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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”