Most of us can agree that our world is in crisis. It seems impossible that politicians can ignore, in addition to many other problems: a warming climate, shifts in weather patterns, a huge decline in species diversity in just our lifetimes, the loss of carbon in our soil, soaring cancer rates, an obesity epidemic, and rampant diabetes. I became aware of this pending crisis in 1970, the year that I graduated from college. I sought shelter in South Dakota, where disaster appeared to be holding off and where “conservation” was not yet a controversial term. Even then I knew that the soil, and the grass of the Great Plains were far more valuable than dollar bills. I was just a kid, but I knew that I had a duty to fight for the other species with whom we share the earth.
The problems were epic and the solutions would be difficult to execute, but the causes were easy to trace. In part or wholly, the abuses and shortcomings of modern industrial agriculture were to blame. The swing from grass-based protein to grain-based production was, and still is, at the root of most of the issues that threaten our existence.
For the last twenty-five years I have been trying to fight back against the damage wrought by this shift by raising near-wild buffalo. For the 14 years before that I began the quest for truly grass-fed animals and healthy grasslands. I was an endangered species biologist working first for the state of SD and then for The Peregrine Fund based at Cornell University. The peregrine falcon was placed on the endangered species list in 1970 and, in an effort to bolster their tiny wild population, I was one of the people hired to take captive-bred chicks to remote release sites on the cliffs along the Rocky Mountain Front. I oversaw the people who watched over these young birds, helping them learn to fly and hunt. The work was mostly in the spring and summertime, so I had the winters to feed a few beef cattle and learn to write books. It took until 1999 for the falcons to be taken off of the endangered species list but, long before that, I knew that the job of reintroducing falcons into the wild was nearly at an end. We were successful in bringing the falcons back, but we’d worked ourselves out of our jobs. I needed to find another way to express my passion for conservation.
The crisis of the peregrine falcon was brought on mostly by the agricultural use of DDT. The ground-nesting birds of the Great Plains were the peregrine’s food source and the origin of the DDT that killed them. Big ag, of course, refused to admit any culpability and getting DDT banned in the U.S. and reestablishing the falcons in their old haunts was a huge fight that cost many millions of dollars. In the time I spent traveling up and down the Great Plains, I came to realize that single species conservation was almost impossible without working to protect all the species that shared a habitat.
The Great Plains has been my home for 50 years and I have come to see that industrial agriculture, with its chemicals, monocultures of corn and beans, have replaced the species-rich grasslands, and its acquisitive and consumptive ways, has been threatening my own habitat for decades. The peregrine falcon’s crisis may have temporarily passed, but every other creature on the Great Plains was still at great risk. Since I was nearly out of a job, I decided to put my efforts into the conservation of the Great Plains themselves.
You don’t have to think long about repairing the torn fabric of the Great Plains before you come to the specie that held that fabric together for thousands of years, the buffalo. At about the same time that the peregrine falcon came off the endangered species list, I decided to sell my tiny cattle herd, and I bring a dozen baby buffalo to our ranch on the fringe of the Black Hills.
I was not interested in manhandling the Great Plains to produce more saleable products but in doing what I could to make it like it was when Europeans first laid their eyes on it. Our little ranch business began over twenty years ago with a mission to raise buffalo on nothing but grass and to slaughter them in the most humane and honorable way possible – in the pastures where they were born and lived, surrounded by their herd mates.
In those early days, when I was twenty years younger, I built the fence, drove the semi, shot and skinned the buffalo, and saw to it that they were delivered in good shape to the cut and wrap plant that was processing our meat. My wife did all the advertising and dealt directly with the customers.
That first year we harvested six animals. A few years later, our daughter graduated from college and came to join us. That was the first time I’d seen an Excel spreadsheet. Since then I’ve seen way too many. Now we have our own cut and wrap plant, a sales staff, and a shipping department. We have 23 in-house employees (five of whom are family members) and we now harvest nearly 900 buffalo per year. We are far from rich, but we’re making payroll every two weeks and haven’t missed a meal yet. The species diversity on our ranch is however rich, and the grass is thick, and I can hunt grouse every fall or just sit on the deck and hear nothing but the sound of birds. That is about all I aspire to these days. And most of the time it is enough.
We have no intentions of turning our family business into an industry. We do not ascribe to the popular theory that bigger is always better and companies must grow or die. Wild Idea Buffalo Company will never be a corporation with a board of directors and stockholders to please. There will never be an IPO. Industrial agriculture and corporations are not the friend of grass-fed operations or conservation in general. We will not be seduced by the same people and the systems that caused the crisis, we have spent our lives fighting. There will never be a grand pay-out when we are absorbed by a large corporation. We don’t long to retire to a tropical paradise. Our healthy little ranch IS a paradise.
So, if we are not after the money, what are we doing? We’re doing our best to see that the animals we eat are the animals that evolution originally made them to be. We don’t forget the other creatures that have a claim on the land, and we don’t forget the kids.
Our family and the people who will follow us on our piece of the Great Plains is what our work is all about. After 50 years of struggle, I’m particularly moved to know that my own children are carrying the fight forward. Jill and I are very lucky to have sensible, hardworking kids. Jilian runs the business, and you’ll find her at the office early most days. Colton shoulders the jobs I used to do, and I have to admit that he’s better at them than I ever was. There is another generation of grand kids coming up right behind them. I don’t guess that I’ll live forever. The kids are the fuel for my passion.
But, there is another reason we’re on the land: Sometimes great changes are born from or bolstered by small groups of people with a better idea, and if this sensible land movement is one of those times, I want to be part of it.
Consider one of the monumental turns that the world took in the last half of the eighteenth century, when common people, like us, gathered in Colonial America to discuss a break from their homelands and ancient way of governing the world through monarchy and hereditary class distinction. In the years leading up to our Declaration of Independence, America, and indeed many people in other parts of the world, recognized the fatal error in organizing governments on the lines of heredity and class. The world was sizzling with the electricity of change. I feel similar electricity. I feel it in America’s agricultural lands and in the kitchen of the nation.
One of those common men who felt the sizzling of eighteenth-century America was Thomas Paine. He expressed the energy of those heady days eloquently in his pamphlet, “Common Sense.” In the appendix to that plea for revolution, he said this: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” He believed that serious revolution was in the wind, and so do I. Though he might have wished that change would come quickly, the fact is that the change took centuries. The change that we seek will not come fast either. Let’s hope that it does not take centuries because we probably don’t have that much time.
Now, perhaps more than ever, it is critical that we stand together, as Thomas Paine challenged his comrades to do. He promised the love and thanks of man and woman. Our reward will be the love and thanks of our children, grandchildren, and all the generations to come.