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Dan O'Brien


A billionaire businessman who spoke Saturday in Rapid City praised the role of a South Dakota bison ranch in sparking an agricultural revolution.

Yvon Chouinard, founder of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, participated in a public discussion of environmentalism with Dan O’Brien, founder of Wild Idea Buffalo Company. An audience of about 150 paid attendees crowded into a large tent at Wild Idea’s facility in eastern Rapid City, where afternoon festivities were hosted to celebrate National Bison Day and Wild Idea’s 20th anniversary.

Chouinard said the grass being conserved by O’Brien at his Cheyenne River Ranch near the Badlands is pulling carbon out of the air — where an overabundance of it is contributing to climate change — and putting carbon in the ground where it helps the soil, grass and bison thrive.

“He’s doing exactly what he should be doing,” Chouinard said. “He’s out to save the planet.”

The praise was gratifying for O’Brien, who said he started raising buffalo two decades ago with little more than 27 acres and an English degree (among his other talents, O’Brien is an accomplished novelist and non-fiction writer).

O’Brien and his wife, Jill, have since grown their business into a success, culminating in a partnership with Patagonia. For the past several years, the food arm of Patagonia, called Patagonia Provisions, has been selling jerky made from Wild Idea Buffalo meat.

Nowadays, Dan O’Brien said, “A lot of money goes through Wild Idea, and not very much sticks.”

“But that’s OK,” he added. “Our real product is conservation.”

Patagonia’s partnership with Wild Idea is one of many such partnerships Patagonia has formed to fight climate change by fostering environmentally sustainable food production. Saturday’s event included the showing of a Patagonia-produced short film, “Unbroken Ground,” that highlights Wild Idea and other companies and people who are engaged in regenerative agriculture, regenerative grazing, diversified crop development and restorative fishing.

Chouinard, who will turn 80 years old this week, said Saturday that his evolving motivations for staying in business led him to change his company’s mission statement just five days earlier.

“It's very simple: We’re in business to save our home planet,” Chouinard said.

One way to help save the planet is to save grasslands that naturally sequester carbon, Chouinard and O’Brien said. Plowing up grasslands and converting them to cropland releases carbon and contributes to greenhouse gas concentrations.

The World Wildlife Fund’s annual Plowprint Report says only half of the grasslands in North America's Great Plains are still intact, and 1.7 million acres in the Great Plains were converted from grassland to cropland in 2017.

That was a slower rate of conversion than in 2016. In the northern portion of the Great Plains, perennial grass cover actually increased everywhere except South Dakota, where it decreased by 9,000 acres, the report said.

O’Brien said that when grassland is converted to cropland, dozens of species of plants, insects and birds are eliminated and replaced with just one species, such as corn. He is trying to fight “tooth and nail” against that trend, he said.

O’Brien acknowledged his fear that the world has already passed an environmental tipping point, but he said that’s no reason to stop trying. It’s still important, he said, to “set a good moral example” for future generations.

Chouinard said he and O’Brien are both plagued by pessimism about the kind of environment that future generations will inherit.

“But we sleep at night knowing we’re doing what we can,” Chouinard said.

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills." Receiving encrypted news tips through Peerio with the user name seth_tupper.