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How Buffalo Taught Me to be a Responsible Capitalist

Dan O'Brien

I belong to the Baby Boomer Generation and if you are a Millennial, Gen-X, or Gen-Z person, I owe you an apology. My cohorts and I are the ones that didn’t adequately stand up to the forces of ignorance and greed that are killing everything that is wild. But we were the first generation that understood that what humans were doing to wild things was suicidal. We are culpable for knuckling under in the face of the power behind that insanity and I’m sorry for the part I played in that tragedy.

In the spring of 1970, I was the chairman of the first Earth Day on the campus of a little Ohio college. I didn’t know what should happen on an Earth Day and neither did my committee. We planned a small parade, some speeches from supportive professors, and a debate of the pressing questions of the times: the Vietnam War, equal rights for women and minorities, and the abuses of nature by industrial agriculture. Passions ran high in the spring of 1970 and those three topics merged into an outpouring of reaction toward what became known as “the establishment.”

It seems silly now, but back then only a few people believed that DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and other agricultural chemicals were killing nature. Those of us who had been raised in the ‘50s and ‘60s on and around Ohio farmlands knew that something was wrong. The small drainage that ran through our little family farm had a funny smell and the beaches of Lake Erie sported skull and crossbones signs put up by the board of health. There were scarcely enough songbirds to support my hobby of bird watching.

I was reluctantly pushed forward by the student Earth Day committee to represent them on the debate stage. My opponent was, Colonel Fred Graff, a hometown war hero, arch conservative, regional postmaster, and chairman of the local draft board. He was a tall, imposing man, with years of experience as a public speaker. I was a clueless 22-year-old college jock whose only credential was that I liked to walk around outdoors and watch birds. I was a Middle American, middle class kid who had been raised to respect authority. I was psyched out days before the debate, and Colonel Graff crushed me. To his well- reasoned and clinical appraisal of the state of the world, I could only babble about beauty, respect for all life, and my naïve feelings about how the world should be. He dismissed me as a dreamer and, in the face of his confident, consumptive, pseudo-patriotic vision, I suffered a total breakdown of audacity.

About a hundred people turned out for that first Earth Day and, though campus anti-war demonstrations were gaining strength as President Nixon began his second year in office, few people in the crowd that day understood the far greater threats our civilization was imposing on the environment: polluted air, polluted water, loss of species diversity, human- caused climate change, and out-of-control capitalism. Still, those few innocent souls looked to me to lead them and letting them down was one of the great failures of my life.

I’ve spent the last 45 years trying to atone for my inability to articulate the gravity of our ongoing world crisis. But it was not until 20 years ago that I concluded that, though passionate words are important, they are not enough. The best way to keep things wild is do something concrete, something big, something that is equivalent to putting a hand in the face of materialistic industry and saying “No. No more. Not in my world.” Recycling pop cans or donating a few dollars to conservation groups is not enough. We need to find ways to alter humanity’s relationship to the environment, and have the courage to execute those new ideas. I’ve come to believe that each person should shoulder some of the responsibility for not only adhering to best environmental practices but for creating and executing new, practical models for protecting our world. We owe the world our physical labor and our earnest brain power.

I think we fall in love with ecosystems much the way we do with people. And we have to protect those ecosystems we love as fiercely as we protect the people we love. Not long after that first Earth Day, I fell in love with the Great Plains. It is the dominant ecosystem of the North American continent, encompassing a quarter of the land-mass and yet a fraction of the human population. It is a treeless land of grass with extreme climatic conditions—from common sub-zero winter temperatures to triple digits above zero in the summertime. It is a reservoir of species diversity, a major carbon sink, and one of the least protected landscapes in the world. For two hundred years, industrial agriculture has been destroying it by plowing up the grass for which it is famous, draining its aquifers to grow subsidized crops, and poisoning the native species. In that process, industrial agriculture has released tens of thousands of years’ worth of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere.

I left my Ohio home shortly after my humiliating performance in the first Earth Day debate and went to work on the Great Plains monitoring birds for South Dakota’s Department of Game Fish and Parks. When I found a little place to live on the edge of the Black Hills, I knew I had found my ecosystem. Later, I took a job reintroducing peregrine falcons to the cliffs that overlooked the Great Plains from Montana to Texas. For 10 years, I drove the length and breadth of the Great Plains and the abuses I saw were ominous: biodiverse grasslands plowed up to create monocultures, stinking, overcrowded cattle feedlots, aquifer-charging playas drained to create more subsidized monocultures, and all the native species pushed to the less fertile edges. The genius of man is astounding but, it has often been put to poor, self-destructive, and frivolous uses. The development of a computer application that locates the closest thin-crust pizza joint is a waste of the genius required to fix what is wrong.

As I drove this post-apocalyptic midsection of North America, I obsessed on what those grasslands were like before the advent of industrial agriculture—miles upon miles of open land to roam, herds of elk, antelope, and bison to the horizons, ground nesting birds erupting from every clump of grass, waterfowl by the billions careening overhead. I tried to understand how it had all fit together and I looked hard for parts of that ecosystem that could still be salvaged. You can’t think about that kind of restoration and conservation long before you come to the role that bison play in sustaining a healthy Great Plains ecosystem and it occurred to me that they might be the place to begin.

