Former Meat and Dairy Farmers Who Became Vegan Activists

Novelist and slaughterhouse journalist Upton Sinclair once wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” But while it may be difficult, it is not impossible. The following profiles are hope-filled proof that even those who stand to lose most by renouncing animal exploitation are frequently brave enough, and caring enough, to do so.

1. Jan Gerdes, former dairy farmer

Hof Butenland is a farmed animal sanctuary in North Germany founded by Jan Gerdes & Karin Mück. Jan was a dairy farmer for many years but after a change of heart that included the decision to go vegan, he converted the farm into a sanctuary and vowed to devote the rest of his life to caring for farmed animals and working to end their exploitation. Speaking about the animals he once used, ate, and routinely sent to slaughter, Jan says:

“Before, I denied that I liked them. There was no other way. I wanted to earn a living. And now they are more like comrades. You are happy, you talk, you talk to them. You talk to a cow as well as to a pig or to a cat or a dog; I don’t see any difference. They all have their qualities and they are happy when I talk to them— and they tell me something. It really is a great way of living together.”

You can learn more about Hof Butenland at their website and in the film, Live and Let Live, a powerful new documentary exploring our relationship with farmed animals, the history of veganism, and the ethical, environmental, and health reasons that motivate people to go vegan. (You might also remember Hof Butenland as home to the world’s happiest calf.)

2. Harold Brown, former beef and dairy farmer

former dairy farmerHarold Brown is a former beef and dairy farmer. He was born on a cattle farm in Michigan and spent over half his life in agriculture. After a personal health crisis forced him to confront the incidence of heart disease in his family, he went vegan. Living in great health on a vegan diet led him to reexamine all of his previous assumptions about eating animals, and he soon experienced a profound conviction that exploiting and killing animals for food is immoral. Now a vegan activist, he is the founder of Farm Kind and one of the subjects of the documentary Peaceable Kingdom.

When asked about so-called humane farming, Harold writes:

“I have often heard the word “humane” used in relation to meat, dairy, eggs, and other products… I have always found this curious, because my understanding is that humane means to act with kindness, tenderness, and mercy. I can tell you as a former animal farmer that while it may be true that you can treat a farm animal kindly and show tenderness toward them, mercy is a different matter.

…I hardly thought twice about the things I had to do on the farm: driving cattle, castrations, dehorning, and I did my fair share of butchering too.

Nowadays I ask myself from both the perspective of the old me and the new me, what does humane mean in the way it is being used? The old me says, “That is an odd word to associate with meat, dairy, and eggs, but hey, if it sells more products, why not?” The new me asks, “Back in the day, I could, and did, raise animals with kindness and tenderness, but how did I show them mercy?” Mercy — a unique human trait of refraining from doing harm.”

— Read more from Harold Brown here, and check out his story in the film Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home.

3. Cheri Ezell, former dairy farmer

cheri-ezell-3Cheri Ezell was working as a goat milk farmer when she met her husband, Jim Vandersluis, a dairy farmer.

She writes:

“One day I entered the barn while he was milking and noticed an obviously ill calf. When I questioned what would happen to her, he told me regardless of the calf’s illness, she would be sent to a livestock dealer where she would be sold for meat. I learned that dairy cows have to be bred every year in order to continue to produce milk, and how their calves are taken from them shortly after birth–they’re lucky if they get colostrum from their mom, which is the first milk that is important for their survival. While some of the calves are kept as replacement heifers, most of them are sent to slaughter or the veal operations, which is a very short life, and not a happy life.

The verbalizations made by mother and baby as they bond are just one small aspect of their emotional lives that we humans tear apart. The mother calls for her baby for many days after they’re separated. How can such a thing ever be called “humane?”

In time, our consciences would not allow us to continue milking our cows for the purpose of producing dairy products. Instead, we increased the goat herd and began to sell goat milk. I thought, perhaps this was an alternative — I could have the animals and I could have the milk, and the babies could go for pets… But we still had to make a living, and I soon realized I couldn’t possibly make enough money from the amount of milk that I was producing and then have the babies go for pets. There were just so many babies, every year you have to have babies. And not very many people are interested in buying goats as pets.

cheri ezell

In certain communities, it’s tradition to have baby goat meat during the Easter holiday. So our farm was overwhelmed every Spring by people looking for baby goats. We would weigh the 25-35 pound kids, and the customers paid. They were then hogtied and literally thrown into a trunk or the back of a pick-up truck like a piece of luggage. Jim soon was saying, “I will carry the goat,” and he would gently put the goat into their vehicle. One day we were standing by the gate of the goat barn, listening to one of our baby goats being driven away, crying in the trunk of the car. It was at this horrific moment that Jim and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes and began our journey to a no-kill life.

