The story of a huge, largely hidden, and entirely unexpected conservation movement in America
Unfolding as a journey down the Mississippi River, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman tells the stories of five representatives of this stewardship movement: a Montana rancher, a Kansas farmer, a Mississippi riverman, a Louisiana shrimper and a Gulf fisherman. In exploring their work, family histories and the essential geographies they protect, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman challenges pervasive and powerful myths about American and environmental values.
Montana rancher and former rodeo champion Dusty Crary's family came West when it was still wild, surviving on bootlegging and coyote trapping before settling in the 1930s on the land he now ranches. There Dusty raises livestock alongside grizzlies and wolves, using grazing to restore native grasslands and manage invasive weeds.
A conservative who generally votes Republican, Dusty has spent countless hours forging alliances between long-time antagonists — cattlemen and federal agencies, hunters and environmental groups — to protect both private ranches and federal wilderness along the Rocky Mountain Front for future generations.
"I think a lot of the skepticism comes from the view that there's cowboys and there's hippies and the two shall not get along. Folks think all environmental groups hate cattle and ranchers and there's certainly some truth to that… But the conservation-minded who do not have an agenda to exclude people realize we're as organic as everything else here, we're going to be part of this equation, and that successful initiatives have always been partnerships with those working and living off the land."
Though the amber waves of grain that stretch across Justin Knopf's fifth-generation family farm stir nostalgia for America's rural past, his farming practices are decidedly forward-looking. In his wheat, soy and alfalfa fields, Justin applies the latest advances in microbial soil science, no-till and crop rotation strategies for controlling pests, building soil quality and fighting erosion.
Justin and his family make long-term investments in stewardship, ensuring that the next generations of Knopf farmers will inherit fertile, productive lands and America a secure food supply.
"There's a perception out there that's tempting to buy into, that to take care of the environment you have to farm at a scale like my grandfather would have farmed on: a couple hundred acres, with smaller machinery, very limited technology. And I think that's not quite accurate. As I think about the farmers in our community and probably agriculture as a whole in much of the Midwest, I would argue that many of the larger scale farms are the ones on the cutting edge of environmentalism."
Merritt Lane, CEO of the Canal Barge Company his grandfather founded in 1933 and descendant of a long line of civic leaders, has stepped up to protect his mariners, American trade and his New Orleans community by helping to lead a $50 billion restoration of Louisiana's vanishing wetlands. The largest environmental restoration ever undertaken, the project is supported by a coalition that spans interests from oil companies to bird lovers.
The Mississippi River and the ports of Louisiana are the economic engine of the heartland. Companies and farmers depend on the nation's inland waterways to move $200 billion worth of goods a year into and out of 31 states.
"The issue I often have with the environmentalist conversation is that it doesn't complete the sentence. It's just ‘Stop doing this.' Okay… and then what? It's not a solution if it kills this company. We have one of the world's most glorious waterway systems, and we've invested billions and billions in these arteries of commerce… If you shut us down, either the stuff doesn't move and you cripple the economy, or you shift it onto trucks, which are far worse for the environment. The higher ground doesn't exist just because you call yourself an environmentalist. You have to articulate a stronger value proposition, a way that says, ‘We don't want you dead; we want you better.'"
When Sandy Nguyen was just five years old, her parents packed up their five children and fled Vietnam in her father's small fishing boat, eventually settling in New Orleans among other Vietnamese refugee fishermen. The landscape and climate of the Mississippi Delta reminded them of the Mekong, its estuaries providing ample shrimp, crabs and oysters on which to rebuild their livelihoods. Cut off by levees from the River, however, those wetlands are disappearing, eliminating not only critical nurseries for America's seafood, but also the very land beneath her community's feet.
As Louisiana begins the ambitious effort to restore the Mississippi River's vital land-building function, those fishing families look to Sandy, who has devoted her life to helping them, to ensure that their interests are represented. She is the link between high-level planners and politicians and the working men and women who must live with their decisions.
"My fishermen [are] the smartest people when it comes to southeast Louisiana water. All tell me that we have to save our coast. Instead of having to send billions and billions of dollars down for recovery after each hurricane, we need to restore the wetlands. And the marsh areas are where the babies come from. All the shrimp and crabs and seafood that we catch, their life cycle begins in this estuary. So if we lose the estuaries we most likely will lose our industry with it."
Fisherman Wayne Werner did not set out to become an advocate for smart fishing regulations, but he had to act after seeing how mismanagement was decimating red snapper populations and bringing economic despair to fishing communities, including his own family.
With Wayne's help, fishermen, environmentalists and the government joined forces to help transition the commercial red snapper fishery to sustainable management practices. Today the population of red snapper, the Gulf's most valuable fish, is recovering rapidly. Wayne has helped secure abundant supplies of red snapper for commercial fishermen, restaurants and consumers.
"I'm a fisherman at heart; it's what I've known my whole life. I got to see this thing run through the right way. I want to see the fishery remain in the hands of fishermen; and to see the snapper thick, filling the top of the water like an aquarium. I went to my first meeting in 1989, that's thirty years. I'd like to see this fishery rebuilt before I die."
About the author
Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman is available in hardcover, paperback and audiobook. Buy the book on Amazon.