Pre-contact North America was home to at least 30 million bison. They were the dependable keystone species of the central grasslands of the continent; their grazing helped to diversify the nutrient cycling in prairie plants and enrich the soil, and their large carcasses provided sustenance for a number of species with whom they shared the Great Plains. By the late nineteenth century, unchecked capitalism had reduced bison numbers to a few million. By the early decades of the twentieth century, there were less than a

thousand—reduced to fugitives, hiding out in the most remote corners of this vast region. They were being replaced by European cattle and the vital grasslands were being plowed to support those cattle and the wars in Europe. The powers that drove this destruction were the same powers that I had failed to face down on that debate stage of that first Earth Day.

Thinking about challenging those forces sent chills down my spine but it was my only road to redemption. Twenty years ago, in an effort to recreate a healthy landscape, my wife, Jill, and I committed to converting our tiny cattle ranch to a bison ranch. We could only afford a dozen buffalo at first, but we wanted to give the native species that still lived on that little piece of land a chance to survive in a world similar to the one in which they had evolved. We always knew that our little, highly mortgaged ranch was insignificant in the scope of the Great Plains. It would take hundreds of thousands of acres to make a perceivable change in the damaged grasslands. That seemed impossible and it took a while to understand that a tool to achieve that change in trajectory was the very tool that had been so destructive.

The best and brightest brains of my generation turned toward the mindless capitalism that drove the deterioration of my chosen landscape—the advent of bigger tractors, genetically modified crops, innovations to pump water and oil faster. They figured out ways to kill the completion for designated crops, dig coal pits deeper, and accelerate life to breakneck speed. Nothing seemed as powerful as manic capitalism.

Of course self-interest drives innovation and efficiency, but did capitalism need to be manic and mindless? I began to wonder if a more sensible capitalism could replace the capitalism that most of us know. What if we included the quality of our great grandchildren’s lives in our definition of self-interest? What if we could harvest some of our bison and sell the meat to finance an expansion of bison numbers? What if we refused to encourage the conversion of grasslands to cropland by rejecting the feedlot model that craves more and more corn? If we allowed our bison to eat only the self-generating plants that they had evolved to eat, and sell the meat to capitalize the model, we would still be well within the conventional capitalist model without bringing about damaging changes to the Great Plains ecosystem.

Twenty years ago, we created Wild Idea Buffalo Company on that premise and our bison herd, with all the accompanying ecological benefits, began to expand exponentially.

Though Wild Idea Buffalo Company is still struggling to be profitable, it is helping the Great Plains to heal faster by encouraging other like-minded producers to expand the range of modern bison. In the bargain, we are supplying one of the planet’s healthiest red meats to people interested in eating unadulterated food. Now we support the raising of thousands of free-roaming grassfed bison in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. Our once-little idea now allows bison producers to stop their dependence on industrial agriculture and helps stem the tide of converting healthy, species rich, and carbon absorbent grasslands into monocultures that impoverish the soil. It is a business model that is applicable to other ecosystems around the world. I only wish Colonel Graff was still alive to see it.

 

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37 comments

  • We absolutely love the idea behind Wild Idea and the quality of your products—they are a few dollars more, but so worth it! We won’t buy bison anywhere else (we live in Maryland) and we have switched over about 90% of our red meat meals to your bison. Healthier, sustainable, Earth-friendly, and delicious! We are spreading the word. Keep up the great work!

    JoAnne Fernandez
  • What a spectacular piece of writing. It was from the heart and I felt it. I have shared his philosophy of finding the medium between capitalism and being responsible for all living things while doing so. Please keep up your amazing work. Your company is a model of how we should look to be in the future and present. Thank you for sharing such an amazing story with us. It is beyond inspirational to me.

    Pablo E Arguello
  • Bless you for having and living a committed vision of what it takes to work with nature for the benefit of the planet, the environment, the animals and those of us lucky enough to be blessed by your bison products. I am a proud boomer and after 34 years as a vegetarian/vegan animal activist against factory farming, I am especially appreciative I can sustain and improve my family’s health in all good consciousness knowing that every step along your path is best for the land, the animals and Mother Earth. I hope and pray you will be very profitable soon as more people hear and appreciate your stellar efforts. There are lots of us who feel this way and our numbers are growing! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

    Shannon Reeves
  • I liked your article on our country’s midsection’s landscape from what it was to what it is. The end problem is there are too many humans on this earth and the resources of this country will be depleted as in the 3rd world countries where all the immigrants are pouring in from. I grew up in MN, moved to Las Vegas for awhile, and in the decade or so that I lived there, there were massive changes to the landscape. With 6000 humans a month moving there, that landscape changed forever. So now living back in MN, I see the brown haze that encircles the metropolitan area so much so like every other big city. I read once, if we as humans, were to stop the machine, it would (the damage) continue for another 500 years. Yes, the ice shelf will disappear, the oceans will rise, coastal cities will be inundated with flooding, the oceans themselves will become diluted from the ice melt and the storms will become ever more destructive. Thanks for listening.

    jeff d
  • Nice essay, Dan. My men’s group is reading your “Wild Ideas” book. Happy Earth Day! Keep up the good fight!

    Todd Neel
  • I eat the meat you raise on your ranch. I have read your books. This story further enlightened me to what is in your heart. What is in your heart is more powerful then the corporate greed that can run roughshod over our world. Congratulations to you for listening and following your heart!

    Bob Lowrey
  • Very thoughtful, Dan! Congratulations on your successful enterprise!! Alex

    Alex Pociask

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