Montana Rancher Turned Vegan
BY TINA HARBISON
Howard Lyman is a 4th generation Montanan from south of Great Falls near Sand Coulee. His occupation as a farmer, rancher and feed lot operator, the family business, kept him busy much of his life. His great grandfather bought the family farm in 1908. Lyman was raised on the farm during WWII, and his operation was once the largest dairy farm in the state of Montana. With a degree in General Agriculture from MSU-Bozeman (where he also played football as a guard and tackle), Lyman returned home and “turned an organic farm into an agribusiness,” he told us, where he oversaw 7,000 head of cattle, twelve thousand acres of crop, and 30 employees.
“If I had it all to do over again,” he said, “it would be much different.”
Lyman said, though, that when he graduated from MSU in 1961, he wanted to follow in the direction that the agricul-tural industry was taking the country, a direction he characterized as get bigger or get out.
“I went to Montana State and learned better living through chemistry, and I bought that hook, line and sinker,” he said. “What I wanted to be was an agribuisiness man.”
The emphasis in those day, Lyman said, was that with new chemicals on the market modern agriculture was in a position to feed the world, and that that could not be done with the old fashioned organic methods used on Montana farms and ranches in the past. He then applied the new methods and chemicals to his family farm after graduation, and over the years became the businessman he had intended to be.
“The first time I wrote a check for a million dollars,” he said, “I thought I had become the Donald Trump of agriculture. I was extremely pleased with myself.”
In 1979 though, in a dramatic twist of fate, Lyman began repeatedly spraining his ankle because he was unable to easily control his feet. Thereafter, he ended up paralysed from the waist down due to a tumor on his spinal chord. His doctor informed him then that if the tumor were on the inside of his spine, he faced just one chance in a million of ever walking again. “I’ll tell you," Lyman said, “that really gets your attention.”
Faced with the prospect of being incapacitated for the rest of his life, Lyman said he had to make a decis-ion. “What kind of an invalid was I going to be? Am I going to sit in a wheelchair and feel sorry for myself, or am I going to make my life amount to something?”
It was at that time that Lyman, as he put it, became honest about what he called the “inventory of his farm” and how it must have affected his health. That accounting included having witnessed dead birds and trees, degraded soil, and an admission that he, himself, was part of the problem.
After twelve hours on the operating table, the tumor was removed from the inside of Lyman’s spinal chord. Subsequently, he asked the doctor what had caused the tumor, and the doctor informed him that it had probably resulted from adolscent cells stimulated to grow as a result of chemicals he had used on his farm, and it was at that point that Lyman decided he must become an organic farmer.
“It seemed so straight forward,” he said, “that if the chemicals were causing the problem with my health, and the chemicals were, I know, doing something to the birds and the trees, and the soil, it was a no brainer. I walked out of an operation with a one-in-a-million chance. I wasn’t going to tempt fate anymore.”
It took two years from that point for Lyman to get back on his feet and oversee his farm, but the business was by that time in trouble. He later sold his farm, in 1983, and began working on behalf of family farmers in his new role as a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union in Washington. DC, his proudest moment in that endeavor having been the passage of the National Organic Standards Act, though he castigates the George W. Bush admini-stration for opposing formation of an Organic Standards Board to implement the law, which has since been accomplished under President Obama.
While in Washington, in 1989, badly overweight, with high blood pressure and frequent nose bleeds, Lyman sought out infor-mation and remedies for his health that led to a plant based diet and becoming a closet vegetarian. “Being from Montana,” he said, and with his background, “you’d rather be caught riding a stolen horse than admitting to somebody you are a vegetarian.”
With modest success at reducing his weight, cholesterol and blood pressure as what he called “the world’s worst vegetarian,” he imagined that his success would be even greater as a vegan, one who consumes no animal products at all. He then lost 130 pounds, his blood pressure dropped from sky high to normal, and his cholesterol from 300 to 135. Citing a study showing that heart attacks are virtually non existent in those whose cholesterol comes in below 150, and due to his personal success, Lyman began speaking publicly to people about making better choices in their lives.
“This is not about everybody becoming a flaming vegan,” he told us, “but about asking the questions—who produced my food, how did they do it, and what are they doing to the environment?”
Lyman does not insist that other people adopt the same choices he has, or even that they become vegetarians, but he does suggest that those who eat animal products would be better off if those products came from family farms and ranches rather than factory feed lots. “I had one,” he said. “I knew how it operated.”
Lyman described such operations as containing “thousands or even hundreds of thousands of animals” sourced from various states in one setting, creatng the need for antibiotics, and being fed on imported high grain diets foreign to “bovine species designed to eat ruffage.”
Animals raised on family farms and ranches, Lyman said, would be more likely to consume products produced on those ranches that are high in ruffage, and diseases would not be imported from other animal populations, so that the use of antibiotics would be rare.
Being a vegetarian from Montana, Lyman said, was like being from Mars. Growing up, he had never even heard the word, and the only vegetarian he had ever met, at the time of his introduction to vegetarianism, was a “down and out hippie.”
“People looked at me, back in the early '90s,” he said, “like I had my head screwed on crooked…in-cluding my family.” At a class reunion, Lyman went on, the daughter of a rancher approached him and scolded him for being a “turncoat.” At the time, Lyman was encouraging people to reduce their consumption of meat, which he said seemed “pretty mundane.”
These days, Lyman embraces the core principle of the vegan philo-sophy, though he does not insist that others see the world as he does, and he said that that philosphy did not originally prompt him to become a vegetarian, but that it has everything to do with who he is today. That philosophy is quite simple, and he expressed it succinctly, saying, “I never again in my life want to be responsible for any animal dying… When I look at an animal, all I can think of is the fact that—you have no reason to fear me, because I’m not going to do anything in my life to end yours.”
Lyman achieved notoriety on the Oprah Winfrey show during a 1996 episode when both made comments about beef in relation to the mad cow crisis. Lyman spoke against the meat industry for feeding animal byproducts to cows, which are herbivores. The show prompted four lawsuits by Texas cattlemen against Lyman and Harpo Productions under a Texas food disparagement law. In that Lyman’s assertions relied on data provided by the USDA, he and Harpo Productions prevailed after a six year legal battle in which a judge threw the case out with prejudice. Lyman empha-sizes that he did not call for Oprah’s viewers to become vegetarians, but that his aim was to draw attention to a problem. Subsequently, the FDA and USDA banned “the feeding of cows, sheep and goats back to cows, sheep and goats,” said Lyman. “That’s what I called for on the Oprah show, and that’s what they did…for that I ended up in court for six years and was sued for millions of dollars.”
An Evening with Howard Lyman takes place at 7:00 p.m., Earth Day, April 22, at the Emerson Cultural Center in Bozeman.