Harold Brown (FarmKind) grew up on a “rather typical family farm” that raised beef cattle and kept pigs, goats and rabbits. Harold has explained the ways in which growing up in a farming culture indoctrinates youngsters into a particular view of the place non-human animals occupy in the hierarchy of daily life. Those who pass this view on through the generations are parents, local community, 4-H clubs, agricultural courses at colleges, and, most of all, television.
As Harold recounts, “Every time I watched a commercial break there was at least one commercial selling one or more animal products.” We can all relate to this, of course – and that’s why Harold’s message speaks to all of us. I was delighted that Harold found time to speak to me and our readers.
Dustin Rhodes, for Friends of Animals [Dustin]: You started off as a beef and dairy farmer, a hunter…How did you come to view animals in a radically different way?
Harold: It took several personal crises and meeting a wonderful community of people who created a safe place for me to deconstruct my indoctrination. I think those of us who have done the work we have done, know what we know, and seen what we have seen are afflicted with a type of post-traumatic stress.
Yet the way I used to consider and treat animals was completely normal for our society. Breaking out of that mold is difficult. But then, anything worthwhile is not easy.
Dustin: I've heard you say that a health crisis started you on your vegan journey. Can you elaborate?
Harold: When I was 18 I had a heart attack.
Mind you, I didn’t know that is what happened to me because I didn’t know what the symptoms of a heart attack were. I was home alone, the pain started in my left shoulder, radiated up to my jaw then down my left arm. The next thing I know I was on the floor looking at the ceiling not able to breathe.
Just as quickly as it happened, it passed. Being a teenager, I blew it off. I felt fine and didn’t have another episode. Years later my father had his first heart attack and then I learned the symptoms of a heart attack and what heart disease is.
When I was working for a dairy plant, I was injured on the job. I went to the union doctor. After he received my blood work he sat down with me and explained that if I didn’t change a few things in my life I was on a fast track for by-pass by my mid thirties. As an osteopathic doctor, he had more nutritional education than the doctors I had talked to before.
A couple of years later, I moved to Cleveland, Ohio where I learned what a vegetarian is -- that’s right: in 1990 I hadn’t heard the word vegetarian or known what it meant -- and I began listening and reading everything I could get my hands on concerning diet and disease. Within a year I knew I had to adopt a vegan diet if I was to optimize my health.
Dustin: Has a plant-based diet been a boon to your health in general?
Harold: And it has been my experience, as well as that of many vegans I have talked with, that a deep shift happens within. Vegans so easily talk about peace, compassion, love and empathy in a way that makes our omnivore friends, family and society feel ill-at-ease. In my opinion, it is because a profound inner peace where these emotions and states of being have a home is not something that can be communicated to others effectively; it is experiential. Eating a plant-based diet is one step toward this, the other step in the journey of consciousness.
Dustin: How did you come to found FarmKind? What is the organization's mission and what does it do?
Harold: FarmKind’s mission is to advocate for sustainable agriculture, environmental and social justice, animal rights and peace. After spending a few years working in the animal-husbandry reform movement (or, as it is better known, the animal-protection movement), I realized that If I was going to speak the truth and tie together the ideas of rights and the practices of sustainable agriculture, peace, non-violence and social justice I needed to follow my heart. I don’t see these things as separate. They are all part of the fabric of the human condition and situation.
For most of my life I observed animal protectionists from the other side of the fence. I didn’t take what they were saying seriously because I knew the message they were sending out sorely underestimated human potential. This is one of the visions I have: creating a new message that can be heard and embraced.
Dustin: You are prominently featured in Jenny Stein’s and James LaVeck's new documentary film Peaceable Kingdom - The Journey Home. What's that film about and how did you get involved?
Harold: The film tells the stories of five people who were animal farmers, and two people who ran a sanctuary, and how their lives changed through a journey of consciousness. It also tells the poignant stories of individual animals and how their lives became intertwined with ours.
Simply observing a goat, or the bond of a hen and her chick, can change a person’s perspective. For more information on the film and its availability on DVD visit www.tribeofheart.org.
Dustin: The film is currently being previewed at film festivals all over North America--and winning awards! Obviously, the audience response has been great.
