Dinner with Harold Brown of Peaceable Kingdom: A Journey Home by The Vegan Version
Last night (Friday 22 June 2012) I had the pleasure of having dinner at SuTao Cafe in Malvern where I got to hear and meet Harold Brown, former beef farmer and subject of the upcoming documentary Peaceable Kingdom; The Journey Home. This soon to be released documentary explores the story of several people who grew up in a traditional farming culture that have since come to question the basic assumptions of their way of life.
What a great evening. We started out with a huge buffet dinner (all vegan!). I had my daughter with me; I opted for a lot of things I normally don't eat- sweet and sour veggie "meat balls", General Tso"s "Chicken", fried bananas, and tempura battered vegetables, among other things (yes, that is kale you see in the front!). My daughter opted for a healthier plate, sushi, rice and fruit. Good for her!
After dinner was a real treat as our small group ( maybe 30 or so people) got to listen to Harold Brown tell his story. It ended up being far less a "speech" and much more of an interactive discussion. I found in fascinating to listen to his journey.
From cattle farming in Michigan, to working in a dairy plant to a working in a meat packing facility I found it so inspring that the thing that opened his heart was an encounter with a rescued steer at a sanctuary.
As inspiring and uplifting his story is, equally inspring is is knowledge of the food industry, organic farming techniques, the science behind why people are unable or unwilling to give up dairy, government subsidies for farmers, etc. I really like his brand of activism, he seems unassuming, non judgmental and genuine.
Harold made a statement last night that really resonated with me. He said that he thought people generally understood what they thought about farm animals but that most don't understand how they feel about them.
He went on to discuss the idea that people have a "compassion switch" that can be turned on and off. It goes on for the family dog or cat and and then goes off for the cow or sheep that is destined for slaughter. By telling themselves they don't care, people allow the switch to be turned off.
And he said, he made a vow never to say he did not care again. I think that is a pretty good way to live and some very sage advice.
So what do you think about the way people regard farm animals? Do you agree people can turn compassion on and off at will?
* A big thanks for our hosts last evening- CARE Compassion for Animals, Lee Hall and Lydia and Mauro Grossov of From A to Vegan. ORIGINAL POST: http://www.theveganversion.com/2012/06/local-acitivsm-care-veggie-fest-2012.html
Interview with Harold Brown*
Former beef and dairy farmer; founder of Farm Kind
Before we begin, we would like to extend a very warm welcome to Harold Brown, a subject of Tribe of Heart's documentary film Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home. Harold, thank you for giving CARE the opportunity to interview you and to get to know you on a rather intimate level.
We understand that you spent over half your life in the business of animal agribusiness. Can you tell us something about your experiences as a beef and dairy farmer?
Harold: Just to clarify, I worked at a dairy plant not far from ours. One of my great-uncles had a dairy farm. Growing up in a rural and farming community is kind of unique. As a child I, like any farm kid, was indoctrinated into agriculture. It began with my folks and what they taught me, my extended family, my community, church, and 4H, and I eventually went to a land grant college. My worldview of nature and animals was, in some respects, the same as any person's, but on the other hand, it was different in that the farming I learned was that of my grandparents and my great-uncles. The Green Revolution was taking over, but our family resisted it. We were small family farms, what by today's standards would be considered pretty much organic and definitely grass-fed, free-range. While there are many great things about growing up in the country and farming, there were the downsides, like animal husbandry. My relationship to animals was one of benign ambivalence. They were necessary for income and food but sometimes I would make a connection to them. At other times I would observe their behaviors, communities, interactions, but I rarely let myself dwell on them. I say "animals" in that my worldview wasn't confined to farm animals. I was also a hunter, and wildlife was seen as competition for space, feed, and the possible spreading of disease. When someone portrays animal farming on any scale as a harmonious balance of natural forces, they are either delusional or lying.
My time working at a dairy processing plant was educational in that it showed me the inside of dairy production. Some of the suppliers were farms and people I knew, others were not. In short, I learned that dairy products are not food, nor are they good for you. That said, I had my addiction to ice cream.
CARE: How did you make the connection between driving cattle, castrating and dehorning them, and butchering their remains, with viewing animals as sentient beings? Was there a singular moment, a revelation, that changed your perspective, or was it a gradual change brought about by a little voice from the back of your mind that brought about your conversion? And do you consider this a redemption?
