rancher Howard Lyman crisscrosses the country praising a meatless
"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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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,"'
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."
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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
Lustgarden is a free lance writer living in Santa Cruz, CA
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