I have been to a few of the festivals and the response has been amazing. There are two festivals that struck me the most. One was an environmental film festival at Yale University. Consider that this was, I believe, the only film on this topic, and it won the audience award for best documentary. For how long have we heard that environmentalists are closed off to our message? Apparently not.
The other festival was the Peace on Earth film festival in Chicago. This is a social justice film festival that explores the myriad aspects of injustice. Peaceable Kingdom - The Journey Home won best documentary and a standing ovation. Organizers and festival attendees would say, “Why didn’t I put this together before? If we are to have true peace and justice we must address these issues.”
When the peace activists, social justice and environmental communities get the message, then we know James and Jenny, along with Eric Huang and Kevin Smith, did something right.
Dustin: You emphasize compassion, respect, peace--spiritual ideals--in your animal advocacy. Why are they important?
Harold: These are some of the things that make us human. More than that: they are the better parts of us.
We cannot expect these things from other people or society unless we sow the seeds and nurture them.
As much as some would like to believe that legal rights for animals can be a reality once non-human animals have standing, it is still, in my opinion, a moral and ethical question. We must create a society in which compassion, respect, peace, non-violence and justice are second nature, the norm. Once a critical mass of society finds the emotional courage and moral imagination to embrace these practices fully, rights may take care of themselves.
If enough people can awaken to this new paradigm then our bad behavior toward non-humans -- and, I am convinced, toward each other -- will subside. Will it ever completely end? I’m an eternal optimist.
Dustin: Critics like to insult veganism by calling it a religion. It isn't; but do you think it's fair to say that it does foster a spiritual journey, or, at the very least, awareness?
It has for me. Spirituality can mean many things but at its core it deals with the human spirit. Veganism is a radical movement, inclusive of all aspects of the biota, our lives, our health, and respect for both humans and non-humans. It is an ethic of unconditional caring and love. It is a moral imperative, the Golden Rule.
Dustin: The structure that keeps domination in place is powerful. What advice do you have for remaining hopeful, optimistic--- dare I say it--- joyful?
Harold: What works for me -- and I encourage others to try it -- is to spend some time with yourself. Whether in meditation, a walk in the woods, cuddling with your dog or cat, we must find peace within ourselves first.
I understand the rage and frustration we all feel when we see or learn of the injustices around us. It is a little different for me because I was the perpetrator of some of those horrors and, to be honest, my journey is ongoing. But when we can quiet ourselves enough to ask why we care so damn much the answers come crashing back…we love. So when I become disheartened I look inside, experience the love I have, and give it away.
My challenge to activists is that we do what we do because we love animals, nature and each other. Let that be what takes you out into the world and be the force of change. We are not so much working to gain legal rights for non-human animals; we are working to change our species’ attitudes and perceptions of our relationships with all that is around us.
Dustin: Well-meaning people present animal advocacy as a magic formula--- as if there's an exact set of things to say and do that will instantly change the habits and hearts of others. What are your thoughts on how to be the best possible advocate?
Harold: Patience. We need to be the consummate students of human nature and farmers of compassion. When I talk with people I respect the place they are, and see them as fertile ground for planting the seeds I have to offer. But I cannot walk away once I have planted those seeds. A good gardener or farmer knows that we need to cultivate water and shine warm sunshine on the fields.
What resonates with one person may not with another. Each person is on a different point of their path. Once we understand this, we can join them on their path and walk with them for a while. Ultimately, we all must come to our truths ourselves otherwise they are not our truths.
Dustin: Harold, you’ve come to identify yourself as a vegan. What do you say to people who claim they could never be like you?
I ask them, “How do you know?”
Buddha once said that the only truth we hold in our personal lives are the things we directly experience. Everything else is information, belief or faith.
I will usually challenge a person by saying, “What do you have to lose? Try eating a plant-based diet for one year. I’ll help you. And if you are not happier at the end of the year then go find something else.” I have yet to find a person who wasn’t happier at the end of a year.
We have to be the example others want to follow. The radiance of our good health, the joy in our demeanor, should be a magnet.
Dustin: What's next on the horizon for you?
Keep on doing what I am doing. I see so many amazing personal transformations daily that I feel blessed that I can show up in the world in a way that might have a lasting effect. I am constantly grateful for the many opportunities that come my way to help and be of service. Like this interview. Thank you, Dustin, for thinking of me and feeling that I can contribute to your work to create a better world.