The cowboy on horseback. The farmer amid endless fields of grain. The fisherman standing on the prow of his boat. Could there be more classic American images than these?
But what about the people behind these images? Are they as stereotypical as people imagine, especially where conservation is concerned? The documentary “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” examines that question and comes to some unexpected conclusions.
Co-directed by doc veterans Susan Froemke (who for many years worked for Maysles Films) and John Hoffman and playing for an Oscar-qualifying week before running on Discovery, “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” is an involving film that tells a more complicated story than its unexciting title would indicate.
Two centuries ago, we’re informed, 80% of Americans worked in these kinds of jobs. Now it is 1% of the population that manages two-thirds of our land.
The standard notion, as the directors say in a press statement, is that “‘real Americans,’ the ones who run the tractors and barges and fishing boats, who go to church and town meetings, are hostile to the values of environmentalism” because “the work many of them do, producing food at ‘industrial scale,’ is inherently destructive of nature.”
Benefiting from the access of writer Miriam Horn, who wrote a book with the same title, the filmmakers have found that an opposing trend exists.
Focusing on a group of what they call “heartland conservationists,” individuals who are determined to preserve natural resources because they see that philosophy not as a threat to their livelihood but as a way to preserve it for future generations.
Making this case most specifically is rancher and former rodeo champion Dusty Crary, whose family has run a sizable ranch on the same land outside Choteau, Mont., since the 1930s.
With his ranch being close to the Rocky Mountain Front, considered the largest unaltered land mass in the lower 48 states, Crary is acutely aware that “this isn’t guaranteed to stay this way. But I wouldn’t be much of a man if I didn’t feel obligated to keep that intact for everybody.”
In the early 1980s, in response to the OPEC oil crisis, the Bureau of Land Management issued 43 oil and gas leases on the land, a threat that united Crary and his neighbors in a quest to protect the area’s pristine character.
Not all the local people agreed with the protection notion, and “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” allows folks who wonder “how much land do we need to save?” to have their say.
But finally, the desire to “leave this country the way it was created” sways more individuals than not. As one supporter puts it, “if we diminish these areas, we take something from the psyche of the American people that’s irreplaceable.”
Half a continent away, the filmmakers pick up the story of Justin Knopf, the fifth generation of a family to grow wheat on a 4,000-acre farm in Salina, Kan.
But just because, as he says, “we’re not a small organic farm” does not mean Knopf is unconcerned about conservation. “We don’t have the luxury to forsake the environment,” he says, though what that means specifically is inevitably different than what it means in Montana.
In an area where residents remember stories of how topsoil erosion led to the Dust Bowl, being proactive in preventing a repetition is a top priority.
Which is how Knopf became a believer in no-till farming, a system of working with nature and not against it by using crop rotation and regenerative planting instead of a plow.
Looking at one of the last native prairies, one farmer comments, “it’s been undisturbed since Jesus walked the Earth. Once you kill it, it’s gone forever.”
Louisiana fisherman Wayne Werner, the film’s third protagonist, faces a similar threat. The mighty red snapper, the signature fish in Werner’s Gulf of Mexico home waters, has been so overfished that it’s in danger of depletion.
Out of desperation as much as anything else, Werner and his fellow fishermen began talking to environmentalists, and out of those discussions came the notion of tailoring a quota to each fisherman.
Though some conflicts with sport fishing advocates still remain, Werner sees this plan as “a common-sense solution.” The film’s notion that these kinds of remedies can find receptive ears is welcome news indeed.
‘Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman’
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica