When Dan O’Brien began ranching buffalo on the South Dakota prairie two decades ago, his mind wasn't entirely on the buffalo.
A wildlife biologist and author who’d spent most of his career helping restore populations of the once-endangered peregrine falcon, O’Brien got into the bison business because he wanted to save more birds.
“What I’d learned is it’s not about a single species. It’s about species diversity—flora and fauna,” he says. “And in the Great Plains, what’s the species that ties it all together? It’s the buffalo. I started raising buffalo to see if we could improve ground-nesting bird populations. Then one thing led to another.”
Similarly, when Yvon Chouinard launched the outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, in the 1970s, he didn’t envision it selling buffalo jerky—or any other edible, for that matter.
But O’Brien and Chouinard share the screen in a short film called Unbroken Ground, which traces their unlikely forays into the food business—and their shared attempts to shake it way, way up. As Chouinard puts it, the film is about “people willing to break the paradigm.”
Unbroken Ground will debut Wednesday night in New York before making a tour of Patagonia stores across the country. Filmed for Patagonia Provisions—the new food division of the famously eco-focused company—it tells the stories of four unconventional food producers, including O’Brien’s Wild Idea Buffalo Company.
Like O’Brien, Chouinard, ran his company as a kind of experiment— a roll-of-the-dice bid to see if conservation-minded sourcing and practices could translate to business success.
It worked, Chouinard says in the film. “Applying that to food, is another story,” he adds. “This is another experiment, but I think it’s the most important experiment we’ve ever tried.”
Getting into the ultra-competitive food business might seem like a strange business choice, but it made sense for Patagonia, which launched Patagonia Provisions in 2012 with a soon-to-be launched line of soups, energy bars and wild salmon.
“Through the apparel side, we’ve engaged deeply in the world of agriculture, around cotton and wool,” says Birgit Cameron, who heads up Patagonia Provisions. “Food, because it’s such a big contributor to climate change, and causes a lot of disruption to biodiversity, was something we needed to look at as well. It was born of our supply chain examination.”
Patagonia, Cameron explains, wasn’t in search of a new business category. Rather, she says, the company focused on environmental problems that posed food-related solutions.
“Agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. So you look at that and say, how can we help?,” she says. “It comes out of that, not just, ‘Hey, let’s get into food.’”
Although getting yet deeper into food is definitely in the plans. “It’s just in its nascent stages,” Cameron says. “But the hope is that it’ll be as large a part of Patagonia as the apparel side.”
That’s no small thing. Patagonia’s revenues hit the $600 million mark in 2013, and the company plans to move into beverages, too. It will soon unveil a beer made with Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass related to wheat, bred by the soil conservation group, The Land Institute, which is also featured in the film.
For Wild Idea Buffalo, Patagonia’s conservation-first ethos dovetailed with its own approach.
To restore wild bird habitat to the prairie, O’Brien decided to bring back indigenous buffalo, which hadn’t roamed there in decades or more. The land needed “something that evolved here,” O’Brien explains. In other words, not cattle.
Buffalo (also called bison) regenerate the prairie as they tread over it with their immense weight, turning over soil and eating native grasses.
“We’re really grass farmers,” explains O’Brien’s wife and business partner, Jill, in the film, “and bison are one of the tools that help manage it.”
When he started out, O’Brien processed about six bison a year, shooting the animals, trucking them off and skinning them himself. Now the company has its own slaughtering facility, which will butcher 950 animals this year, including many from nearby Native American reservations, harvesting them right out in the fields they roam.
The hope, O’Brien says, is that other buffalo ranchers will start raising their animals on open range. Most, he explains, are raised like cattle, in feedlots eating corn. Seeing these symbolic, once-wild creatures like that, O’Brien says, is “way sadder” than seeing beef cattle in confinement. (He writes about this in his forthcoming book, Buffalo Blues.)
O’Brien’s commitment to the animals has a spiritual connection, one the company honors with a sage smudging ceremony every time they send the animals to slaughter. (Half of his employees are Native American.) And like the other food producers in the film, O’Brien has a deep connection to conservation and the land —a connection, they all say, that’s been lost in industrialized agriculture.
Together these producers represent a tiny, tiny fraction of a massive food industry, an industry whose heavy-hitters, including DuPont, Cargill, Hormel and Kellogg’s, have announced their own attempts at more sustainable production.
But O’Brien is on a mission to turn modern food production on its head. “We’ve got to get a new system, and some of us are trying,” he says. “None of this might work. But we gotta try.” Patagonia has an exclusive agreement to source its buffalo jerky from Wild Idea.
Asked if Unbroken Ground, produced by a California-based “branded content” company, wasn’t just a 25-minute-long ad for Patagonia, O’Brien wouldn’t hear it.
“I can tell you this. It’s easy to criticize people as making some sort of marketing ploy,” he says. “But I can tell you personally, that’s not what Yvon Chouinard is doing.”
O’Brien brushes away any hint of cynicism.
“It’s hard to be hopeful,” he says, “and here is a glimmer of hope.”