DAN O'BRIEN, founder and CEO of Wild Idea Buffalo Company, has been raising buffalo for over two decades on his 9,000-acre ranch on the Cheyenne River in South Dakota, so I was taken aback when he started his story by saying, “I’m a bird guy.”
What do birds have to do with buffalo? A whole lot, it turns out. O’Brien, an Ohio native and trained biologist, first came to the state to study English literature at the University of South Dakota. He fell in love with the landscape, bought a small cattle ranch, and studied birds of prey with the Peregrine Fund, Cornell University’s ornithology lab. For nearly a decade, O’Brien traveled up and down the Rockies working to bolster the falcon population in the region, but he soon realized that “single-species conservation is not really conservation,” as he puts it. “If the habitat isn’t there, it’s a fool’s errand.” Enter: the buffalo.
Vast herds of roaming buffalo were once a quintessential sight in this part of the country. But the violent repression of Indigenous peoples, the construction of the railroad, and buffalo hunting for sport brought the massive lumbering herbivores to near extinction in the nineteenth century. The twentieth century brought further abuses of the land in the form of industrial farming. With Wild Idea, Dan O’Brien and his wife Jill, co-CEO, envisioned going beyond just raising one type of animal, to rebuild the entire ecosystem and return it to its former glory. “We sell buffalo meat, but we’re really in the business of habitat,” says Jill. There are now hundreds of species of birds on the land, as well as deer, who can be seen sauntering up the driveway with their fawns. “That’s the payoff,” she says.
When I talk to Dan and Jill over Zoom one summer day, it’s pushing 100 degrees in the Great Plains. In two weeks, up to 500,000 people are expected to descend on nearby Sturgis for the annual motorcycle rally. But the couple, who’ve been in business together for 24 years, are unfazed. They’re more concerned with the 60 buffalo they had to encourage toward a pasture that morning. Their company now has 32 employees and a devoted following of customers committed to animal welfare, wildlife, species diversity, and eating healthfully. The O’Briens share the work of running Wild Idea primarily with their daughter Jilian and son-in-law Colton, and they express their gratitude numerous times during our conversation for the vitality this next generation brings to daily operations. It helps them look ahead and plan for the future with confidence. In the coming year, Wild Idea hopes to launch a subscription service so customers can receive regular shipments of buffalo meat.
Jill, “a South Dakota dairy farmer’s daughter,” grew up doing chores on the family farm and developed a love of food and cooking. She worked in hotel and restaurant management before starting her own catering company and opening a restaurant, which is where she met Dan 25 years ago. He walked in with a box of buffalo meat and asked her if she could help create recipes. So she tried it: “100 percent grass-fed, grass-finished, and, to take it a step farther, humanely harvested meat. And I went wow. Just wow.”
Of course, Jill had eaten buffalo meat before. In fact, she’d been cooking with it quite a bit, “poking and prodding it, trying to take away that gaminess and toughness.” But this was different. “When I opened the package, there was no aroma, no pungency,” she says. “No musty, sour smell. It was just clean.” Since then, Jill has been instrumental in raising the culinary profile of buffalo meat with easy-to-follow recipes that emphasize technique. When it’s raised and harvested with this level of intention, she says, the meat needs little intervention to be the star of the meal. Still, for the more adventurous home cook, the company’s website offers recipes for Corned Buffalo Brisket, Mexican Quiche with ground buffalo, Bison Liver Tacos, and more.
In recent years, Wild Idea’s profile has grown thanks to partnerships with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and media (and meat) mogul Ted Turner, both of whom came to the O’Briens because they wanted to invest in sustainable food production. The O'Briens were flattered and excited, though they are careful to point out that adopting a more deliberate, environmentally conscious style of raising and harvesting meat is not an easy path. It’s a big commitment, and a long-term one. “This is the slooow food movement,” Jill says, smiling. And not all farmers can afford to lose income while they transition away from the conventional model. But working with like-minded ranchers, and working to convince ranchers to come over to their side, to go 100% grass-fed and grass-finished, is satisfying.
Wild Idea now has about 900 buffalo. They’ll harvest about 900 animals this year, too, although not all will come from their ranch. They work with other ranchers, conservation groups, and tribal herds in the area. And they make sure each entity goes through an audit process to ensure they’re using the same rigorous standards. The company takes their own movable harvest trailer to the ranches, and when people aren’t raising or harvesting animals to Dan’s standards, he isn’t afraid to tell them they’re doing it wrong. “Part of our mission is to encourage other people to think about the environment and soils the way we do, so we kind of push it,” he says.
“Rigorous standards” may sound labor intensive, but if one thing becomes clear during our conversation, it’s that buffalo don’t need much from humans. “They’re roamers,” says Jill. “Many of the buffalo currently raised in this country are basically farm animals,” but their desire is to move freely along the grassland. Wild Idea simply seeks to give them the space to do that. The ranch abuts another 24,000 acres of federal land, part of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and the O’Briens’ grazing lease extends there too; so the buffalo do truly roam. “They should be able to walk three miles a day without covering the same ground,” says Dan, “so that’s a pretty big area.” When it’s time to move to a new pasture, the animals are gently pulled rather than pushed. “There’s no cowboy stuff,” he adds.
These days, Wild Idea is even more of a family business. Their daughter and son-in-law live on their own piece of the ranch with their young sons. While Jill still focuses on recipe development, along with photography and video work for the company, Jilian and Colton keep a closer eye on daily activities, managing the business of the ranch and the harvest. At the moment, Jilian is studying permaculture and the relationship between the gut biome and overall health. “The kids,” as Jill calls Jilian and Colton, bring a whole new energy to the company’s operations, and their passion will continue to drive it forward. Someday, the O’Briens' grandsons, who have grown up on this land, may be running the company. “I’m mostly decoration,” Dan says with his signature deadpan, even though in addition to founding the ranch, the 73-year-old has authored over a dozen books, and is at work on a new one. He also hunts grouse with his bird dogs.
For the whole family, work on the ranch is about much more than business. The movement to address climate change with meaningful action is paramount. And restoring the prairie goes hand in hand with restoring dignity to the buffalo themselves, as creatures who’ve lived harmoniously with humans for centuries, as enduring symbols of this diverse and beautiful natural landscape. All of these practices — doing things with intention, considering other species, practicing good animal husbandry — are meaningful because they’re connected. “It’s all one thing,” as Dan likes to say. Each member of the family also appreciates the meditative quality of spending time with the buffalo. “I like being around the animals,” Colton says in a video on the company’s website. “I never get sick of watching them; they’ve always fascinated me.” Jill echoes the sentiment as we end our call, saying, “It just never gets old. You can drive out in the herd and just sit quietly and just be amongst them.” She shakes her head to chase away a surge of feeling. “I’m gonna get emotional,” she laughs, “but it always reminds me of my place in this world.”
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Shawn Brackbill Photographer
Shawn Brackbill is a photographer and director based in New York and Kansas City. His work has been featured in music-related publications such as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Self-Titled. His fashion photography experience includes capturing the backstage scene at New York Fashion Week for Dazed and Confused and shooting for Vogue, Interview, and Elle.