The World We Eat, Part 3
Note: The words “bison” and “buffalo” often refer to the same species, Bison bison. While it’s generally considered standard to call these animals bison, Dan O’Brien exclusively calls them buffalo, and I have chosen to use his word throughout this article for consistency.
Regenerative by Nature
It was the first time I'd ever touched a buffalo. I was squatting on a spare tire in the back of a rusty pickup, bouncing along a dirt road into a field. The rancher (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) was taking me and my classmates to see his buffalo in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. When we reached the herd, he handed us a bucket of grain pellets and let us feed the animals from our hands. I remember the buffalo’s black, gritty tongues as they licked the food from my palms, and the dark woolly hair that framed their bright eyes. They were less menacing than I’d been led to expect; the females were downright shy, and even the big bulls were only interested in the food. The buffalo were agile and energetic and had none of the awkward sluggishness of cattle.
Until that day, I’d never seen a buffalo ranch, although the National Bison Association reports that there are 1,775 of them in the United States. The association’s slogan, “Bison—Regenerative by Nature,” hints at the importance of buffalo for the future of ranching in America. And among all the ranches that make up this growing industry, one stands out: Wild Idea Buffalo Company in South Dakota.
Dan O’Brien is the founder and owner of Wild Idea Buffalo. Aside from ranching, O’Brien is also a writer, a falconer, and a self-proclaimed “carbon cowboy.” Defying many ranching norms at the time, Wild Idea Buffalo was created to pursue the goals that matter to O’Brien: restoring the prairie, treating animals humanely, and providing humans with healthy food.
O’Brien talks with me from his home near Rapid City, sitting in a room with particle-board walls, accompanied by book manuscripts, a mug of coffee, and a brown-and-white setter dog. He tells me right away what makes his ranch special: “One of our goals is to leave this place healthier—in soil, wildlife, species diversity—to leave it better in those ways than we found it,” he tells me, “and I think we’re doing it. I think we’re doing it.”
The Evolution of an Industry
On Wild Idea Buffalo's website, O’Brien describes his business as “beyond organic.” I ask him why he chose to distance himself from the organic label. “It’s insufficient,” he replies, explaining how he believes the word has been co-opted by mega-corporations to pacify concerned customers. “People think, ‘oh, it’s organic, everything’s alright,’” he describes, “and that’s not true. Basically, all organic does is say you can’t spray chemicals on the food.”
Years ago, O'Brien considered certifying his ranch as organic, but decided it didn’t align with his goals. The first question on the certification form asked him how much time his animals spent on concrete. “Our buffalo have never seen concrete,” he scoffs with a shake of his head.
The term “natural” is famously nebulous when it refers to food, but if anything exemplifies natural food, it must be O’Brien’s buffalo. The herds at Wild Idea eat nothing but native prairie grass for their entire lives. They are never given antibiotics or hormones, never touch concrete, and are killed ("harvested") in the field as they graze. By living the natural lifestyle that buffalo and prairie grasses have been adapting to over millennia, O’Brien’s buffalo regenerate endangered prairie habitat while producing a food product that is considered uniquely healthy among red meats. And underlying all of that is O'Brien's commitment to his personal standard of humane animal husbandry. When I ask him what it means to him to raise livestock ethically, he simply states that ethics ‘is the whole ballgame. If I couldn’t do it ethically, I wouldn’t do it.”
O’Brien is proud of his ranching methods. While the bison are alive, they are mostly left to take care of themselves, something that’s often impossible to do with cattle in the upper Midwest. Buffalo are perfectly adapted to surviving the dry summers and freezing winters on the Great Plains.
By living the natural lifestyle that buffalo and prairie grasses have been adapting to over millennia, O’Brien’s buffalo regenerate endangered prairie habitat while producing a food product that is considered uniquely healthy among red meats.
Humanely raising animals is one thing, but humanely killing them is another. Many animal-welfare groups and conscious consumers are deeply divided over whether human slaughter is possible. O’Brien does not weigh in on that debate, but he clearly takes pride in the way his ranch handles harvesting buffalo. In fact, on Wild Idea’s website, you can watch a start-to-finish video of the entire slaughter and butchering process. I came across this video months ago and nervously avoided viewing it for a long time. But when I finally watched it, I had to agree that the process seemed exceptionally respectful. (For comparison, watch this semi-graphic, but not sensationalized, video of the slaughter process at a traditional slaughterhouse.)
[Watch a video of the harvest and butchering process at Wild Idea Buffalo ranch.]
A question about O'Brien's buffalo is nagging at me. The ranch slaughters about 1000 buffalo a year. Yet in the harvesting video, the animals barely take notice as the workers drive up in a truck and kill one of the herd. If the animals see this over and over again, why are they not terrified of the ranchers?
When I ask O’Brien this, he smiles and gazes at the ceiling. “People have different ideas about that,” he muses. He recounts a traditional Lakota belief that a buffalo will gladly give its life to any hunter with a “pure heart.” Perhaps, he ponders, “the buffalo are not afraid of [dying]. They understand that there is a cycle that goes on.”
O’Brien's other explanation is more scientific: the buffalo “simply have never evolved to fear a man.” On his ranch, the animals' final moments are stress-free. “They’ll all be pretty much standing there when the lights go out,” he explains, and then his expression darkens: “You try to put them into a corral, and then into a truck, and then haul them to a big industrial plant that smells like death—they’re not going to stand there. They’re going to fight it with everything they have.”
