Sundance Film Review: ‘Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman’

Eco-friendly thinking proves compatible with traditional heartland values in this episodic documentary.

Sundance 2017
Courtesy of Sundance

Though it looks like the idea may be a hard sell for the next four years, conservation and capitalism can peacefully co-exist, as demonstrated by the subjects of “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman.” This three-part documentary, inspired by Miriam Horn’s recent nonfiction tome, profiles four men sustainably living off the land (and sea). They’ve all successfully adopted progressive new methods, in acknowledgement that Mother Nature is no longer an infinitely renewable resource. Susan Froemke and John Hoffman’s pleasant, informative feature, which unfolds in as apolitical a manner as possible,  is clearly a broadcast-tailored item that will make its debut on the Discovery Channel in August.

Though once upon a time most Americans performed the titular jobs in one way or another, these days only about 1% of the populace earn such existential livings. The small, sustainable family-run operations of yore have largely given way to large-scale enterprises whose need to maximize yield and lower costs (especially labor costs) in highly competitive markets have encouraged approaches whose immediate advantages nonetheless often bring long-term negative consequences — particularly to the environment.

The first section focuses on Dusty Crary, a disarming Montana cowpoke right out of Central Casting. His deep love of the wildlife-friendly Rocky Mountain Front region, which his family has ranched for five generations, led him to start becoming politically active several decades ago, when the Reagan administration began aggressively pursuing oil drilling in hitherto pristine areas.

Having seen the disastrous impact such industrialization had in similar cases, he and other residents began pushing for protections that ultimately resulted in the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act and other legislation. Though he considers himself a “fierce property-rights advocate,” Crary sees “wilderness values” as key to preserving spectacular landscapes and unique ecosystems for mankind’s (and other species’) future. This hasn’t always endeared him to neighbors who found themselves thwarted as a result in their commercial endeavors, such as selling off parcels of land to develop subdivisions.

Moving southward, the focus shifts to Justin Knopf and Keith Thompson, whose large Great Plains operations have become successful laboratories for “no-till farming,” an almost unimaginable notion not long ago that has won a fast-growing number of converts. Rather than plowing and spraying and using other invasive techniques, “no-till” mimics native systems by using crop rotation and co-existing diverse crops to create “healthy soils” that are naturally resistant to mineral depletion, insects, erosion and other ills. As the two men note, while such “regenerative” farming is usually associated with minuscule organic farms, it can work just as efficiently and profitably on a bigger scale.

Finally, longtime Gulf Coast fisherman Wayne Werner walks viewers through the long, bumpy road that led to successful regulation for commercial operators hit by a scarcity of red snapper, created by over-fishing in the late 1980s. However, the problem remains that commercial fishermen (who supply ordinary consumers with seafood) operate under different rules than the deep-pocketed recreational fishing sector; the latter too often have the ears of legislators, who tend to favor wealthier constituents and state tourism industries. The ongoing struggle for a viable balance has taken Werner and colleagues to Congress more than once.

Most of these men consider themselves essentially conservative, like their communities, and must overcome the assumption that eco-friendly thinking is inherently antithetical to free-market values. But they’ve arrived at the conclusion that long-term business survival requires implementing strategies for sustainability.

Impressive aerial shots of scenic splendors, as well as Tom Brokaw’s narration — that voice now a sort of craggy edifice in itself — tie together this episodic feature into a polished and entertaining if conventional whole. “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” is designed to go down easy among exactly the audiences who might assume all environmentalists are “radicals,” but would readily identify with the folksy protagonists herein.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 20, 2017. Running time: 92 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Discovery Impact presentation of a McGee Media production in association with the Public Good Projects. (International sales: Discovery Channel, New York.) Producers: Beth Aala, Susan Froemke, Miriam Horn. Executive producers: John Hoffman, Dyllan McGee. Co-producers: Alexandra Moss, Jon Bardin.
  • Crew: Directors: Susan Froemke, John Hoffman. Co-director: Beth Aala. Writer: John Youngelson, based on the book “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland” by Miriam Horn. Camera (color, HD): Bob Richman, Buddy Squires, Thorsten Thielow. Editors, Kathleen Dougherty, Jen Fineran, Flavia de Souza. Music: Nathan Halpern.
  • With: Dusty Crary, Justin Knopf, Keith Thompson, Captain Wayne Werner.