamilton Playhouse in Hamilton, Montana.
“People mistakenly called for us to be boycotted for our behavior towards Vice President-elect Mike Pence,” said the Playhouse’s Executive Director, Denise Rose, at the time. “I was thinking how far can this get?”
Peters doesn’t consider Red Hen Farms’ experience as bad as the Playhouse’s. Speaking with the Missoulian Thursday morning, she said the uproar had died down.
Of the Virginia restaurant that started the controversy by ejecting Sanders, she said, “I think that was their choice.” While Peters voiced concern about the Trump administration’s environmental policies, she said that “the only thing political that we've gotten involved with was saving farmland.”
Looking ahead, Peters said that “I would just hope that people are good and that people would want to research before they defame organizations.”
Asked if she and Greg plan to keep the name that drew them into this, Peters replied, “Heck, yeah."
This article includes reporting from Associated Press business writer Mae Anderson.