Keeping Things Afloat
As much as O'Brien believes in the work he is doing, he is the first to admit that it is hardly a money-making venture. O’Brien lives a humble lifestyle, drives a twenty-year-old truck, and has worked jobs off the ranch nearly his whole life to make ends meet. While his ranch has great value in soil health and wildlife habitat, “there’s no cash," he says.
O’Brien is proud of the sacrifices he has made for his ranch. Such sacrifices, he believes, are a taste of the hard choices that our entire society is soon going to face. “We have to decide what we want to give up. And I know that’s hard—we like to have it all....[But] to save species diversity and fight climate change, we’re going to have to give something up, or we’re going to end up giving it all up at the end.”
We sit in silence as his words sink in. In the United States, we boast about our sky-high quality of life. But is the affluence just a mirage? We spend wealth that we don’t have: wealth in terms of not only money, but also fertile soil, natural resources, and a climate that can support our civilization. We are playing with borrowed money.
It is during this sober reflection that O’Brien tells me about the biggest sacrifice he has made: when he was a young man, he made a decision to not have children of his own. He did so partly in response to the growing population crisis, and partly because he recognized that his lifestyle could not support the raising and educating of children. He seems very comfortable with his choice, yet he does not hide the fact that it was a serious loss for him. “You’re going to have to give up something,” he maintains. “I chose giving up family.” Today, O’Brien shares his ranch with his wife, Jill, and his adopted daughter and her family, who will eventually inherit his ranch.
"We're going to have to give something up, or we're going to end up giving it all up at the end."
O'Brien knows that his financial struggles are not unique. In fact, he tells me that even the biggest of ranches aren’t doing much better. According to O’Brien, many operations make three or four times as much money as he does; however, their true profit is no higher. These farms spend enormous amounts of money on seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides, requiring massive income just to pay off their loans. O’Brien calls it “a false economy.”
“I’ve been in this business for thirty years,’ O’Brien declares, “and I have never known anyone to make money farming. They make money by selling their farm to the next sucker.” The whole financial system is deceptive, O'Brien cautions: our country has made farming fast, efficient, and cut-throat, “but the cost—it hasn’t been free. The cost has been to the environment.”
O'Brien keeps his costs low by allowing the natural relationship of buffalo and prairie to keep the land healthy, restoring life and biodiversity to a tragically degraded part of our country. While his profit may not be large, he knows that he is not running up huge debts or participating in the destruction of America’s grasslands.
This is Where I Belong
O’Brien knows how severely the Great Plains have been degraded. He sees the odds stacked against his lifestyle. He understands the full extent of what he has given up to make his ranch possible. “How do you do it?” I ask him. “What makes this worth it to you?”
O’Brien’s explanation is simple and personal: his love for this land runs deep. He describes his daily sunrise walks through the grasslands. He tells me about the thrill of hunting grouse with his dogs and his falcons. He explains how much he loves to watch the birds that nest on his property, birds that are often endangered and scarce in the land surrounding his ranch.
I ask O’Brien why he chooses to stay in South Dakota. Most people think of the Dakotas as flyover states—what holds him here? His mouth curves into a small smile as he tries to explain: “I didn’t choose this environment; it chose me. I’ve been all over the world, and Africa is nice, and South America is great, and the Arctic is wonderful, but this is where I belong—right here.”
You are the Hope
As our conversation wraps up, I ask O'Brien to describe his vision of a better food system. He calls his first answer a “standard” one: “We need to get back to local.” He returns to the theme of sacrifice, of giving something up for the sake of our communities and our planet. We’re “just maybe not going to be able to have peaches in January” in states like South Dakota, he reasons, if we are serious about halting climate change. “Life is real hard, and there are no free lunches,” he continues. “We can go for a few years and things are good, but the shit will eventually hit the fan. It always does.”
On the bright side, O’Brien believes that eating local, healthfully grown food can seriously pay off. He tells me about his adopted daughter’s children, who have grown up eating vegetables straight from the garden and drinking milk straight from a cow. “You should see these kids—they look like they’re healthy, because they’ve been eating healthy stuff. And we know that!” he laughs. “That’s no hot news flash.”
"Believe me, those big industries are scared to death of people like you, because you’re starting to pay attention."
But I live in a city, I respond, and I can’t grow my own food or control how it’s produced. What can I do? O’Brien sits up and leans toward the computer. “But you are in control!” he presses, holding his hands out to the screen as if offering me something of great importance. “Think of it like this, because this is the truth: the power is in the consumer. You will get what you want. If you want cheap food, you’ll get it. That’s what’s happening right now. But if you stand up and say, ‘I want grass-fed' or 'pesticide-free’ or whatever it is, you will get it.”
The very last thing O’Brien says to me rings in my ears after we hang up: “Believe me, those big industries are scared to death of people like you, because you’re starting to pay attention.” He presses his fingertips together, purses his lips, and points at the screen. “I mean this absolutely sincerely,” he tells me: “You are the only hope that my dreams are going to come true. You’re it. I’m dependent on you.”
O’Brien and I have only known each other for an hour, so I doubt that he is referring to me, personally, but I'm starting to grasp his point. A handful of scattered ranches and farms, even ones as regenerative as Wild Idea Buffalo, cannot stem the tide of destruction that is threatening our lands. It will take the voices of the entire community to lift up visionaries like O'Brien, to demand more of what they have started, and to accept the responsibility of making our own sacrifices for the protection of the world we’ve inherited.