Former cattle rancher Howard Lyman doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind.
Now a vegan, Lyman was one of more than 60 speakers at Vegetarian Summerfest 2000, the North American Vegetarian Society conference held earlier this month on the UNCA campus. While he focused on the agricultural industry, others spoke on topics ranging from intentional communities to nutrition.
Many folks may remember Lyman’s 1996 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. On the popular talk show, he warned that the country’s cow industry could suffer a mad-cow-disease outbreak due to its practice of rendering — or grinding up — cows and feeding them to other cows, according to a 1998 Time magazine article.
He also told 20 million viewers that the industry was grinding up cats and dogs to feed to cattle, he recounted to the conference audience.
“I went on [Oprah’s] show and told the American people the truth,” Lyman declared after his UNCA talk.
Lyman’s appearance resulted in the beef industry filing a libel suit against both Winfrey and Lyman. After their 1998 court victory, Winfrey proclaimed that free speech “rocks,” but appeals of the case have continued to drag on. Earlier this year, however, a federal appeals court in New Orleans said the show had “melodramatized” mad-cow disease — but hadn’t given false information about it or defamed cattle producers — according to the Associated Press.
The same suit, however, has been filed in state court, Lyman said.
“We’ve been paying lawyers for four years, and we’ve won every issue,” he stated. “Everything I said was the truth, and the truth is not actionable.”
In August 1997, the FDA issued new regulations that ban feeding “ruminant protein,” or protein from cud-chewing animals, to other ruminants, according to Lyman’s Web site (madcowboy.com). That action came in response to growing concern about the spread of mad-cow disease.
At the UNCA lecture, Lyman told an audience of about 40 people about his experiences growing up on a small organic dairy farm in Montana during World War II. While his parents milked cows, one of his first farm chores was to count the number of ladybugs in the garden, which helped indicate the health of the crops.
“When we go out and use chemicals, they kill indiscriminately,” Lyman said, earnestly pitching his message to a sympathetic audience.
Lyman called 1945 the watershed for the “destruction of our civilization.” That’s when the fledgling chemical and pharmaceutical industries began to take flight.
“They basically had one customer: the United States government,” Lyman said in a robust speech punctuated with emphatic gestures.
Agricultural extension services were supposed to help farmers emerge from the “dark ages” of farming and persuade them to use pesticides, he pointed out.
“They educated us on the fantastic future of using chemicals,” Lyman recalled. “I ended up being a chemical junkie.”
He bought the pitch “hook, line and sinker,” and armed with an agriculture degree from Montana State University, he began using chemicals on his farm, as he notes in his book Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat (with Glen Merzer, Scribner’s, 1998.)
At one time, Lyman had 1,000 range cows, 5,000 cattle in a factory feed lot, thousands of acres of crops, and as many as 30 employees, his Web site reveals.
After the lecture, Lyman said he’d changed his ways after he was paralyzed by a spinal-cord tumor.
“It was the first time I got really honest with myself about what I was doing,” he remembered.
He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1982. The following year, Lyman sold most of his farm and started working for farmers in financial trouble, according to his Web site. This led him to work for the Montana Farmers Union and later took him to Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union. His goal is to see a producer/consumer alliance controlling public-policy decisions in North America. To that end, he’s been traveling about 100,000 miles a year for the past nine years, lecturing about organic sustainable agriculture and the dangers of current methods of food production.
Addressing the audience, he talked about how cattle-herd size is increasing and how the average life span of a cow is decreasing. Forty percent of all hamburger in the United States comes from spent dairy cows, and 40 to 60 percent of hamburger is “good ol’ greasy fat,” he said. By law, he noted, hamburger has to be made from beef and beef fat.
In the slaughtering process, Lyman said, it’s important to get as much flesh from the bone as possible. By putting it under pressure, “They blow the flesh off of the bone,” he said.
Without mentioning any specifics, he alleged that lab analysis had shown that nerve endings were being found in the mix.
“They didn’t change the process,” Lyman explained. “They changed the result of the analysis.”
He also pointed to problems with meat inspection. Meat inspectors no longer have the authority to stop a line even if they see a tumor), but instead must get a plant employee to do it. Lyman said inspectors call the new system HCCP: “Have a cup of coffee and pray.”
Most poultry inspectors, he noted, won’t eat the product they’re inspecting.
Lyman also is concerned about family farms.
“We are seeing agriculture shrinking at a phenomenal rate,” he declared. “Family farmers today are an endangered species. … We’re going there right now, and it’s not accidental.”
Without subsidies, Lyman claimed, a burger at McDonald’s would cost $12.
While cattle production in the United States is yielding some of the lowest economic returns in history, agricultural giants such as IBP are seeing the highest profits in recorded history, he reported.
That disparity is compounded by a federal law requiring that $1 from every cow and calf sold be put into a beef-industry marketing fund, which yields $100 million annually, Lyman said.
In response to a question from the audience, he advised the crowd to pay attention to who’s paying for studies. Lyman also told the group that every dollar they spend is a vote for the future.
“Go buy organic, even if it costs more,” he urged.
When asked how his relatives feel about his beliefs, Lyman noted that each year, following a family reunion at which only vegan food is served, another relative becomes a vegetarian.
“It’s not what you say, it’s the way you act,” he observed.
Audience member Glen Boisseau Becker of Brentwood, N.Y., called Lyman’s speech inspiring — and the entire conference rejuvenating.
“Many of us would say it’s a way of recharging our batteries,” Becker said.