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)
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.Though 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.
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.
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.
There 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. 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.
I 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.