I’m in western South Dakota, rolling across the prairie in a blue 1970s-era pickup truck, when I first see them. Buffalo—faraway brown dots on a hillside that become massive bodies outside the passenger window as we approach them, their faces accented with beards and curved black horns. They are primeval, ancient, mammothlike. They have a wise look about them, but also a wildness, as when they flash the whites of their eyes, spin around, and gallop off, showing us they’ll never be completely tamed.
I’m at Great Plains Buffalo Company, a ranch where Phil and Jill Jerde and their children raise more than a thousand grass-fed buffalo. These buffalo will eventually be slaughtered, providing consumers with meat, but they are much more than food sources. They are the keepers of this grassland. With their hooves they aerate the soil and push seeds into it. With their waste they fertilize it. Through their grazing habits they encourage the growth of grass instead of woody plants. They maintain symbiotic relationships with birds and insects. They make the prairie function in a way it hasn’t since their ancestors walked it, before we converted the Great Plains to corn and soybeans.
The buffalo show us what the prairie once was and how humans have changed it—to some, destroyed it—and this in turn is a reminder of all the landscapes we’ve changed. “Wrong side up,” said a Sioux Indian who watched a white sodbuster rip the grassland open with a plow. The Native Americans knew why soil was best left undisturbed: roots, twenty-five miles of them in a single square yard of prairie turf just four inches deep, held the soil in place, had done so for thousands of years.2 With a single plow swipe the settlers set it free to blow. Result: the Dust Bowl. Later result: desertification turning the Great Plains into a desert. Less than 4 percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains, and those defiant acres are rigorously protected. Still, it is feasible that the tallgrass prairie could be gone before I die. A human being’s lifespan is roughly how long it took to destroy 96 percent of it, which does not bode well for the last 4.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The buffalo before me represent a new agriculture that can help restore the prairie and other landscapes without sacrificing the amount of food produced. These animals show us that there are many ways to farm and ranch, that we can change how we define those terms, that we can reverse the damage we have done and create a better agricultural future. The buffalo are walking, breathing proof that human beings do not have to destroy the earth in order to eat.
Years ago, I would not have seen the buffalo as keepers of the range. I grew up about twenty miles from Great Plains Buffalo on a conventional ranch outside of Bison, South Dakota, where my parents raise cattle, wheat, corn, and hay. Had I not discovered a love for writing that drew me to college, I probably would have stayed there the rest of my life, working alongside my father until I could start my own operation. I’m serious about this.