Miriam Horn's Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman showcases the people I consider the real unsung heroes of conservation in America: the landowners themselves. Successful conservation in this country requires leadership by the people closest to the land, not just from regulators in Washington, DC. Ms. Horn's book should be required reading for everyone who is concerned about how we will sustain American food production and help feed the world while protecting our limited land and water resources.
Howard G. Buffett, Chairman and CEO, The Howard G. Buffett Foundation
All of these valiant men and women, writes the author, are fiercely protective of the land and sea and its bounty not only because these delicately balanced ecosystems directly support their livelihoods, but because there is also an enduring love of the land itself and an allegiance to preserve it…. An optimistic journal of promise for the future and a supremely motivational text for readers interested in Earth's compromised biodiversity.
Kirkus, STARRED review
Horn's intimate profiles reveal undervalued environmental change makers while countering popular notions of what it means to be a conservationist.
Horn and her subjects go out of their way to illustrate how it is only through taking an apolitical and far-reaching view of environmental issues that true success can be found. This broadens the book's appeal considerably as these Americans candidly discuss their positive work, moving past political differences to concrete solutions. Hopeful and educational, Horn's chronicle will educate readers on how to work together in their hometowns, making this a great choice for nature-minded book groups.
Booklist, STARRED review
A book of wide-screen vision and pinpoint detail, cinched tight to the middle of the country. With understanding, skill, and passion, Miriam Horn tells the stories of men and women who wrest their living from a varied environment while working hard to preserve it. Her writing is always enlightening, often a delight.
Ian Frazier, New Yorker columnist and author of Great Plains
The most powerful, compelling, and eloquent solutions for our problems come from the inside. In this lush, gorgeously written book, Miriam Horn shows men and women preserving the natural world around them — not out of an abstract sense of environmentalism, but because they love the land and water, their communities, and way of life. A profoundly hopeful book.
Tina Rosenberg, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award
Miriam Horn weaves a picture of hope from the stories of five Americans whose work places them on the front lines of conservation. Their compelling stories illuminate the complexity of the challenges posed by a changing climate, and teach that the solutions must be grounded in humanity as well as in science. A marvelous and inspiring book.
Frederic C. Rich, author of Getting to Green
The Mississippi River watershed – the "immense funnel" that drains more than 40 percent of the continental United States – forms the backdrop of the volume, and readers will learn about the area firsthand from those for whom it's a "working landscape." Although their issues differ, the men and women portrayed share a deep knowledge about their places, a few having family connections going back generations. … VERDICT: For those with a special interest in environmental issues, this is an essential read; for more general readers, the trip down Ol' Muddy promises a fascinating itinerary.
Read an excerpt
With his envoys in Paris negotiating to purchase Louisiana, Thomas Jefferson implored his friend and fellow farmer James Monroe to join them, to "secure our rights and interest in the Mississippi" River and surrounding territories. "On the event of this mission," the president wrote in January 1803, "depends the future destinies of this Republic."
Jefferson's imminent concern was possible war with France, but his words would prove prophetic across centuries. The Mississippi River watershed — an immense funnel spun of 7,000 tributaries reaching from the Rockies to the Appalachians and draining more than 40 percent of the continental United States — is central to the American story. The third largest in the world (behind only the Amazon and the Congo), this basin holds most of the nation's natural wealth and produces most of its minerals and food: metals and coal from its mountains, meat from its northern grasslands, grains and beans from its central plains, fish and black oil from its delta. The connectivity provided by its thousands of miles of waterways — linking the heartland to the rest of the nation and the world — has been critical to America's rise and reign as a global economic power. The nation's politics, too, have been crucially shaped in these middle reaches, for two hundred years the place to sort out such fundamental questions of democracy as the proper balance between federal and local authority. Most important have been the values born here: on this iconic terrain — these mountain majesties, fruited plains, shining seas — explorers and cowboys, pioneers and riverboat captains, forged the American identity. It is not by chance that the Mississippi provided the setting for two of America's founding journeys: Lewis and Clark's up from St. Louis to the Missouri headwaters and across the whole of the Louisiana Purchase Jefferson sent them to explore, and Huck Finn's down the river, to freedom and an understanding of the common human purpose.
America depends on these grand working landscapes, and they in turn depend on a small number of people: the families who live by harvesting their bounty. Farmers and ranchers make up just 1 percent of the U.S. population but manage two-thirds of the nation's land; agriculture has greater impacts on water, land and terrestrial biodiversity than any other human enterprise. That's true everywhere, making this region a model for the world. Half of Earth's ice-free land is in pasture or farms. Crops now cover an area the size of South America and livestock graze an expanse as big as Africa; together they use 70 percent of all freshwater. Fishermen have an equally enormous impact, harvesting 90 million metric tons of fish annually — equivalent to pulling the human weight of China out of the sea every year.
As these productive landscapes grow increasingly precarious — overgrazed, overtilled, overfished; threatened by invasive species, development, ill-conceived feats of engineering, and extreme weather — it is the families who run the tractors and barges and fishing boats who are stepping up to save them. Theirs are the most consequential efforts to restore America's grasslands, wildlife, soils, rivers, wetlands and fisheries — the vast, rich bounty that shaped our national character and sustains our way of life.