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June 27, 2017

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How Four Ross Students Found Community on the Prairie

Open Road — Week Three by Team RAZA (Ryan, Ariana, Zach, Athena - From the University of Michigan, Ross School of Business)

After spending our first two weeks in the urban centers of Detroit and Chicago, we knew week three in Rapid City, South Dakota would definitely be a different experience. But the reality of just how different didn’t begin to sink in until we passed through Badlands National Park.

Badlands

We had definitely left the big cities behind.

We also had a different kind of partner this week. Dan O’Brien, founder of Wild Idea Buffalo Co., is a seasoned buffalo rancher and accomplished author who casually drops nuggets of profound wisdom in everyday conversations. As a child from Ohio, he fell in love with the South Dakota prairie and for decades has worked to restore the Great Plains by replanting his pastures with native grasses and practicing regenerative grazing with his herd, which strengthens the soil and fosters a healthy ecosystem.

Dan was a departure from our first two partners in more ways than one. David of Merit Goodness and Curtis and Quintin of Vice District Brewing Co. all served distinct communities with their business. But for a buffalo rancher whose land is miles from the nearest neighbor and who does nearly all of his business by wholesale or online retail, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what Dan’s community was.

Our most rewarding and educational moments from the first two weeks were being immersed in these communities and getting to know how our partners benefited the people they served. And it seemed an unfortunate certainty there would be no such opportunity this week.

After our first day meeting Dan’s team and touring the buffalo processing facility in Rapid City, we were no closer to understanding Wild Idea’s broader community. Dan insisted that the next day we should visit the ranch to meet the herd.

Despite heavy rain storms Tuesday morning, we met some Wild Idea employees to follow out to Dan’s ranch. The ranch is the kind of place that can only be found by those who already know where it is, so we needed the escort. Paved roads didn’t last long, and neither did the rain. As soon as pavement turned to gravel, the skies cleared and a rainbow lit the way. This day was going to be special. 

Upon our arrival, Dan gave us a quick tour of the facilities then loaded us into a four-wheeler for what can only be described as a prairie safari. He drove us around miles of grassland, constantly pointing out varieties of bluestem, switchgrass and other native grasses and plants that he had painstakingly restored to the pasture. We stopped at the edge of an overlook where Dan pointed towards the site of Wounded Knee, the Cheyenne River and the general vicinity of a coyote howling in the distance. He knew these plains like the back of his hand.

dan

 

 

 

We didn’t see another rancher the entire day. But we did encounter wild jackrabbits, grouse, curlews, prong-horned antelope and prairie dogs, which were always just quick enough to dodge Dan’s charging four-wheeler.

After hours traversing the pasture, we finally spotted the reason for our visit. Hundreds of bison grazed over the nearest ridge. We approached the herd slowly, yet within minutes the curious buffalo had surrounded us. In a hushed tone, Dan narrated with awe the scene around us. Even after decades of ranching these lands, he was still humbled to be among the herd. 

Bison on prairie

Finally it was clear to us. All of this was Dan’s community. And he served it as passionately as any other entrepreneur we’ve encountered. The impact was undeniable — from the towering bison to the subtle but vital grasses on the pasture — the ecosystem was thriving. Even though a few dozen buffalo must be harvested each year, this community is stronger under Dan’s management than it would be under industrial farming operations.

The day had been our most immersive experience yet. Our surroundings had changed, but Dan had more in common with our previous partners than we realized. What has connected all of our partners is a passion to serve their communities, be it underserved youth in Detroit, South Loop residents of Chicago or the Great Plains ecosystem of South Dakota. An entrepreneur’s social impact isn’t determined by the scale of his or her community, but how they serve its needs.

Dan O'Brien with Ross Students

As Dan explains in one of his books, “grass supplies food, shelter, escape cover, and a place to reproduce for almost everything that lives out here. Humans are no exceptions.” 

 

 


Comments

Earlice J

June 29, 2017

It is great these young people were able to see this perspective. I am sure they will never forget this experience. Who knows maybe one will decide to follow in your footsteps?!!!
What a great story & what a great gift for them!

Grant Price

June 29, 2017

We have been around since the book was new and it all really was a wild idea We are just amazed and gratified to see what it has become. And against some initial tall odds and ongoing obstacles.
We would hope to count ourselves as members of Dan’s community. His community included many others who understand what he has created, support him, and draw tangible and spiritual sustenance from his products. And from just knowing that he and his business are out there.

