Wild Idea: O’Brien for ROA Agriculture Commissar


My interview with author and co-owner of South Dakota’s Wild Idea Buffalo Ranch, Dan O’Brien, ran in Civil Eats Friday. The occasion was the publication of his new book, Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land. The piece focused on modern agriculture and the sustainability aspects of his business.

There’s another side to Mr. O’Brien that jives right with the Republic of Awesome’s ethos. I’ll start with this post he wrote on his personal blog in May when Nevada rancher Clive Bundy spectacled himself all over Fox News:

So far it has been embarrassing – a gaggle of troubled, insecure clowns clamoring for attention. In a nut shell (and do mean NUT shell): Clive runs a lonely Nevada cattle ranch that depends on letting his livestock graze on government land leases much like the ones we depend upon. The difference is that he has refused to pay about a million dollars’ worth of lease money to the federal government. He has basically stolen that million dollars from people like me and you. It’s a great business plan, a good way to keep business expenses low, and a sure-fire way to gather likeminded, anti-social misanthropes to your ranch. It takes a village of those types to keep a good old boy from thinking about the fact that every other American ends up paying his bills and that every other rancher ends up competing against a guy who is gaming the system.

And these two excerpts from his first book about the ranch, Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch, show just how in tune Dan is with the history and founding principles of the ROA.

I live in a land suspended between the laws of nature and the laws of economics. The North American grasslands are too fragile to be treated like a factory.


This older generation tends to be hardworking and honest but provincial and politically eclectic. This depressed land and those Depression people have brought the nation such philosophic contradictions as George McGovern and the Montana Freemen, prairie populism and deep racism toward Indians, Tom Daschle and high radio ratings for out-of-control talk shows. Education has never been held in high esteem out here and a broad grasp of history, civics, and economics is rare. Too many of the older ranchers profess to hate government intervention while suffering a chronic addiction to subsidies. When it’s convenient, they insist they should be treated like any business.

Yet they admit that there is an emotional attachment to land and livestock that does not exist between, say, a grocer and the cans sitting on his shelves. In truth, they are involved in a lifestyle, and that lifestyle suffers greatly when subjected to the cold laws of business, where profit is supreme. Still, ranchers feel a pressure to   succeed like other businesspeople and so some latch on to an illusion that shifts the blame for failure or mediocre performance from personal shortcomings or serendipity of markets and weather to something solid. Some have never met a Jew or an African-American, but are pretty sure that they, like “the government,” have something to do with their problems.

Aye-men, Mr. O’brien. I hereby nominate you as the ROA’s first Agriculture Commissar. Welcome comrade.

(Photo courtesy of Wild Idea Buffalo)


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