Former rancher Howard Lyman crisscrosses the country praising a meatless diet.

Steve Lustgarden

Vegetarian Times - May 1995

It's no ordinary evening at the China Pepper Restaurant in Ketchum, Idaho, a posh ski town nestled in the Sawtooth Mountains The 70 attendees, who have paid $25 each for dinner and a lecture, look up from vegan spring rolls and rice noodles and fix their gate on the speaker, a burly man with gray hair and glasses. No one - not even the event's organizer, Idaho Animal Advocates - knows what to expect.

"My name is Howard Lyman, and I'm a fourth-generation farmer, rancher, feedlot-operator from Montana," he begins. "At one time in my life not too long ago, I owned 7,000 head of cattle and 12,000 acres of crop and pasture to feed them." Though he looks like he's spent more time herding cattle than standing behind a lecturn, Lyman's intonation draws listeners in. "I have been personally responsible for the denise of scores of animals ," he says. "And I am here tonight to tell you that the proper amount ofromanimal products in your diet..." he links the tip of his index finger to his thumb and holds his big hand out to the audience. ... is zero." Lyman pauses to let the surprise of his statement sink in.

How did a cattle magnate from Montana with nearly two decades invested in animal production and consumption become a staunch vegan comnaitted to convincing Americans to go meatless, milkless and eggless? How did he come to view the fork as "the most dangerous weapon in the human arsenal," and make it his personal czusade to disarm this threat by promoting vegetarianism? In front of his audience, Lyman recounts his epiphany with the intensity of a evangelist, punctuating his words by pounding the lectern. Offstage, Lyman is quieter, but not without passion. as he recalls the events that brought him to the China Pepper on this snowy night.

Given his zeal and oratory skills, it's not surprising to learn that Lyman, 57, spent most of his early years with his grandfather, a congregational minister, on his dairy farm near windswept Great Falls, Mont. Lyman credits his grandfa- a. ther, who had passed his organic dairy fromann over to Lyman's father, with teaching him the blessings of rich, healthy soil and instilling in him a desire to take over the family business.

But during his training at Montana State University, Lyman's love of the soil was eclipsed by the temptation of economic grandeur and technological mastery of the land. When he got out of school, his ambition was clear: to transform his parents modest enterprise into an agribusiness and to reap the wealth.

"And I did," says Lyman with bravado. "I became the Donald Trump of agriculture," boasting 30 employees, seven combines, 30 trucks, 17 tractors and 7,000 cattle.

When Lyman wanted to expand his business, he simply bought out his neighbours. When he needed more bushels of crops and more pounds of flesh on the hoof, he applied extra fertilisers and pesticides, and injected- his animals with growth hormones. His chemical-Intensive strategy appeared to work, and his cash flow increased exponentially. "I can't tell you what a thrill it was the first time I wrote a check [covering an operating loan) for a million dollars," he says. "I thought, 'Man, I have arrived. I have all the answers.

In 1979, an illness prompted Lyman to begin asking new questions - questions for which he didn't have all the answers. That year, he sprained his ankle repeatedly until he was unable to put his foot down flat. One morning, he woke up and found he could hardly move his legs. For two weeks he lay in a hospital bed, paralysed from the waist down. His doctors discovered a thumb-sized tumour lodged inside his spinal chord. They told Lyman that he 'would likely never walk again.

In the days before his surgery, Lyman dwelled on the fertile soil of his boyhood, which had long since deteriorated. "it dawned on me that my grandfather and father had been farmers, but I was a chemical junkie. My priority was basically making money, having a big farm and all of the trappings."

Lyman realised be had been going down the wrong path. "It was the stark reality that I was probably never going to walk again that let that genie out of the bottle," he recalls And once I admitted to myself that I was absolutely killing the soil, there was no way I could put that genie hack into the bottle."

Miraculously, Lyman's surgery restored his mobility. And while he recuperated, he set about his conversion. He started by reading Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring', a landmark book exposing the environmental damage caused by agricultural pesticides. Then he read Wendell Berry's 'The Unsettling of America', about the disintegration of rural areas as family agriculture was replaced by agribusinesses, and Frances Moore Lappe's 'Diet for a Small Planet', which exposed the waste of resources caused by the production of animal products.

He knew that acting on what he was learning could ruin him financially and perhaps worse - cause him to be ostrasized by his fellow farmers, but he knew he had to change his ways. "My neighbors thought the surgeon had removed my brain as well as the tumour," he says.

But Lyman continued his quest. In 1983, he challenged himself with a question: 'If you really love these animals as you proclaim, would yore actually kill them?' He could barely stand to think about the question, much less answer it.

