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September 1994
No Animal Has to Die For Me to Live

By Howard Lyman



I was raised on an organic dairy farm in Montana during the Second World War. My parents couldn’t hire help, so both of them were milking the cows while the task of caring for me and my brother and sisters fell to my grandparents. Day care back then was much different than it is today; there were no swings, slides or lego bricks. Instead we kids worked full-time in the garden. This is where my love of living soil began. From the time I was four or five years old, all I ever wanted to be was a farmer.

This early decision made my approach to school much easier. I wanted to be a farmer, and my parents owned a farm. There was no need to pay attention in school because all I had to do was get out of school so I could start my career. The only things I did in the first twelve years of school were party and play football and I was very good at both. I must admit I was very surprised when I was informed at the end of my senior year that I would graduate. In retrospect, I suppose the teachers thought that if I didn’t graduate there was a chance I would come back, therefore they took no chances and gave me a diploma. I was thrilled to start my lifelong ambition.

The first real wake up call of my life came when I realized that farming was a business and I lacked the tools to run a business. Unwilling to let this dissuade me, I did what most American youth do who neglect to learn anything in the first twelve years of school; I immediately enrolled in college. When in college, I made sure not to repeat the mistakes I had made in high school. Knowing that I wanted to make our small organic dairy farm into an agribusiness, I learned about herbicides, pesticides, hormones, and medication. I graduated with a degree in agriculture from Montana State University with enough chemistry to qualify for a Nobel prize. This time I was sure I was well armed with the necessary tools to succeed in my lifelong dream of being a farmer.

After twenty-five years of hard work, I took that small organic family farm and turned it into an operation of one thousand range cows and calves, a five thousand-head confinement feedlot, and thousands of acres of field crops. With as many as thirty employees at one time, I thought I was the Donald Trump of agriculture. No problem was too tough for me. If greater yields were needed, I used more herbicides. If insects were a problem, I used more pesticides. If larger equipment was called for, I would buy out my neighbors, remove the fences and farm on a larger scale. I had all the answers.

My second wake up call arrived in 1979 when I was paralyzed from the waist down. The doctor thought the problem was a tumor pressing on my spinal cord. They said if the tumor was on the inside of the cord, the chance I would ever walk again was one in a million. When someone quotes you those kind of odds they are telling you to get a catalog and pick out your favorite wheelchair. The night before the operation many things went through my mind. The most persistent thought was the picture of the once living soil of my childhood after twenty-five years of my chemical addiction. I had turned that living soil into matter that resembled asbestos. It looked like we had imported it from Mars. I knew I was responsible for the change and I couldn’t lay the blame on anyone else. I also wondered what kind of person I would be after the operation. Would I just sit in my wheelchair and feel sorry for myself, or would I have the intestinal fortitude to make the rest of my life amount to something worthwhile? That night I made a solemn vow that no matter the result of the operation, I would commit the rest of my life to attempting to pass on more natural resources to the next generation than those we had received. I wasn’t sure what that really meant — maybe less use of chemicals, more crop rotation, and a return to an organic form of farming.

Twelve hours of surgery, which included removing the back of several of my vertebrae, revealed that the tumor was indeed inside the covering of the spinal cord. When the covering was opened the tumor was not only on the inside, but it was also under the cord. The cord couldn’t be raised to allow the doctors the chance to remove it. All they could do was select a nerve, cut it and hope the one they cut had the tumor attached to it — like a fish on a line. If more than one nerve was attached to the tumor, it would sever the other nerves and I would remain paralyzed from the waist down. They selected a nerve, cut it and removed a tumor about the size of my thumb. I walked out of the hospital three weeks later. While in the hospital I contracted a virus that prevented me from focusing my eyes for about a year. To this day I believe that someone was telling me not to lose sight of that commitment I made when I didn’t know whether I would ever walk again. This commitment hasn’t been forgotten.

When I left the hospital, I knew the first thing I had to do was re-educate myself. I believed the information I had received at the University had led me down the wrong path. I started reading books like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, writings by Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, and Tom Regan. The most difficult part was that my friends laughed at me saying that not only had they removed the tumor from my back but they had removed my brain. “Everyone should know the answers,” they said. “Just listen to the Experiment Station, Land Grant Universities, Successful Farming, and Farm Journal.” They all agreed that the future was in more herbicides, more pesticides, more hormones, and more medication. I could not agree with this line of thinking.

I started to wonder if the problem was just in my area or if it was nationwide. After traveling all over the U.S., I found most of the young university-trained farmers all over the country were doing the same dumb things I had been doing. Almost an entire generation of young farmers had been brainwashed. Our grandfathers were farmers, our fathers were farmers, but we were chemical junkies. The task of changing the way American farmers operated was like shoveling the tide with a pitchfork.

When I talked to my banker about changing the way I was farming to a more organic approach he laughed at me. He reminded me that he was also the banker for the chemical and pharmaceutical dealers in our town. The money he was lending me was recycled through many other local businesses and, if he helped me return to organic production, those farmers would suffer from the loss of my spending. The banker absolutely refused to help me go the organic route of farming.

In 1983, unable to support the debt I was carrying with the type of farming I was doing, I sold most of my farm. But I didn’t change the commitment I had made while in the hospital.

In the early 1980s, I spent several years working with farmers and ranchers on the mounting problems associated with non-sustainable production. In 1987 I had the chance to go to Washington, DC, and work for farmers as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. In the five years I worked with Congress, I learned what is known as the Golden Rule: those that have the gold make the rules. When I’m asked if all members of Congress are in the back pocket of special interests, I reply, “Not all. But almost all Chairmen or Subcommittee Chairmen are totally beholden to big money interests.” In my opinion, the game in Washington is totally rigged by the special interests. If the American public ever thinks they will have any of their problems solved by Congress, they are smoking the number one crop from California.

In 1992, I told my friends I was leaving Washington. They all laughed and asked me who I was going to lobby — the American public? I told them there was only one word that brought fear into the hearts of elected politicians and that word was ‘unemployment’ — theirs. Only the voting public could instill that kind of fear. I wanted to work where I could make a difference.

My re-education opened my eyes to many issues I never thought had anything to do with the problem as I perceived it in 1979. The issue of diet and animal suffering did not become clear to me until I had digested many new books. John Robbins’ Diet For a New America, and Jeremy Rifkin’s Beyond Beef, forced me to expand my ideas about the big picture. The brainwashing I had received from a very early age had closed my eyes to some big problems even though I worked with them every day. I professed to loving animals even though I was loving them to death. My diet was well on the way to killing me while I was encouraging other people to make the same mistakes I was making. When I finally worked up the courage to confront myself with the facts about my diet and use of animals, I wasn’t sure I could admit that my life style had been wrong for years. Making this admission to a lifetime of friends and family was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. Today, I’m proud to say no animal has to die for me to live.

Howard Lyman is Executive Director of Voice for a Viable Future. This article is an excerpt from a speech given at the World Vegetarian Congress, in The Hague, Holland, in August 1994.


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