Howard Lyman likes to say that his glass is not half full … it’s overflowing. “I’m the most fortunate individual that’s ever lived on the planet. There’s nothing that I can think of in my life—no matter how bad it was—that wasn’t an incredible experience.”
Raised during World War II, Howard is the son of dairy farmers with the largest dairy farm in the state of Montana. With his parents busy milking cows day and night, Howard’s grandparents helped raise him and his grandfather, a congregational minister, had an especially large influence on Howard. “My grandfather told me something that has stuck with me my entire life. Anything you can envision, you can accomplish. The most important thing to do is be honest with yourself.”
Howard was the first person in his family to graduate from university since his grandfather 50 years before him. Educated in modern agriculture, he adhered to all the latest technological advances and turned his small, organic family farm into a large corporate one, complete with chemical fertilizers and a 5,000-head corporate cattle feedlot. “I started out and thought it was really important to be a farmer, to raise food and feed a hungry world. I loved the birds, the dew on the grass. Being out there was the most phenomenal thing in the world.” Then, he bought into the idea that he should be a chemical farmer. “Instead of treating animals as God intended, I bought into the notion that this was ‘old fashioned.’ I saw the environment change.”
Putting his hands into the soil set the warning bells flying for Howard. “Ever since I was a kid, I just loved to garden. I love soil and we had the loveliest soil you could ever imagine! The feel of it was almost sensual.” Howard began noticing that the texture of the soil on his farm was now off. “We could dump as many chemicals in the soil as we wanted, but it did not have that same texture—ever.” Another cause for concern was the magpies, or lack thereof. When Howard was a kid, people had shooting contests to see who could get the most magpies. They were everywhere. But, by the time his kids were growing up, it seemed like magpies were almost nonexistent. “It took me a long time to understand that it wasn’t the people shooting the magpies that was killing them off, it was the chemicals we were using.”
“I started out and thought it was really important to be a farmer, to raise food and feed a hungry world. I loved the birds, the dew on the grass. Being out there was the most phenomenal thing in the world.”
Howard came to believe that his new-fangled, modern farming methodologies weren’t healthy. Farming no longer had that comfortable feeling that you were doing something in tune with nature. But he didn’t know what to do about it. How could one person go up against his whole community, the whole agricultural world, really? “When I first realized that what I was doing in this factory farm was wrong, I can’t imagine anything that was more devastating to my psyche then telling myself that everything we’d invested in was wrong and we needed to change. Here I was fourth generation cattle rancher!” Howard didn’t know how to buck the system he was so entrenched in.
That, of course, was before he was paralyzed.
For years Howard had suffered with terrible back pain. In 1979, he was diagnosed with a tumor on his spinal cord. As the tumor grew, he lost feeling from his waist down. Howard was paralyzed. Preparing for an operation, the doctors told him that if the tumor happened to be on the inside of his spinal cord instead of the outside he had a 1 in 1 million chance of ever walking again. But, Howard beat the odds. “I walked out of the hospital at Christmastime 1979 after a tumor on the inside of my spine was removed. I thought, ‘if I am going to be a community of one—so be it!’ After you overcome those odds, it’s time to stop lying.”
Howard realized that he had already come through one of the more difficult things life could hand him. This thought forced him to come clean. He knew he could no longer lie to himself, or be a part of destroying the thing he loved the most. With production increasing and farmers feeding more people with fewer farms, most of Howard’s peers looked at him like he was insane. “People didn’t equate the change in environment with what they were doing, because everybody was farming that way. And, if everybody was doing the same thing, they must be right! The community did not make it easy.”
Selling most of his farm in 1983, Howard began working for farmers in financial trouble, which led to a gig with the Montana Farmers Union and from there on to Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union. For five years, Howard worked as a lobbyist, celebrating victories like the passage of the National Organics Standards Act. But, he also saw how long it took for legislators to implement change. Convinced that the changes had to begin with the producers and consumers at the grassroots level, Howard began traveling around the country talking about his beliefs.
Through the course of it all he made another major decision. Former cattle rancher Howard Lyman became a vegan.
Weighing in at more than 300 pounds in 1989, Howard had sky high blood pressure and his cholesterol was over 300. He would sit down to eat lunch and his nose would bleed. “I knew I wasn’t going to make it very long like that. I was thinking about becoming a vegetarian—but in Montana you’d rather be riding a stolen horse than be a vegetarian! So, I became a closet vegetarian. I gave up all meat.” Surprised by how easy it was and how much it helped his weight and bodily functions, Howard took it further. “I thought, ‘gee, if I can do this as the world’s worst vegetarian, let’s see what I can do as a vegan. When I quit cheese it was like giving up smoking! It was that hard! But, I lost 130 pounds. My cholesterol dropped to 135. And, here I am now, a hard-core vegan.”
Although he started veganism for health reasons, Howard has since changed his mindset. “Today I am a hard-core vegan because I can look in the eye of any animal and say they don’t have to worry about me. I never, never again want to be responsible for an animal dying. That makes me feel good. I really, truly enjoy my lifestyle today!”
