Bestselling Author Turns to Farmers and Conservation

August 25, 2016 12:00 PM

According to bestselling author Miriam Horn, the story of conservation tends to be told like a Western.

“There are good guys and bad guys, and the plot line is always a fight that the good guys have to beat the bad guys,” she says.

But that’s not the story Horn wants to tell. She has seen a different tale of conservation in the U.S. heartland, picking up on a “huge but largely hidden conservation movement” in modern America. Horn’s newest book, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, comes out Sept. 6. It explores the current challenges these groups face as they struggle to maintain stewardship of our country’s most precious resources.

Read an exclusive excerpt of Horn’s book below.

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 fresh water. Fishermen have an equally enormous impact, har­vesting 90 million metric tons of fish annually—equivalent, as author Paul Greenberg calculates, 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.

In the still half-wild frontier of the northern Rockies, near the headwaters of the Missouri 4,000 miles upstream from the Mississippi’s mouth, Montana cowboy Dusty Crary has gathered an improbable band of longtime enemies—cattlemen, fishermen, federal land managers, outfitters, hikers, hunters, environmentalists—to protect the epic ranches and untamed wilderness and elk and grizzlies and trout they all love. On the Kansas prairie, Justin Knopf is using “industrial-scale” farming to restore depleted soils cultivated by his family since homestead days. On the Mississippi itself and its sultry delta, Canal Barge CEO Merritt Lane—scion of an old aristocratic Southern family—has joined an unprecedentedly ambitious effort to reestablish the river’s natural land-building functions, to protect his mariners and New Orleans. On the Louisiana bayou, Sandy Nguyen is fighting to rescue the estuaries that harbor the shrimp and oysters and crabs her community relies on. And in the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, beyond the river’s mouth, commercial fisherman Wayne Werner is tangling with fisheries regulators to bring back red snapper and keep his and his buddies’ small businesses afloat. The challenges they face are nearly as daunting as those met by their forebears when they settled the frontier, founded companies in the depths of the Depression, or fled war and Communism in tiny fishing boats adrift on vast seas. But like those ancestors, they draw on deep reservoirs of courage, ingenuity, optimism and resolve.

All are conservationists because their livelihoods and communities will live or die with these ecosystems, but also because they love these land- and river- and seascapes where nature’s elemental forces remain vivid in their beauty and danger; where lives of self-creation, self-reliance and liberty remain possible; where the ideas of home and homeland remain strong. All bear a sense of moral responsibility to both the future and the past, a determination to pass on to their children and grandchildren a heritage often generations deep: the family memories imprinted on this land, the seasonal rhythms and traditions built around the bounty they reap. Many acknowledge something sacred here—larger than human understanding or will, a gift to be tended and revered.

Those imperatives aren’t new but continue a long (if presently obscured) American tradition. Teddy Roosevelt called conservation “a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.” Frank Capra animated that belief in his “boy ranger” Jefferson Smith, a “big-eyed patriot” gone to Washington to fight for a place he loves, “the prairies, wind leaning on the tall grass, cattle moving down the slope against the sun,” a place where boys can “learn something about nature and American ideals.” Richard Nixon created the EPA and signed more major environmental laws than any president before or since, including the Endangered Species Act, which the Senate passed 92–0 and the House by a vote of 355 to 4. Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol, the first global agreement to protect the atmosphere. “What is a conservative after all but one who conserves?” he asked in a 1984 speech. “And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live—our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony.”

Linked by those traditional values, these conservation heroes are caring for their families and resources and communities not by digging into ideological trenches or warring to protect their own narrow interests but by coming together like neighbors used to do when raising barns or bringing in the wheat—and often with people very different from themselves. Their fortunes, they know, are entirely intertwined, not least by the river itself. Wayne Werner and Justin Knopf both recognize that the red snapper harvest depends on water quality in the Gulf and therefore on choices Justin makes about fertilizing his wheat

a thousand miles upstream. Still physically connected to the earth and weather and the complex web of life, they have come to see diversity as paramount for survival: a diversity of grasses and grazers and predators, of seeds and crops and soil microbes and pollinators, of water and mud, fresh and salt, and—most crucially—of people.

“Excerpted from Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland by Miriam Horn. Copyright © 2016 by Miriam Horn. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.”

For more information about the book, visit

Back to news



Spell Check

No comments have been posted to this News Article

Corn College TV Education Series


Get nearly 8 hours of educational video with Farm Journal's top agronomists. Produced in the field and neatly organized by topic, from spring prep to post-harvest. Order now!


Market Data provided by
Brought to you by Beyer