Minnesota farm addresses climate change by reintroducing bison, Ojibwe horses

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By Cathy Wurzer and Alanna Elder/MPR

It’s a waterlogged spring after a snowy winter, but the growing season is almost upon us. This is a busy time of year for farmers like David Wise, who is juggling quite a few projects, including reintroducing bison and Ojibwe horses to his farm in Northern Minnesota.

He is a descendant of the Fond du Lac Band of Superior Chippewa and the founder of Native Wise farm, which produces wild rice, maple syrup, CBD, and vegetables. David Wise joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about all things his Minnesota farm.
He said it has always been a dream of his to bring the bison back because his great-grandfather was Chief Buffalo. When Wise was finally able to bring them back, he said it was like welcoming a relative home again.

Before they arrived, Wise did some research that found his fields had not had animals on them for many years and the soil health was not strong. With the new residents, he hopes that more native plants pop up and soil health improves.

Besides bison, Wise is also raising Ojibwe horses, which are expected to arrive on the farm next month. He is working with colleagues to bring back a breeding program as they are close to extinction.

“We’re really just trying to help bring them back. It’s an honor to have them here on the farm again,” he said.

Wise said it is important to him that they keep the land healthy and productive into the future. He considers himself a steward of the land, a value that was passed down to him from Ojibwe culture.

“We look at the Earth as our mother,” he said.

Below is the interview transcript.

CATHY WURZER: We were talking to Paul Huttner about the water logged and cool spring after a really snowy winter. But the growing season is almost here, and it’s a busy time of year for farmers like David Wise who’s juggling quite a few projects, including reintroducing bison and Ojibwe horses to his farm in northern Minnesota. He’s a descendent of the Fond Du Lac band of Superior Chippewa – Lake Superior Chippewa – and the founder of Native Wise Farm, which produces wild rice, maple syrup, CBD, and vegetables. Hey, David. Thanks for coming on the show.
DAVID WISE: Yeah, thank you. This is an honor to be asked to be part of your show. Happy to be here.

CATHY WURZER: It’s an honor to have you. Thank you so much. So I understand the bison are experiencing their first spring on your farm. Tell me a little bit about how you decided to reintroduce them to Northern Minnesota.
DAVID WISE: Well, it’s always been a dream of mine to bring the bison back. My great grandfather was Chief Buffalo, and I always wondered why we didn’t have buffalo in the area. I did a little bit of research on him and the bison and found out that they were native to the area here, and so that was one of my dreams to always bring them back. And when we finally got them, it was like welcoming a relative home again.

CATHY WURZER: Is it difficult to have prepared the land for the bison? Because they do need wide open spaces and grassland.
DAVID WISE: Well, we were lucky enough to purchase my great uncle’s old ranch, and he had cattle here for years. They cleared the land back in the turn of the century. There was a lot of small farms back, then and he was able to – over time, he got pretty large acreage. And a lot of it’s wetlands, but a lot of it’s nice grazing land, too. We’re redoing all the fencing currently. We’ve got a couple of paddocks built, and we’ve got plans to build several more so we can do rotational grazing.

CATHY WURZER: So it’s already set up for grazing. I’m wondering – once the bison really establish themselves, what effect might they have on the land?
DAVID WISE: Well, we took some baseline data before they arrived, and a lot of these fields hadn’t had animals on them for many years. They mostly were just hayed. And so the productivity was getting really low. The soil health wasn’t that great, and so I’m hoping to see a big change.
We did collect baseline data, and then we’re going to be part of a study with the Tonka Fund Project where we monitor how they affect the landscape. And we’re hoping to see a lot more native plants and the soil health improve over the years.

CATHY WURZER: That’ll be interesting to see what happens. I mentioned, too, that you are raising Ojibwe horses on your property. They are very interesting little horses – tough. They look like they are really fun to be around. Can you talk about that?
DAVID WISE: Yeah. They’re really, really a unique animal, and they’re beautiful. Like you say, they’re smaller, and they’re really sturdy. And they evolved in this climate, so it’s a real natural fit. And we’re really looking forward to working with colleagues from Canada and some other people from the United States here that want us to help bring back by having a breeding program.
They were almost gone extinct not very long ago, so we’re trying to help bring them back. And it’s really an honor to have them here on the farm again.

CATHY WURZER: You’ve got a lot going on your farm. Good for you. That’s a lot. I also know that you’re involved in a study of how agricultural practices affect carbon stored in the soil. What are you hoping to learn?
DAVID WISE: Well, I’d like to learn about what’s the most sustainable practices for our land. Right now, I think large scale commercial agriculture is polluting a lot of the waters in our country, and I’m hoping that through the study they can determine what would be the best fit for our land here and doing the right things on the right soils is important and also being able to be low impact.
And I’m really passionate about small scale local agriculture, and so I always try to help people that are interested in that. And I also try to learn a lot about that whenever I get a chance.

CATHY WURZER: I know the farm has been in your family for a long time, and you’ve had some experience farming on land you leased from the Fond Du Lac band. Can you talk a little bit here about the challenges of accessing credit for farms on tribal trust land? I’m going to assume it’s got to be harder for Native American farmers to get loans.
DAVID WISE: Yeah. I think probably it would be a little more of the process, but I think it’s possible. And I’d like to encourage more of that, and I’d like to see more young not only Natives but young people in the country growing their own food on the land.
I think we’re lucky to have good, clean water and soil up here in the northern part of Minnesota, and I think that there’s a lot of opportunity there. I think that maybe some of the policies need to change to make the land more easily accessed by people.

CATHY WURZER: What would you suggest? Have you had a chance to talk to lawmakers about this?
DAVID WISE: Well, it’d just be nice to be able to encourage the youth – also maybe give out some agricultural leases. They used to do that years ago. And I don’t think they do that anymore, but I think that would be a good thing to do.

CATHY WURZER: To get them involved, yeah. As I say, you got a lot going on your farm. Do you have specific goals or principles that guide you and your wife as you make decisions about what to do on the land?
DAVID WISE: Yeah. We’ve got a pretty open relationship, so we discuss things a lot, and then I do whatever she tells me to do. No, I’m just kidding.
[LAUGHTER] But no, we actually both have a background in conservation, and so we try to make good decisions about how we keep the land healthy and productive in the future. And we hope to pass it on to our kids and create a generational thing here where we can look forward to feeding ourselves some for many more generations to come.

CATHY WURZER: Sounds like you really do consider yourself to be a steward of the land.
DAVID WISE: Yeah. I definitely grew up with that value passed down from generation. I think that’s really part of the Ojibwe culture. We look at the Earth as our mother, and I think she’s talking a lot to us these days with the weather that we’re seeing.

CATHY WURZER: I appreciate what you’re doing up there. I appreciate your time. Thank you so very much.
DAVID WISE: Thank you. Appreciate it.

CATHY WURZER: We’ve been talking to David Wise of Native Wise, LLC. He’s a descendent of the Fond Du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa who farms near Sawyer, Minnesota. We’ve been talking about farmland and climate change this week. In case you missed our other conversations – they’ve been really quite interesting. You can find them at mprnews.org and specifically look for Minnesota Now.