In the beginning of his transformation, Howard had spoken only about organic farming. As he evolved, he was turned on to mad cow disease and all hell broke loose. “I became an outcast. Even my hometown newspaper called me a turncoat. It amazes me that my wife had the perseverance to stay with me! But, I was convinced that I was right so I kept muddling through it. To me, when the light came on, it was very apparent. But, when everybody is in the herd mentality they don’t want to think for themselves. Shunning somebody pointing out the errors of your ways is an age-old tactic.”
The first time he stood in front of an audience and spoke about mad cow disease, they looked at him like he had holes in his brain. “When I look back at it now, I wonder how dumb I was to preserve! But, I do believe that I was right. We are on the precipice right now, exactly where the dinosaurs were. The dinosaurs did not know that they were going to become extinct. We should. We have fewer natural resources now than we ever did. We have more chemicals and that stuff fouling our world than we ever have. We had the potential to have a disease scarier than AIDS, human mad cow disease. Nobody had heard of it, nobody was talking about it. I was convinced back then—like the lone voice in the wilderness.”
When the British Minister of Health stood in front of Parliament and said that the government could no longer assure the people of England that their food was safe to eat, Howard was elated. What incredible vindication! Mad cow was being brought to the light, finally. Like most hot topics coming into the light, this one found it’s way to the Oprah Winfrey Show. “Whether you are right or wrong, when you’re first you have a mark on you. When Oprah’s people went to Nexus Lexus to research mad cow disease, my name came up first on the list!”
“[Howard] was turned on to mad cow disease and all hell broke loose. ‘I became an outcast. Even my hometown newspaper called me a turncoat.’”
Howard was asked if he’d come do the show in Chicago. “When I was sitting in the green room the phone rang. It was my wife. She said, ‘Don’t say anything stupid.’ But, I knew what might happen going into that show.” Before appearing on the show, Howard had phoned a lawyer friend and asked her the basic laws about food disparagement. Her answer was simple: don’t say anything you know to be false about a perishable food. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s easy! I’m just going to tell the truth!’ The idea I had back then was really straightforward. Let’s just quit feeding animals to animals—most of the enlightened countries in the world already do that. But not us Americans. We’re still feeding pig to chicken, and cow to pig, chicken, and cow and vice versa.”
Speaking openly—and honestly—on the show, Howard became an overnight pseudo-celebrity when the cattlemen struck. Referred to as “The Oprah Crash” by pundits, beef futures tumbled the day after Howard told Oprah about cows eating cows and she responded by exclaiming that his words had just stopped her cold from ever eating another hamburger. “Low and behold the cattlemen sued us for telling the truth and expressing our personal opinions. That was their biggest mistake! First rule of law, never sue anybody who has nothing (me). Second rule of law, never sue anybody who talks to millions of people a day (Oprah). It was like opening Pandora’s box.”
Rather than scare Howard into silence, the lawsuit busted the mad cow controversy wide open. He was given a soapbox and he used it! “Anybody with a lick of sense should realize that we should not turn an animal that was an herbivore into a carnivore, a cannibal. Even somebody involved in the cattle industry should have the common sense to know we shouldn’t turn a cow into a cannibal. I said it quite straightforward. But, from that they magnified the message a million times by suing us and got what they deserved.”
After six years of appeals, the lawsuit finally ended. It was a loss for the cattlemen and a giant win for Howard, whose sales for his first book (Mad Cowboy) were helped enormously by all the media attention! Yet, at the end of the day, Howard was still Howard and he was still fighting the same battle: safeguarding a healthy planet for our children, grandchildren, and beyond.
Howard’s schedule is hectic these days, to say the least. He is constantly on an airplane, or in a car, traveling from place to place with his lectures and words of wisdom about dietary changes, food safety, and caring for our planet. He’s even published a book about diets and veganism, No More Bull. “The first time I flew on an airplane and ordered a vegan meal, the stewardess looked at me like I had a communicable disease. You can go to a truck stop now and tell the server you’re a vegan and she’ll know what you’re talking about. We’ve come a long, long way. What it comes down to is this: we’re not going to turn everybody into a hard-core vegan. But, I do believe we can turn people off of being an enabler of factory farms. We could feed a lot more people in the world with a plant-based diet.”
While cattlemen are typically unwilling to associate with Howard these days, he’s ok with that change, too. “I’m happy with my life and I feel good about it. I can look in the eyes of a child and say ‘I can’t do everything, but I will do everything I can do.’ There is no doubt in my mind that we in this generation are on the path of determining whether humans will survive or not. If we don’t clean up our act, we won’t survive.”
“We have a president with an organic garden on the White House lawn. Man, is that long overdue! Maybe, just maybe, we have the opportunity right now to make profound changes. Wind power, growing our own food—who says that this is not THE turning point? I feel good about where we’re going. I’m convinced that my grandfather was right. If you can envision it, you can accomplish it.”
For more about Howard Lyman visit his web site (http://www.madcowboy.com/) as well as his new book "No More Bull!"
Thank you Howard, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Tamar Burris and Story of My Life®