Jim and I have since left the dairy industry and converted our farm into a sanctuary for farmed animals, wildlife, and companion animals…for Jim and me, there is now a very clear distinction between humane and inhumane farming. Humane farming is cultivating a plant-based diet. Inhumane farming is breeding any sentient being for production and consumption.”

— Read Cheri’s full account of her and her husband’s transition to veganism and animal activism here. You can also follow their story in the documentary, Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home.

4. Howard Lyman, former beef and dairy farmer

howard-lymanThe people I knew involved in animal production were good people just trying to do the best they knew how for what they envisioned were the right reasons — feeding a hungry America. They believed they were providing an absolute necessity: first-class protein. It was ingrained in them from the time they were kids: ‘Eat your meat’.

Howard Lyman is a fourth generation cattle farmer who converted a small organic dairy farm into a massive factory-style dairy and beef feedlot operation with 7,000 cattle. He also raised chickens, pigs and turkeys, farming animals for more than 20 years. In 1990, extremely overweight and facing health problems related to sky-high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, he decided to become a vegetarian. Experiencing a complete turnaround in his health, Lyman went vegan a year later and soon had a profound change of heart about the ethics of eating animals. He converted his ranch into a wildlife sanctuary and since 1991 has been traveling the world speaking and advocating on behalf of veganism, organic farming, and animal rights.

In an interview, Lyman recalls the difficult moment he discovered that he could no longer turn away from the question of killing animals we have no need to harm at all:

“Not, ‘Am I nice to my animals?’ or, ‘Do I feed them well?’ but, ‘My God, should we be eating them?’ … I was in the bathroom and I was looking in the mirror: it was so traumatic for me that I damn near tore the sink off the wall.

That was a door of my soul that I had never opened before. And once I’d opened it, I could never close it again because I knew what those animals looked like when they went onto the kill floor. I knew what was in their eyes, and I was the person putting them there. It was like everything that you believe to be righteous and holy was all of a sudden at risk. Could I actually allow my mind to sort through that?

And did I have the intestinal fortitude to know the difference and to make a change? Do you go to your wife when you have a multimillion dollar operation and say, ‘Wait a minute: I think what we are doing is wrong’? I realized that my livelihood was built on sand. Everything I’d believed in my entire life was at risk because there I was with a business built on killing animals.”

Lyman has written two books, Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat and No More Bull! The Mad Cowboy Targets America’s Worst Enemy: Our Diet. He also maintains an educational website, madcowboy.com. Howard Lyman’s life and work are also the subject of Mad Cowboy: The Documentary, and his story is featured in Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home.

5. Bob Comis, former pig and sheep farmer

former dairy farmer

Bob Comis. Photo by Zach Phillips.

In late April of 2011, on his pasture-raised-and-grass-fed farm’s blog — a blog intended to communicate with his locavore customer base — pig and sheep farmer Bob Comis posted a sobering one-sentence personal reflection, entitled, “It Might Be Wrong to Eat Meat”:

“This morning, as I look out the window at a pasture quickly growing full of frolicking lambs, I am feeling very much that it might be wrong to eat meat, and that I might indeed be a very bad person for killing animals for a living.”

Fifteen months later, he posted an equally anguished but more substantial entry under the header, “The Grapple of Ethics”:

“When I think about the debate surrounding the ethics of eating meat, I often wonder why it is so difficult for meat eaters to admit that killing animals (to eat their flesh) is unethical? Truly, I cannot think of one sound ethical argument in favor of slaughtering animals for their meat.

The simplest way to put it is that slaughtering animals for their meat is a socially permissible ethical transgression. Societal permission does not make it ethical, it just makes it acceptable. Slavery was for centuries socially permissible (in spite of the fact that there was always a minority standing firmly against it). Did that make it any less unethical? I doubt anyone today would say yes.

As a pig farmer, I live an unethical life, shrouded in the justificatory trappings of social acceptance. There is more, even, than simple acceptance. There is actually celebration of the way I raise the pigs. Because I give the pigs lives that are as close to natural as is possible in an unnatural system, I am honorable, I am just, I am humane, while all the while behind the shroud, I am a slaveholder and a murderer. Looking head on, you can’t see it. Humanely raising and slaughtering pigs seems perfectly normal. In order to see the truth, you have to look askance, just like a pig does when it knows you are up to no good. When you see out of the corner of your eye, in the blurry periphery of your vision, you see that meat is indeed murder.

former dairy farmer

Happy but ill-fated pigs on Bob Comis’s farm. Photo by Zach Phillips.