Harold: As Tom Regan would say, I was a muddler. I converted to a plant-based diet to reverse my heart disease. It took several years for me to make a connection to the interests on nonhumans. I always had a soft spot for animals. As my family members would tell you, I usually didn't have it in me to shoot deer. I tried, but after sitting in the woods, in the quiet, I would marvel at the beauty of the deer, and sometimes they would walk up to me and sniff me. I couldn't kill that beauty. The little voice was always there. I chose to ignore it most of the time. A day came when I had an interaction with a steer at a sanctuary that unified my mind and my heart. I share this story in the documentary Peaceable Kingdom, The Journey Home. Redemption is an interesting word to apply to my transformation. I feel that redemption is borne out of forgiveness. I have asked for forgiveness countless times from those souls I used, abused, and killed. Perhaps they have forgiven me; I don't know. I suppose I have to forgive myself first.
CARE: How important is the support of your family and associates in the animal rights community in your journey from animal farmer to animal protector?
Harold: The support we have makes a great deal of difference. It buoys us up emotionally and spirtually. We all long for belonging, and community gives us that. I haven't had the support of my family other than a benign regard for what I do. On the other hand, I have had incredible support from a few organizations and individuals. There have been and are people in my life that have helped me develop a larger understanding of many issues. As a matter of fact, if it had not been for the people in the first vegetarian group I was exposed to, I wouldn't have been able to deconstruct my past indoctrination and come to see the world through the eyes of those other than my species. As it is said, some of us have two families in life: our biological family and our chosen family. My chosen family are those I have met in the social justice movements of animal, human, and environmental causes. I am a work in progress and I am so grateful for those friends who have the patience to listen, understand, and teach me.
CARE: Harold, the pending federal egg bill (H.R. 3798), which would establish egg factory cages as a national standard that could never be challenged or changed by state law or public vote, would allow a bit more space for hens used to produce eggs. The Humane Society of the United States has partnered with United Egg Producers in promoting passage of this bill. Would you please share your opinion on this compromise, as well as your thoughts on the long-term implications such legislation would have on the hens?
Harold: Compromises are just that, compromises. I don't see anything good in this for the hens. It certainly is a plus for those who have political ambitions and see their mission as assuaging the conscience of voters and consumers for profit. This particular bill has 18 years to become the law of the land, and in the meantime, the egg industry is exempt from prosecution for abuse and cruelty. In my opinion, this is an Ag Gag bill**, but from a supposed animal advocacy organization. Interesting. Will it make the lives of hens better? Maybe, but it doesn't do a thing for the inherest self-interest of the hens. If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all you have left is a compromise. The human spirit will not invest in a compromise.
CARE: Can you tell us something about Farm Kind? How has this foundation affected those who have been exposed to its principles?
Harold: Farm Kind is my nonprofit that enables me to share what I know for the public, activists, and farmers. I have had some success with helping animal farmers change their perspective on their relationship to those they use. The best story I have is of a farmer that I ran into at a conference who was there to confront those of us who didn't support the use of nonhumans. I talked with him for a few minutes and shared with him the book Growing Green, the definitive book on veganic farming. The next year he came to the same conference and shook my hand and said that the organic techniques worked so well that he had to reevaluate his relationship to the animals in his care. He then asked me if I knew where his animals could find sanctuary, and later I transported his animals to a sanctuary.
It is hard to quantify the returns on an educational endeavor. I do get a lot of feedback from individuals who have said that what I share has helped them. I would say that if there is one thing that comes back to me via women who are in relationships with men is that my example has given their significant others permission to challenge our male-dominated dominant culture. Trusting our hearts is one of the most powerful things that we can do. Especially if you are a man.
CARE: I believe that acknowledgement of animals having inherent rights is the basis of your evolution from animal farmer to vegan. Please explain what the philosophy of animal rights means to you.
Harold: That is a topic that is still evolving for me. What I do know in my heart of hearts is that all beings have an interest in living their own lives, on their own terms. Rights in our society are a contract of negative rights. That is to say, historically, when society has accorded rights to others, it is to protect one group from the bad behavior of another group. At this point I tend to agree with Lee Hall's take that it is an acknowledgement of the dignity of others and respecting them for who they are. Rights may be a moot point, say in the case of farm animals or cats and dogs. These are species that are bred for food and vanity who would not be here otherwise. How do we talk about rights when it concerns others that would not be here if rights did exist and in that case they would no longer be bred? Quite simply my definition of rights is the Golden Rule.
CARE: Thank you, Harold, for sharing your views and shedding light on issues that are important to us as humans, but especially for those animals who find themselves caught in a web from which there is no escape except through the mercy of those who, like yourself, see them as beings in their own right, with their own interests, and their own lives to experience without the yoke of human oppression.
* Harold Brown was interviewed by Maryanne Appel via e-mail in April 2012. Harold will be back by popular demand as guest speaker at the annual Chester County Vegan Festival, hosted by CARE, on Saturday 9 August 2014.
** Ag-gag laws, a term coined by Mark Bittman, are proposed ways of making it illegal for whistleblowers to observe and report misconduct in animal factories and slaughter plants.