Prairie Roots

This week my inbox was inundated by emails including a link to a Washington Post article enumerating the negative effects of converting North America’s grasslands to cropland. For me, there wasn’t much news in the article, as I’m in the final stages of publishing a book on the subject. Still, it is amazing to note that so few people know about a problem that threatens America at its very core. The conversion of the biodiverse grasslands to monocultures contributes to climate change, and is a symbolic assault on the heart of America. The Great Plains have always been the part of America that speaks most directly to our national character. It has always been regarded as the reservoir of open spaces, fertility, freedom of movement, and sense of possibilities.

Some of the publics comments that followed the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s reprint of the article revealed how little American citizens know about the gravity of the situation and how easily they can dismiss it as a political kerfuffle. I was also surprised that although traditional livestock grazing was mentioned as a flawed, but preferable alternative to cropland conversion, that innovative buffalo management was not mentioned.

I like to offer testimonials from people who have seen the effects of grassland conversion up close. These are not rabid environmentalist or profit addicted farmers. These are members of my immediate family - innovators, people who live on the land yet run a vertically integrated, internet business that says yes to forward progress and no to grassland conversion. Below is a clip from my upcoming book, along with their testimonials. Dan O'Brien

Prairie Roots by Dan O’Brien, Jill O’Brien, Colton Jones, Jilian Jones, and Lincoln Hosler Jones

Dan (excerpt from upcoming book)Dan O'Brien Wild Idea Buffalo Co.GMO technology makes profitable farming possible on the portion of our ranch called Phiney Flat and many other places on the Great Plains. It supplies an incentive for ranchers who still control healthy portions of the ancient Buffalo Kingdom to convert that grassland to cropland. Such conversion would render the return of meaningful numbers of Buffalo impossible in the next many hundreds of years.Prairie RestorationThough this will never happen to the portion of Phiney Flats that I control as long as I am alive, it is a temptation to which many will succumb. In addition to claiming a windfall in subsidies from becoming a farmer, there is also a penalty for not making that deadly conversion. It is a little known fact that, in many Great Plains states, property taxes are calculated on a “best use value” not an “actual use value." What this means is that a ranch is taxed on what the income could be if it was plowed up and planted to GMO crops. Never mind the loss of biodiversity, fertility, or the loss of carbon to the atmosphere. The tax differences are significant and the margins in ranching are slim. There is no question that GMO agriculture is driving loss of grasslands and those losses are not redeemable. This perfect storm of incentives and penalties is perhaps the greatest indictment against the use of genetically modified organisms. It could eventually be the final nail in the coffin of Buffalo, and many other species, on the Great Plains. It is almost as if Big Agriculture and Big Government are working together, consciously or unconsciously, to ensure that Buffalo, and the ecosystem that supported them, disappear from the face of Earth, forever.

Jill O'Brien Wild Idea Buffalo Co.My childhood home was a patchwork landscape, with small-scale farming and miles of grasslands dotted with black and white cows (Holsteins). This is eastern South Dakota, dairy country. My siblings and I were all in 4-H, pledging our heads, hearts, hands, and health to our club, community, country, and world. But, that was years ago and the patchwork landscape of my family’s farm, and the farms that once surrounded it, are now mostly - gone. The ditches - gone, now plowed to the road edges, eking out every acre for corn. The dotted black and white landscape - gone. Replaced with sightless indoor cows that live in large industrialized dairies, eating corn from their 24/7 buffets. There is no turning back, there is only forward. I now live where the grass still moves in the wind and where the meadowlarks still sing. It is not gone - yet. There is still hope and it is worth fighting for. So I remain committed to the fight, pledging my head, heart, hands, and health for my family, community, country, and world.

ColtonColton Jones Wild idea Buffalo Co.I grew up in the southeast corner of Nebraska. Not far from where the Platte River converges with the Missouri River. That part of the country spans far and wide with monoculture row crops. My new home in the rugged western Dakota plains has anchored my heart long enough to start a family here. The transition from farm country to wild prairie educated me on what the land I grew up on had been stripped of. It is man’s impact that has destroyed the ecological balance of this part of the world,  resulting in millions of acres of lifeless ground. I love and will always love the community which I was brought up. I was surrounded by some of the most sincere, hardworking, and genuine people I have met to this day. The fact of the matter is, farming commodities and government subsidies have pulled a veil over the true fate of our country’s grasslands. Even if members of the farm industry wanted to make a change in their practice for the sake of prairie conservation, they might go broke doing so. In my life I have seen change and so know change is possible. It is as an opportunity to all who live in this country. The opportunity doesn’t have to be "on the ground" work. It can be in the support of companies, farmers and ranchers that recognize the vitality of grasslands and their role in this world’s future.

