The Oprah reference is an accurate one for Lyman, the former operator of a super-industrialized livestock lot and dairy farm, now author (Mad Cowboy and No More Bull, both co-written with Glen Merzer) and advocate of vegetarianism, animal rights and stewardship of the land through sustainable agriculture. It was during an April 1996 Oprah show that the fourth-generation Montana cattleman -- now living in Ellensburg -- "let the cattle out of the bag" by confronting a spokesman for the National Cattleman's Beef Association about the practice of feeding vegetarian ruminants their own kind. He suggests that the practice is a bizarre cannibalistic ritual set upon the industrialized meat-raising system to satisfy greed and the bottom line.
On the show, Lyman asserted that he and thousands of other cattle operators had been feeding their herds dead cows -- downer cows put down because of cancer, viral diseases, genetic anomalies and mysterious neurological ailments -- mixed with parts from butchered cows, including pulverized cow manure.
The proverbial cow pie hit the fan when it was acknowledged that this practice had rendered America's beef supply susceptible to Mad Cow disease (BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy), which had already taken its toll in the United Kingdom just a year earlier. Lyman, known as the "Mad Cowboy" or the "Vegan Rancher," continues to speak out about abuses in industrial diary and beef operations like the one he ran outside Great Falls, Mont.
Lyman saw the light after more than 20 years of using road-kill and slaughtered cows as ground-up feed. After hundreds of gallons of antibiotics. After daily chemical fogs to douse flies -- the No. 2 bane of feedlot operators "after bovine diseases in their various forms." In the feedlot business, that pesky fly takes a toll on huge operations because of all those cattle unnaturally crammed into one small space.
"With every cow in a pen producing 25 pounds of manure in a day," Lyman says, "the flies can get so thick that they actually threaten a cow's ability to breathe."
"Better farming through chemistry" was Lyman's mantra before his transformation, so he attacked the insect problem on an industrial scale.
"Early in the morning I would fill up a fly fogger with insecticide and spray great clouds of it over the whole operation," Lyman writes in his book. "The insecticide would of course fall into the feed and the water of the cattle, as well as on the trees and the grass and the crops."
To Oprah -- and Court
Lyman's story hinges on his early years working with his grandfather and father.
"At 8 or 9 I began milking cows and branding calves," he writes. "At 10 I learned how to castrate calves. At harvest time, I'd work long past dark cutting the grain. I'd rake hay and stack it, and I learned to drive a tractor and a team of horses. I worked every day of the year but two: July 4th and Christmas."
Then he went off to college, leaving the 540-acre spread to his father and cancer-stricken older brother.
At the College of Agriculture at Montana State, Lyman was thrown into classes taught by chemists and academicians "without an hour's worth of real farming experience among them." It was the dawn of pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibiotics.
In the early 1960s, his father was barely making ends meet; Lyman was going to take over the family business only if he could employ Big Ag's bag of tricks. "My father had no choice," he says. "He handed over the farm. But as he shook my hand on the deal, he had a few short words for me. He told me I was wrong."
Eventually, Lyman saw the big picture when he scooped up that fourth-generation Lyman farm dirt and found it to be a lifeless, oily smelling, grey media for all the chemicals.
Jump ahead 20 years and picture Lyman in the Chicago studio of Harpo Productions. The audience is aghast at the commentary this ex-rancher is giving. Oprah and her brethren are freaked out by the prospect of that mad cow prion in the food supply, ready to attack humans -- as it was doing in England.
Two months later Oprah, Harpo Productions and Lyman were hit with a "food disparagement" suit by Paul Engler, a Texas feedlot operator, and other Texas cattlemen as plaintiffs.
In 1998, Oprah, her production company, lawyers and Howard Lyman ended up in Amarillo, the first individuals sued under the Texas Food Disparagement Act. Her show went on, from Amarillo.
On Feb. 26, 1998, the jury found in favor of Lyman and Winfrey. No disparagement of beef. No damages levied.
Hold the Beef
Lazy R Ranch cattleman Maurice Robinette gets a kick out of Lyman's claim to fame: "You have to hand it to him ... he's really found an interesting niche -- vegetarian cattle rancher." Robinette's a third-generation Cheney cattleman with several university degrees who sees a future in responsible and sustainable cattle ranching. He runs 80 pairs of cattle and another 100 yearlings out of his Cheney operation. He also is Eastern Washington's coordinator for the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network.
Robinette -- who heads up Spokane's Sustainable Agriculture Leadership Team, which helps local, small farmers -- is battling against industrial farming, genetically modified crops, the huge bio-tech and ag giants, and the practice of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
The reformed Lyman tips his hat to men like Lazy R's owner for raising beef the old-fashioned way -- grass-fed, with no hormones or antibiotics applied, in a manner that protects the soil and abates the impacts on the entire ecosystem.
Spokane Falls Community College hosts a public talk by Lyman on Wednesday, Oct. 25, at 11:30 am in SUB A-B. That evening at 6 pm, Lyman appears at the Community Building, 35 W. Main Ave., for a social hour and talk afterwards. Both events are free. Call 747-3807