They say “free range” and “pasture raised” is better. Try telling that to Harold Brown.
Harold grew up on a spacious family farm in Michigan, raising cows, pigs, goats and rabbits for their flesh. Like any farm kid, Harold learned to relate to farm animals in the expected way. Parents and family, church, Future Farmers of America, the local 4-H Club, ag courses at land-grant colleges and TV commercials all told kids the same thing. Eating animals and animal products is normal. Animal flesh, dairy and eggs are basic human wants and needs.
Yet as a child, Harold knew cow herds as communities, and cows as individuals who mourned when one of the group was shot by a deer hunter, or when cows were separated from their calves. Harold also saw them play.
“And I watched a lot of kids cry when they auctioned off their animals at the county fairs,” says Harold. Growing up involved putting away childish feelings. In adulthood, Harold went on occasional hunting trips and took a three-year job at a dairy.
At 18, Harold had a heart attack. A few years later, after an injury at the dairy, a connection clicked. The union doctor went over Harold’s blood work and predicted bypass surgery.
A Low-Key Advocate and Long-Term Friend
After studying the literature on diet and disease, Harold resolved to stop eating animal flesh and ice cream by the tub. And that’s when a form of post-traumatic stress seeped into the ex-farmer’s mind—a sudden horror at having driven and castrated and dehorned and butchered bulls and cows. Switching to plants for protein and nutrients had tripped a new switch—from a health quest to a journey of awareness, of caring, of love cut short in childhood.
It’s painful to begin the vegan journey, and perhaps that’s why many don’t. To become aware of having done harm is to take a difficult step. Harm to other animals. Harm to human beings who were forced to repress their empathy and inflict such harm.
I think of the activism that aims to punish slaughter workers. Harold could have been interchangeable with the killing floor worker dismissed from a job, or possibly subjected to criminal charges or deportation. Punishment is not an epiphany. Those who think slaughterers and stalkers of animals are beyond redemption must not know Harold Brown.
Now, as a vegan, Harold makes connections by telling others what the younger Harold had needed to hear. It starts with taking a walk with another person. Befriending another person. Planting seeds, and cultivating them. Harold is a low-key advocate and a long-term friend.
“What Do You Have to Lose?”
Some say they could never become vegan. “What do you have to lose?” Harold asks. “Try eating this way for one year. Let me help.” Harold bets their bodies will flourish and they’ll stick with it.
But Harold adds: “We cannot expect these things from other people or society unless we sow the seeds and nurture them.” I like this a lot. The point of vegan advocacy, I think, is neither to shame nor intimidate others, nor to manipulate emotions, but to learn and to inform, to be open and receptive and trustworthy. We’re all in this together.
Harold thinks the animal protection movement (Harold now wryly refers to it as the animal husbandry reform movement) is too focused on scoring minor victories in the world of animal ag, and not enough on nurturing people and helping them change their lives. As for those so-called victories, Harold flatly states: “There is no such thing as a humane animal product or farming practice, humane transport or humane slaughter.” Those are marketing taglines.
Wherever animal products are made, what needs to be reformed is the farmer, not the farm.
The Kingdom Within
Harold appeared in Tribe of Heart’s film Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home. It’s about Harold and other farmers and rescue workers who came to share an understanding. And Harold has found that we create the peaceable kingdom in our inner lives.
Veganism is an ethic of unlimited empathy, Harold says, an ethic of unconditional caring and love. It encompasses our health and our mental being. It leads to respect for all elements of Earth’s intricate biological community. It is our journey home. Read further.
A very happy birthday to Harold on June 28th, and many more.
Banner photo: Harold Brown (L) with Vinnie Straub and the Self Love Vegan food truck at the American Vegan Society in Malaga, New Jersey.