What I do is wrong, in spite of its acceptance by nearly 95% of the American population. I know it in my bones, even if I cannot yet act on it. Someday it must stop. Somehow we need to become the sort of beings who can see what we are doing when we look head on, the sort of beings who don’t weave dark, damning shrouds to sustain, with acceptance and celebration, the grossly unethical. Deeper, much deeper, we have an obligation to eat otherwise.”

Comis recently became vegan, is in the process of converting his farm to a vegetable farm, and now publishes widely on the question of eating animals. A documentary film about his transition, The Last Pig, is being made by renowned filmmaker Allison Argo. You can read Comis’s critique of so-called humane slaughter here

6. Renée King-Sonnen

renee-and-rowdy-girlSix years ago, Renée King-Sonnen fell in love with, and married, a fourth generation cattle rancher. She moved from suburbia to 96 acres of Texas pasture where she soon discovered she had fallen in love with the herd of cattle who lived there, too. Fascinated by the animals, Renée began spending a lot of time on the range with them, getting to know their individual personalities, and observing deep bonds between the cows and their calves, as well as the friendships and affection displayed between herd mates. Her heart broke every time the calves were loaded up for auction and their imminent slaughter.

“The experience of watching them leave, the mamas wailing for a week, and the absence of their souls in the pasture haunted me. I’ve cried so many times over this that he has tried to hide the fact he is doing it but I always knew because of the wailing that the momma cows do when they lose their babies and can’t find them.”

Renée bought the cow she calls Rowdy Girl as a calf for $300 from her husband. She bottle-fed her and gave her all the love, nurturing and protection she wished she could give to all of the calves born on the ranch. A few years later, Rowdy Girl gave birth to her own calf, Houdini, so named for her early ability to escape from the property and go wandering. In fact, she escaped so many times that Renee’s husband told her they would have to sell Houdini. Renée refused. She had already gone vegan by that time, and she thought about finding a new home for Rowdy and Houdini at a farm sanctuary. But her heart kept telling her that what she really wanted was to convert the ranch into her own farm sanctuary, and save all of the cattle in her husband’s herd, as well as pigs, chickens and other farmed animals in need. Thus was born Rowdy Girl Sanctuary. You can follow them on facebook, and also get updates at Vegan Journal of a Rancher’s Wife.


The following people never farmed for a living, but they grew up on meat and dairy farms.


7. Marloes Boere

marloes-boere-for-website“I grew up on a dairy farm. It’s the reason I’m vegan today. Just the other day, my father told me that one of the cows died because she refused to eat after her baby was taken away from her. This broke my heart.

For cows to produce milk at profitable levels, they need to have a baby every year. After birth, their calf is taken away from them within a couple of hours. The calf is put into a pen, where he is all alone, fed only twice a day. This practice causes a lot of emotional pain both for the mother and her calf.

As a child, I have witnessed the cruel separation of mother and calf over and over again, and was told that it was normal and necessary. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I am horrified that we live in a world that teaches children it is acceptable to invade and exploit in motherhood in such a violent way. No one should support this. Mother’s milk is baby food and cow’s milk is for baby cows.”

8. T. Colin Campbell

t-colin-campbellDr. T. Colin Campbell is an American biochemist whose research focuses on the effects of human nutrition on long-term health. Because his emphasis is nutrition science, he does not use the term vegan but rather advocates for a 100% plant-based diet, stressing the empirical basis for his position. However, his books, articles and lectures have been hugely influential in leading thousands of people down the vegan path, and in solidifying the case that humans can easily thrive without consuming any animal products.

With his son, Dr. Campbell co-authored the international bestseller The China Study, based on his findings from a 20 year research project conducted under the auspices of Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, and described by The New York Times as “the Grand Prix of epidemiology.” The China Study examines the relationship between animal product (meat, egg and dairy) consumption and chronic illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Based on a meta-analysis of diet and disease rates in thousands of people in rural populations of Taiwan and China, Dr. Campbell concludes that people who eat a whole foods, plant-based diet—excluding all animal products—can avoid, reduce, and in many cases reverse the development of numerous illnesses, including most of the leading fatal Western diseases.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this study and his subsequent life’s work is that Dr. Campbell spent his entire childhood, into adulthood, living and working on his family’s dairy farm, and undertook the China Study with the belief that animal protein was an essential part of a healthy diet. He now teaches that casein, the main protein in milk and dairy products, is the most significant carcinogen we consume. Here is an excerpt from a position paper he presented to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine:

the-china-study“I was raised on a dairy farm milking cows until my graduate student days in nutrition at Cornell University. For my doctoral research I investigated, in effect, how to make the production of milk, meat and especially animal protein more efficient. Later, it was on to Virginia Tech’s Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition and my coordination of a State Department funded project designed to organize a nationwide program of improving the health of malnourished children in the Philippines, especially to insure a good source of protein, preferably ‘high quality’ animal based protein.