JilianJilian Jones Wild Idea Buffalo CoThere is a TV commercial that recently started airing on our local stations promoting corn. It boasts about its economic value for our state, it’s environmental contribution to healthy soil, water, etc.  It mentions the new development of drought and herbicide resistant seed. It looks beautiful, but it is a lie. I have seen it firsthand. In my younger years, I was a town kid, but we had a lot of friends that had ranches in western South Dakota, which was where our weekends were spent when time allowed. The rolling prairie with cows on it was what I was familiar with. On one of my first road trips to a friend’s ranch in New Mexico, we took highway 385 south, the corridor of the Great Plains. It was fall. Most of the land was cropland that had recently been harvested, it looked barren and lonely. This along with the smell that permeated into the car was new to me. When we stopped for gas I couldn’t help but blurt out, “God it stinks here!”  A man filling his tank next to us, replied, “That’s the smell of money.”  It wasn’t until we moved to the Broken Heart ranch that I began to appreciate what our friend’s ranches had to offer. My dad (Dan) and his right hand man Erney (Uncle Erney), exposed me to the wonder of what an untamed land held.Sharptail Grouse Dan would point out grouse dancing grounds, or a spec in the sky that he could somehow identify, or the different grass species and what their function was in the plains ecosystem. A few years later our family moved to our current home. It is a ranch comprised of flat stretches that dump down into a series of river breaks stretching out to the Cheyenne River. I remember the first time I saw the ranch, it was big and beautiful, but there were vast acres of degraded farm ground. It was so different from the Broken Heart ranch. Wildlife was sparse in that area and reclamation of it seemed impossible. I was scared for my dad. But Dan and Erney did not share my fear. I witnessed the two of them spending their money, energy, and time planting native seed back to these areas where the ground had been degraded or broken. For years it did not look hopeful, and then finally one year with the help of good spring rains, shoots of little bluestem, western wheat grass, and blue gramma begin to appear in the once lifeless ground. Along with the new forage came the return of the wildlife. Their efforts had paid off, not in dollars but in the change that is needed and possible, and has so much more value for us all.

Lincoln Hosler Jones (with a little help from his family)child on prairieI live on the prairie. I know this for sure because my grandma wrote me my very own “Prairie Song” when I was little. I don't know all the words but some of my favorite parts are; "I live where the buffalo roam, the Cheyenne River Ranch is my home” and “Lincoln Hosler Jones is my name and no one has a handle quite the same.” I clap and march around when we sing it on our prairie hikes. My mom and dad are really nice. They work on the ranch and in the office. My mom even milks a cow and sometimes when we are doing our chores the wind almost blows us over. My favorite thing to do though is ride in the tractor with my dad. He is really funny and strong too. My grandpa also takes me with him to check out the ranch. We look for grouse, because he really likes them. Today we saw a bunch and we also saw three owls. An owl says, hoo, hoo. I know I am a lucky boy to live here, but I think a lot of kids would like to see the prairie and all the animals that live here. Maybe someday I could show them. 




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  • I look forward to reading your book. I own 1600 acres of shrub-steppe in central Washington. It is prime sage grouse habitat and I’m working on restoring the wetlands and permanently protecting the property. Conservation easements are a good tool for this. There are many private land trusts helping landowners. Most of my county was converted to dry land wheat farming decades ago.

    I really appreciate you drawing attention to the problem of GMO crops and the prairies. Great work. Thank you!

    Ferdi Businger
  • I am praying with all my heart that the prairie be left ALONE..I’ a Wyomingite by birth and The Praire, grass & Sage Brush & large & small animals must be allowed to live unmolested for the health and welfare of this country and the rest of the world also…Enoughis enough…NO MORE DISTRUCTION TO NATURE……..