It was another question, he recalls, that went to the heart of his belief that he was husbanding his animals well. "Not 'Am I nice to my animals?' or 'Do I feed them well?' but 'My God, should we be eating them?'" Lyman says he can still remember the moment when he flnally found the answer. "I was in the bathroom and I was looking in the mirror: it was so traumatic for me that I damn near tore the sink off the wall," he says.

He shares this experience with thie crowd at the Chinese restaurant. "That was a door of my soul that I had never opened before," he says in a thunderous voice. "And once I'd opened it, I could never close it again because I knew what those animals looked like when they went onto the kill floor. I knew what was in their eyes, and I was the person putting them there. It was like everything that you believe to be righteous and holy was all of a sudden at risk. Could I actually allow my mind to sort through that?

"And did I have the intestinal fortitude to know the difference and to make a change? Do you go to your wife when you have a multimillion dollar operation and say, 'Wait a minute: I think what we are doing is wrong'? I realized that my livelihood was built on sand. Everything I'd believed in my entire life was at risk because there I was with a business built on killing animals. Most of my family thought I was nuts: they still do." Lyman-perhaps out of need, perhaps for effect-removes his silver-rimmed glasses, massages the bridge of his nose, then his pale blue eyes.

Lyman sold his farm, keeping only the 126 acres that were his grandfromcather's original homestead, which he converted into a nature preserve. Though he hasn't tilled the land since, Lyman never has strayed far from agriculture. In the turbulent 1980s, while thousands of farmers across the country lost their land to banks, Lyman worked as an advocate for Montana farmers facing foreclosure and bankruptcy. He also made an unsuccessful bid for Congress running as a prairie populist who would support family farms and help make small-scale farming more profitable and sustainable. (He lost to the incumbent by less than five percentage points.)

In 1986 Lyman moved his family to Washington, D.C., to become senior lobbyist for the progressive National Farmers Union. His intention then, as now, was to forge a farm-labor/consumer alliance to reverse the growing influence of factory farming and increase support for family farming. How does Lyman reconcile his vegetarianism with his support for at least one kind of animal agriculture? "I'm enough of a realist to know that [an end to animal slaughter] won't happen in my lifetime," he says. "If I'm able to help move us to a more sustainable, humane agriculture, I'll be happy. Family farms are generally much more humanely and sustainably run." While at the Farmer's Union Lyman helped launch the Farm-Labour Coalition, which played a decisive role in persuading Congress to enact the National Organic Standards Act.

In 1988, influenced by Jeremy Rifkin's 'Beyond Beef', Lyman gave up eating all meat In 1991 , he became a vegan and joined forces with Rifkin's 'Beyond Beef Campaign', whose aim was to reduce American beef consumption by 50 percent and promote consumption of organically and sustainably grown plant foods. The campaign attracted national attention with Lyman as executive director, and while it never succeeded in one of its chief objectives - getting McDonald's to sell a vegetarian burger - it made many more people aware of the issues involved in animal agriculture.

"Howard is a charismatic leader with a tremendous ability to empathize with people from a wide variety of backgrounds," says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Pure Food Campaign. "I think the most important thing he shows people in the animal protection and vegetarian movement is that there is a real hope for uniting with farmers: he sort of symbolizes the potential for a sustainable, humane agriculture."

A clash in management style with Rifkin led Lyman to depart the Beyond Beef campaign in 1993 to found Voice for a Sustainable Future, his one-man road show on food, the environment, animals and trade. Since then, Lyman has crisscrossed the nation, charging only for his airfare and supporting himself with money from his farming days, aswell as funds from private foundations and individuals. His reception at major events is a source of great satisfaction for him - in 1994, he received a standing ovation at the World Vegetarian Congress in the Netherlands but he is equally pleased when he is able to reach one person who would otherwise never reconsider his or her diet.

Bruce Krug. a dairy farmer with 55 cows in Constableville, N.Y., recalls a gathering of dairy farmers who convened to listen to Lyman around Krug's dining room table. Krug, who met Lyman in the late 80's while starting a farmer's union in New York, calls the big man a friendly bull in a china shop, emphasizing the word friendly.

Lyman's meeting with the eight or so farmers at Krug's house was not contentious. "People could buy into the idea that things [abuse of antibiotics and pesticides, for example] were out of control, but nobody felt we should be out to try to stop the use of beef," says Krug. On the other hand, he adds. "I don't think anyone thought Howard was here to bankrupt them." There were no converts to veganism that night in a county where there are twice as many cows as people. "I don't think that the vast majority of people, especially farmers would say, 'Okay, I'll get rid of my dairy cows and grow soybeans,"' says Krug.