But I was greeted with a surprise. The few people who were consuming protein-rich diets were more susceptible to primary liver cancer… My associates and I then embarked on a basic research program to investigate this surprising effect of protein feeding on cancer development. Supported entirely by public money – mostly from NIH – we explored in depth over the next 27 years various characteristics of this association. We needed to confirm this observation, then determine how it worked. We did both. The results were profoundly convincing and, along the way, they illustrated several fundamental nutrition and cancer principles.

  • Tumor growth could be alternately turned on and off by feeding diets containing higher and lower levels of dietary protein, respectively.
  • Dietary protein promoted tumor growth but only at dietary levels above that needed for good health (ca. 10% of total energy).
  • Although dietary protein did not initiate cancer, it enhanced initiation and, more importantly, promoted tumor growth.
  • The protein effect could be explained by multiple biochemical mechanisms, appearing to act in synergy.
  • The dietary protein having this tumor promoting effect was casein, the principle protein of cow’s milk. Two plant-based proteins, soy and wheat, did not promote tumor growth–even at the higher level.
  • The casein effect on tumor growth very likely extends to other animal proteins as well.
  • Based on the criteria used by the government’s program for determining whether chemicals are carcinogenic, casein is very likely the most relevant chemical carcinogen we consume.

However, I question studies that are focused on single agents and single events because they are usually missing the larger context. Thus, we sought that larger context within which casein, perhaps animal protein in general, relates to human health. An opportunity arose for us to conduct such a study among human subjects in rural China where various cancers were geographically localized and where diets contained relatively small but varied amounts of animal based foods. In seeking this larger context in this nationwide study, we learned – from multiple perspectives – that relatively small amounts of animal based foods (and/or the lack of whole plant based foods) nutritionally conspire to cause degenerative diseases like cancer, cardiovascular and other diseases commonly found in the United States and other highly industrialized countries.

These experiences eventually led me to a view about diet and nutrition that is substantially different from that with which I began my research career, especially in respect to my personal and professional love affair with cow’s milk and its products.”

To learn more, check out the book, The China Study, or visit thechinastudy.com. You can also stream the groundbreaking health documentary Forks Over Knives, inspired by the work of Dr. Campbell.

9. Helen Peppe

helen-peppeHelen Peppe grew up the youngest of nine children on a farm in Maine, where she lived until college. In her recent memoir, Pigs Can’t Swim, she recounts how the early connections she made with the animals raised and killed on her family’s farm drove her decision to become a childhood vegetarian (and a vegan in adulthood), and the often lonely world she inhabited as a result of that decision.

From Pigs Can’t Swim:

“I looked at the pile of decapitated bodies and thought of the stump in the woods and the heads around it, the expressions not of surprise, but fear, eyes wide open. What was the last thing they’d seen, part of a tree, grass, the axe, the next chicken in line? Did two of them remember their short baby chickhood where they’d been petted and loved? Did their brains show them pictures of a particular moment, pictures of the past and present? A future? I’d watched dogs, horses and pigs dream, their legs trotting in their sleep, their eyelids fluttering as they whined or grunted. Did chickens dream, too? I looked at the pile of decapitated bodies and knew I would not eat any of them, knew I would never eat any animal again because how could I eat anything that could enjoy attention or who might have dreams of her own?

Observing the deaths of so many animals, animals who enjoyed playing in the pastures and pens with their lambs, calves, and piglets, I wanted to protect them, to save their lives.”

You can read an interview with Helen Peppe at Vegan Publishers. Check out her photography and learn more about her writing at helenpeppe.com.


I’ll close this piece with a “quote” from one of the rescued residents at Hof Butenland sanctuary, a calf called Fiete rescued from the dairy industry. I don’t speak much German, but I think he is saying something about friendship, and sunlight, and happiness. I think he is probably saying thank you.

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About Ashley Capps

Ashley Capps received an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first book of poems is Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields. The recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she works as a writer, editor and researcher specializing in farmed animal welfare and vegan advocacy. Ashley has written for numerous animal rights organizations, and in addition to her ongoing work for Free from Harm, she is a writer and researcher at A Well-Fed World. For more information on her poetry or advocacy writing, please visit her website. She also runs the vegan facebook page Make Compassion Consistent.

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