    Penny Dopps
  • An interesting article on something many, in fact, most people have no clue about. As we continue to move towards more sustainable ways of living and more natural ways, it is imperative that we look closely at this. We should not be ignoring the impacts of losing these great grasslands and the impacts on water and wildlife. The ‘money monster’ rears it’s ugly head and ranchers are coerced into doing this by Monsanto and other huge interests, especially using GMO crops. The balance is shifting and we must be watchful over all of these things human beings are doing to the earth. Unfortunately, they will need to double food production by 2050 for all human beings on this planet! Keep up the good work with you Bison program! Best meat on earth!

    Martin V. knife Chief
  • Looking forward to your book. Conservation of the land as it is, is vital to the ecology of this country. We must learn to work with the land, not use it up thoughtlessly. We support you 100%

    Michael Boggia
  • Kudos to you all for what you do and say. If you come eastward to scribble in books, give a holler and we’ll see if we can’t meet up; it’s been far too long! Best wishes to you all!

    Bill Reynolds
  • I had F.F.A. all years in highschool, and got my dad to plant crops between the rows of almond trees to put back in the ground what the trees had taken out. wish more people would have done that. crops take from the ground but nothing goes back, so it just keeps taking. someday the ground will be worthless. I like our idea of the prairie grass lands. keep up the good work!! God bless
    Bob Watland
  • I feel badly that the newest trend can be the start of another dust bowl. This is, sadly,showing we have not learned from our past.

    Karen Crane
  • Your biggest STRENGTH IS IN NUMBERS. Respect for Mother Earth, Animals & EACH OTHER in Love & Prayer. Positive action required.

  • I love you, for what you do. Thankyou for sharing. Although as a Native American, I still see “Plutocracy” in OUR nation. YOU/WE ARE THE PEOPLE. Stand Strong in ALL you do. In kindness, prayer & the LOVE of LIFE & FREEDOM. “MNI WICONI” = “Water IS Life”!!

  • I have read yours and others books, I have visited your ranch with my Father and youngest Nephew and all I want to do is find a small plot to call my own and do what you are doing as well…to make a small mark on this world and help the buffalo. To do that would fill my heart and soul with peace and happiness…I could live as a happy man after that.

    Thanks for all that you do!

  • Thank you, all of you, for your vision and love of the earth. Thank you for allowing your piece of the plains to return to wildness and for the buffalo. I hope to see them one day and, meanwhile, I’m looking forward to my first order from Wild Idea Buffalo. I live on the coast of the Carolina lowcountry, about at far East as possible from the Great Plains and there were buffalo in SC when the first European settlers arrived, but they are long gone. It’s good to know that someone cares enough to leave the land in better shape than they found it.

    Harriott Cheves Leland
  • It’s a wonderful thing you do for our troubled land. I cheer your gifted voice of reason and stout-heart nurturing of the grasses of the field, the beasts who have always cropped and cultivated the sweeping vistas, the dependent wildlife that also gambol and hunt the plains, and the tribes of people who have come to call its nature heaven on earth. . .all in reverse order of the degeneration of our heartland towards desolation.

    Vernon L Cross
  • Dear O’Brien Family, Thank you for your example…you are an inspiration. Unfortunately, the individual state directed real estate tax priorities and the Federal income tax and farm policy priorities are political to the max. You run a business and politics is risky for you to discuss; not for me (so far…FBI). One party has always decried and vilified welfare and “welfare queens”. Yet, by FAR, the biggest welfare program the world has ever seen is the USA Farm Bill. Direct payments to land owners (not necessarily farmers) are obscene and lead directly to the degradation of land to which you refer. Look at the Red/Blue map of America…ALL of the Great Plains and bison range (except maybe Colo) is dominated, RULED, at the state and congressional delegation level by one party. They own it and they can fix it if they care. But are they really conservative? Is the huge giveaway conservative? Does it preserve anything other than crazy profits for a few and huge campaign contributions? That party now rules the Great Plains AND Washington, DC. There is no partisan related gridlock to blame. They can do something about it if they care. Let’s let them know that we care and that we’re watching and hoping that they will. Meanwhile thank you Dan, Jill, your terrific family, employees and company. Doug

    Doug Williams
  • On our way to Santa Fe over Thanksgiving. many center pivots for corn, wheat, alfalfa. Also, mega dairies, endless feedlots, hog confinements, ethanol stills. All this in the heart of the dust bowl.

    kent benson
  • And why would you need GMO for that ?

    Gerard Dupin

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