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USDA plans to back climate-smart food production

Wild Idea Buffalo in western South Dakota has made improving our ecosystem its mission.
Wild Idea Buffalo
Dan O’Brien started Wild Idea Buffalo Company in 1997. Dan states, “I was just trying to save a threatened ecosystem.”

The USDA announced it is investing $2.8 billion in 70 projects to expand market opportunities for American food producers that use climate-smart practices. It's phase one of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities two-part plan.

In South Dakota, the plan intends to benefit producers who focus on practices like crop rotations good for soil health, low or no-tillage acreage, greener nutrient management, sustainable grazing, and more native habitat.

However, not everyone is convinced the legislation is as climate friendly as it appears.

In the late 1990s, Dan O'Brien began to convert his west river cattle ranch into a buffalo ranch. In 2001, he founded Wild Idea Buffalo Company and the Sustainable Harvest Alliance to improve the ecosystem.

O'Brien has won several awards and written multiple books regarding the conservation of the Great Plains. He said follow up is essential for the investment to make a meaningful difference.

"Every one of those projects needs to be checked, and fact-checked because I think that most people are just trying to figure out a way to make more money, and greenwashing it to the point where people will give it to them, " O'Brien said. "We're not farming in South Dakota, you know, we're making commodities. And that is antithetical to farming and is antithetical to human existence."

Dan O'Brien
Wild Idea Buffalo
Dan O'Brien

There is strong public demand for food that is grown in a climate-friendly way, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. The department calls the approach, "climate change mitigation through voluntary, incentive-based, market-driven approaches."

The funding will be delivered in two groups, with projects from the second funding pool to be announced later this year. The USDA is working with the projects to finalize plans in the coming months.

SDSU is the lead university on a project to create market opportunities for sustainably raised beef and bison.

Find project proposal requirements and evaluation criteria here.

Find the complete list of projects here.

Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.