As Krug recalls, Lyman presented his position with none of the crusading tone he takes on the podium. But Krug can see evidence of that passion in Lyman's actions. "He must have that because he drives hours to talk to relatively small groups of people."

Lyman laments little about his nomadic lifestyle except that he rarely sees his wife of 27 years, Willow Jeane. But Lyman could no sooner stop traveling and regaling audiences with his firebrand oratory than he could return to cattle ranching. It's clear that Lyman is on a journey of redemption and salvation that his grandfather might understand: he is doing penance for more than 20 years of abusing the soil and animals. And he approaches his mission with a remarkable single-mindedness of purpose, and apparently inexhaustible energy.

A usual day sees him off to an early start: 4:30 a.m. while on the West Coast (which is about half the time). This allows Lyman to call Willow Jeane before she departs their Alexandria. Va., home for work at the International Lady Garment Workers Union headquarters in Washington, D.C. He grabs a plain, untoasted cinnamon-raisin bagel before heading off for radio and television interviews, grade school and university appearances and whatever else he can cram in. For lunch, Lyman eats organically grown raw fruits and vegetables or a salsa-drenched bean burrito washed down with a cold bottle of beer. ("I'd eat an overshoe if it was covered with salsa," he confides.) Then it's off to instruct a class in motivational speaking and attend an evening gathering or two. Afterward, Lyman fields inquiries into the wee hours. Only when he has answered all the questions and said good night to the last guest does Lyman retire, invariably with a book about the American Civil War in hand. "He never quits," says Bill Kennedy, a county commissioner in Billings, Mont. "He goes from sunup to sundown and long past sundown, and he's still answering questions and giving people all that he can."

In the course of a day, Lyman can face sympathetic, skeptical and hostile audiences. Though not averse to preaching to the choir (Lyman says he enjoys "kicking activists in the butt and getting them motivated"), he clearly prefers addressing those who don't already agree with him. "It's important to seed the consciousness: You can't write anyone off," he insists.

Lyman plans to keep right on spreading his message. In October 1994, he became national director of Eating With Conscience, an educational campaign undertaken by the Humane Society of the United States to encourage Americans to eat a more plant-based diet. This meant scaling back his work for 'Voice for a Sustainable Future', but not leaving it behind. After all, Lyman isn't about to confine himself to a desk. Traveling and meeting people, he says, "is the best possible education I could ask for."

Back on the podium, Lyman spells out-in great detail and at great length the toll that a meat-centered diet exacts on human, animal and ecological health. If anything, he risks overloading his audiences' plates. His talks can overflow with news of rain forest destruction, mushrooming cancer rates, overgrazing's impact on endangered species and the abusive overuse of antibiotics on animals.

But Lyman is clearly at his most convincing when retracing the steps of his own exceptional journey. After speaking non-stop for more than an hour in the China Pepper Restaurant, he pauses to catch his breath. "I can give you all kinds of statistics, but the one thing that I absolutely know is how I feel, what happened to me. Had I not changed my diet, I would be dead today. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind about that. Mv blood pressure and cholesterol levels were sky-high. I weighed 290 pounds. Now I weigh 230 and have the best quality of life I've ever had."

Undoubtedly, this if-I-can-do-it-anyone-can spirit is what gives Lyman his belief in humanity's ability to reverse its destructive course. "Howard's message around the country has been, 'These are the facts,"' says Kennedy. "and they are sobering. But [Lyman] also gives you the optimism that we can turn things around if we take the right road."

That road, says Lyman, begins with individual action. "The first thing each of us can do is to pick up our fork and make a commitment to take the animals off of it," he says. "The second step is to spend your money with the good guys: Buy organic. What we are doing with chemical agriculture today is totallv unsustainable. And the third thing to do is volunteer some of your time - the astronomical amount of two hours per week-to a worthy cause.

"But don't listen to me," Lyman exhorts his audience. "Because if you do, in 60 days you'll never remember what I said. But if you go out and get yourself invested in the issues, it will be with you for a lifetime."

"What will you do next?" one listener asks Lyman after the applause in the China Pepper subsides. "I'm going to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I committed to do the night before I went in for my surgery." he replies. "I'm going to do everything in my power to go out and make a difference."

Sue White, a local resident who confesses to never having given much thought to the connection between her fork and the environment, stops to reflect on Lyman's talk. "I do what I can do to help protect the environment. I go to a lot of trouble to recycle. and I feel good about it. But I was sitting in there thinking about how what I could really do is not eat meat," she says. "That would do way more to save the planet."

One can almost hear Lyman replying:


Steve Lustgarden is associate director of EarthSave in Santa Cruz, California
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