'Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Courtesy of Sundance
'Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman'
An uncommonly positive take on the conservation movement.

This handsomely produced Discovery Channel film based on Miriam Horn's book is the rare non-partisan conservation doc that puts aside politics to challenge the conventional view of responsible environmental practices.

Magnificent aerial shots of breathtaking landscapes from the mighty Mississippi River to the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains open Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, an enlightening film for Discovery Channel based on Miriam Horn's best-selling book of the same name. Opening text reminds us that those lands and waterways forged the American character, but the traditional livelihoods that defined them are under threat. Filmmakers Susan Froemke, John Hoffman and Beth Aala focus on a handful of maverick but influential conservationists safeguarding their commercial futures while protecting the country's natural resources.

Premiering at Sundance as part of this year's New Climate programming thread, devoted to environmental change, the film represents something of a departure from the norm in its hopeful outlook on finding common-ground solutions rather than dwelling on the more insurmountable challenges and doom scenarios.

Horn's book covers representatives from five branches of the environmental stewardship movement who have made significant progress in their fields. Omitting the Mississippi riverman and the Louisiana shrimper, the film concentrates on Montana cattle rancher Dusty Crary, Kansas farmers Justin Knopf and Keith Thompson, and Gulf fisherman Wayne Werner. These men are all strong characters who defy the familiar stereotype of the liberal tree-hugger. Doing work they all say is in their blood, they pursue an alliance with nature while endeavoring to ensure that they leave a legacy their children and grandchildren can continue.

Narrated in somewhat crusty style by Tom Brokaw and laced (perhaps a tad too insistently) with Nathan Halpern's uplifting score, the film is a slick, visually commanding production, divided into three sections that correspond to its title.

Crary is a fifth-generation rancher whose family settled on the Eastern flank of the Rocky Mountain Front pre-1900, in the twilight of the Old West. When the Ronald Reagan administration in the early 1980s began issuing licenses for oil and natural gas exploration in the area, Crary and a group of like-minded locals formed a coalition to protect the Front. They wrote to editors and congressmen, and worked with the Wilderness Society and other groups to secure conservation easements for private land, eventually extending that protection to federal lands, covering over half a million acres in total.

These ranchers raise livestock side by side with an ecosystem that includes grizzlies, wolves and elks, cultivating native grasslands through grazing. Listening to Crary talk of his love of the land conjures romantic echoes of classic Americana, and the image of him driving a mule train across the hills strikes poignant notes, suggesting the rugged resilience of a vanishing way of cowboy life.

Knopf's family farm also stretches back five generations, on the Eastern edge of Dust Bowl country — sprawling prairie land subject to harsh losses from drought, wind erosion and, in more recent periods of extreme weather, heavy flooding. A man both of agriculture and of science, Knopf is one of a new generation of farmers more into biology than tractors. Like Thompson, he made the radical decision after decades of plowing, with its consequential loss of fertile topsoil and diminished irrigation, to switch to "no-till" farming.

These "no-tillers" subscribe to regenerative farming that aspires to restore the self-sufficiency of the native prairie by phasing out single crops in favor of diversity, and putting back what they remove from the ground at harvest time. Even for those with no practical knowledge of farming, the detailed insight here is fascinating. And the shots of shimmering fields of wheat and sunflowers, no less than the Big-Sky Montana pictures, underline the interconnectedness of these families with their land.

Werner was a key figure in the push to regenerate numbers of red snapper that had been over-fished to alarming levels in the Gulf of Mexico 30 years ago. Having grown up working on charter boats with his father, he went into business as a commercial fisherman, recalling the free-for-all that reigned until the early '80s, when federal regulations were introduced.

Those restrictions led to a "derby system" during fishing season that resulted in plummeting prices and masses of discarded catch. Werner and his colleagues subsequently became active in implementing smart-fishing measures that have yielded an encouraging rise in red snapper numbers. That model also has been copied elsewhere in American waters, helping to save over 100 fish species. But the greed of recreational fishermen — described as the one percent of the angling world — causes ongoing challenges.

With the nascent Trump administration ushering in such controversial choices as anti-environmentalist Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, not to mention a president himself who has called climate change a hoax, the absence of a political perspective here is quite glaring. But it also fits with the sense of ethical enterprise that the film captures — perhaps it could even be called unsung heroism.

It's refreshing to see a portrayal of socially engaged Americans who think not according to the divide between red and blue, but rather in terms of what's good for their families, their long-range livelihoods and the natural world on which they depend.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Airdate: August, 2017 (Discovery)
Production companies: McGee Media, Discovery Channel
Directors: Susan Froemke, John Hoffman
Co-director: Beth Aala
Writer: Jack Youngelson, based on the book by Miriam Horn
Producers: Beth Aala, Susan Froemke, Miriam Horn
Executive producers: John Hoffman, Dyllan McGee
Directors of photography: Bob Richman, Buddy Squires, Thorsten Thielow
Music: Nathan Halpern
Editors: Kathleen Dougherty, Flavia de Souza, Jen Fineran
Narration: Tom Brokaw
Sales: Discovery Channel

92 minutes

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