Felix Stirnimann

June 29, 2017

Thank’s to your staff at your store
for welcome. ..Cordula and I got samples of your delicious products to take along our vacation trip. ..and it tasted great.

Would wish to have a talk with Mr. Dan OBrien once about same minded as I call my doings in so far smaler, but also down earthy layed out ways and goals. ..to discuss and have his experienced opinion known. …then generations need to learn from each other to give on the worth while. …
Greedings and all the best
Felix a. Cordula

Janis Fitschen

June 30, 2017

So glad you are able to do that kind of educating. What a great opportunity
and those students saw the results., Got the message. thank you all.

Rose

July 01, 2017

THESE YOUNG PEOPLE ARE SO LUCKY TO SEE FIRST HAND AND LEARN ABOUT YOUR WILD IDEA.
THEY HAVE EXPERIENCE HOW VAST THE BUFFALO CAN ROAM ON YOUR PROPERTY AND THAT FAMILIES
CAN STILL WORK VERY WELL WITH EACH OTHER. WORK IN TUNE WITH THEIR LAND AND THE ANIMALS
ON THEM FOR THE BETTERMENT OF BOTH. THEN THEY FIND OUT HOW GREAT YOUR PRODUCTS ARE
AND THE GOOD RESULTS OF YOUR HARD WORK.

Dr. Douglas S. Shearer

July 01, 2017

Can you imagine what it must have looked like in the early 1800s? When there were so many bison that it would take days for the mass to pass by a fixed point on the land. Before the white male invasion upon the western prairies, before the blanket of disease and European religion was put over the indigenous peoples in those magnificent plains – can you even begin to picture that in your mind’s eye? As I read through the book “1491” written by Charles C. Mann, I begin to realize just how much of our North American history we have either destroyed and or altered by our greed and ethnocentrism. What a different world that must have been.

Liz Aicher

July 01, 2017

Beautifully written. Thanks!

Doug Williams

July 01, 2017

Terrific and insightful story. The photos are splendid!
Thank you for sharing this.

Marty Amble

July 01, 2017

Great article… and I suspect a bit of a;life-changing experience for the Ross students! And it looks like they… had FUN, too!

Linda Huhn

July 01, 2017

More pictures, more pictures!! I wanted to be surrounded by the herd, up close and personal again.

My husband Richard and I enjoyed our stay on the ranch and our drive into the herd with Gervais in 2004.

Community IS what you created, Dan. See our photos @richardjohnsonphotographer.com, Badlands and Bison.

Denise Smith

July 02, 2017

What a wonderful, goose bump kind of story! I love South Dakota and I’m looking forward to visiting again soon. I’m a former Michigander and it’s so great these young people from my home state find awe and inspiration from this wonderful state: South Dakota. Wild Idea Buffalo company is one of my favorites and I enjoy reading the blogs and the recipes too! Thanks Dan for your passion to preserve this beautiful area.

Rita Novak

July 02, 2017

About four years ago, I visited the facility along with two friends. Ernie gave us a tour. It was a very special experience and we still talk about being on the prairie and riding alongside the heard of buffalo.
Reading about the M of U experience brought back memories of my day.

Mike

July 02, 2017

A “a few dozen harvested per year.” I have been an avid customer for some time and would mind knowing the number. Has to be way more than a few dozen.

Cheves Leland

July 03, 2017

The Wild Idea Buffalo community includes not only the prairie denizens, human and wild, but also those of us who benefit from the stewardship and care shown by all of Wild Idea Buffalo’s employees. We all where in the profits and most of all from the respect and love shown to the land without which none of this would be possible. Many thanks to Dan and his family for this. Wild Idea Buffalo is more than a business..it is a community and one of which I am proud to be member.

Eirik Heikes

July 03, 2017

Great experience and a stunning account! Kudos.

Wild Idea Buffalo Co

July 03, 2017

Mike – From the Cheyenne River Ranch herd we harvest between 36 to 60, based on land stocking capacity and size of animals. On an annual basis we harvest around 900 bison a year, sourcing from other like minded ranchers who’s practices mirror ours and also from tribal herds, again their practices must mirror ours.

Chase Sanford

July 06, 2017

Wonderful article. All natural product. Putting bac native plants as it should be what could be more eco-friendly.
Live long and prosper my friends.

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