In her new book, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, author Miriam Horn recalls her journey along the Mississippi River Basin to meet the cowboys and riverboat captains who rely on its bounty, and the tenacious men and women fighting to protect their land, river and way of life.
Horn recently spoke with Nexus Media about her adventure and the unlikely conservationists she met along the way. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can read an excerpt of her book here.
What inspired you to search for environmental stewards who don’t fit the public image of conservationists?
My personal history. I grew up in California, and spent a lot of time on a farm in the central valley, the Rominger farm. And this was a family that already, when I was a little girl in the 60s, was thinking in this far-sighted way. They were farming a big piece of land, about 5,000 acres, but already they were thinking about water issues, and soil issues, and the impacts of farming and the global food supply.
The California farm is a fourth-generation farm. The farm I write about in Kansas is a fifth-generation farm. The sense of a responsibility to those forebears, and to future generations — it’s a very, very long view across time, and across space.
Conservation isn’t new, but we’ve gotten away from it in the last century. What changed?
Conservation is a core American value. It goes back to the roots of the United States. Thomas Jefferson was acutely aware — he did no-till farming in Virginia. He was acutely aware of issues around the soil and thinking about how you took care of it for the long term.
If you look at environmental politics, until the 1990s it was a bipartisan issue, by and large. The most [of the] important environmental presidents were Republicans, starting with Abraham Lincoln, who created effectively the first national park, and then Teddy Roosevelt, and then Richard Nixon was president when the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were created, and the EPA. It was Ronald Reagan who said “What is a conservative but one who conserves?… This is our patrimony… We need to protect this land as our patrimony.” It’s about the ability to be self sufficient, which is a huge American value: You need to be out there in a self-reliant way. It’s about mutual obligation to neighbors.
The last couple of decades have really been an aberration. This idea that it’s an issue that only belongs to soft-handed liberal elitists, who live in cities and have no sense of reality — that’s the aberration.
Farmer’s and ranchers like to say they were the first the conservationists. Justin, the Kansas farmer that I write about, farms 5,000 acres in central Kansas that were homesteaded by his mom’s family right after the Civil War.
How are those individuals doing what needs to be done for Americans to still have fish and shrimp and rivers and farms? How did we get so far away from it in the first place?
Environmentalists are not blameless in it. All of us, at one time or another, have been so single-mindedly focused on a goal that we have come in as steam rollers, we have sometimes been deaf to local concerns. There has also often been a kind of rigidity in environmentalism.
One of the subjects in my book is the CEO of a barge company that navigates the Mississippi River and all its tributaries. And he says, I think fairly, “The problem I often have with the environmentalist conversation is it doesn’t finish the sentence. It says ‘Stop doing this.’ And then what? We need to move stuff in this country.”
He was talking about the fight over locks and dams. If the answer is just to shut down every lock in the Mississippi River, either the economy grinds to a halt or you move all that stuff into trucks, which are 100 times more polluting. We have to come up with a better value proposition. Environmentalism cannot just be about “No. Stop,” it has to be about “Do this instead. Let’s figure out a better way to do it.”
And of course the other reason, and probably the lion’s share of it, is a concerted effort that’s come from fossil fuel interests to stop any action on climate by persuading politicians that most Americans hate environmentalists and environmental values, and that to lead on climate will only find you punished at home politically.
So why haven’t people with better knowledge worked against that?
Part of it is that the people I write about aren’t inherently political animals. They’ve all done it in the end because they’ve all come to realize that if they’re going to actually make a change, they’re going to have to climb down from their tractor or their fishing boat and go to Washington. Sort of Frank Capra-esque journeys to meet their Congressmen that are really inspiring.
But there’s been a loud drumbeat out there that’s been hard for any of us to be heard over. If you’re out in Kansas or Louisiana, you actually hear a really nuanced conversation when you’re in these communities. But some of the very same politicians who are engaged in those nuanced conversations go to Washington and the nuance disappears.
What are the big issues that they’re addressing in that conversation, and how are they making a difference?
There have been long, long wars between the greenies and the hunters and the cowboys and the loggers and the federal bureaucrats — you know, a lot of people who kind of hated each other and were slashing each others’ tires. And they have managed — through this shared love of this place, and the inspiration of people like Dusty Crary, the cowboy I write about — to bridge those divides and come together to protect this last, glorious fragment of the Wild West in America.
When I first started talking to the farmer, Justin Knopf, he would say things like “I don’t know if this extreme weather we’ve been having is a trend, but I don’t need to know. I live in Kansas, it’s an extreme place. I have to make my soils resilient to that weather.
As we talked over the years, he took me up to Kansas State, the land grant college where he studied agronomy, and the professors there will say, “Oh yeah of course there’s climate change. And climate change in Kansas is going to suppress wheat yields inordinately if we don’t do something about it, and we now understand how you can rebuild the carbon in the soil, and take it out of the atmosphere by doing that. When we go to our state legislators looking for funding, we don’t talk about climate change to them. We tell them we’re worried about the Ogallala aquifer.”
One of the principles they all have is recognizing that there’s no point in using language that’s just going to get the door slammed.
Things are changing. Whether it’s reversible or not is not even part of the conversation — it’s how do we adapt to what’s happening right now.
That was where the conversation started with Justin a few years ago. In the book, I trace the weather that they have been dealing with and it’s, you know, a 100-degree heat wave in one April and a blizzard the next April. Neither one of those things is supposed to happen in April and they both damaged the wheat terribly.
So these guys are on the front lines with the changes that are happening in terms of weather and pests, they’re seeing weeds and insects that they’ve never had to deal with before, that are migrating north — they’re seeing all of that. But they’re moving beyond, “We have to adapt to this stuff, whatever the cause we have to adapt to it” to, “We can be part of the solution.” They’re actually willing to say greenhouse gas emissions from the farm are part of the problem.
Where do you see this movement to normalize environmentalism?
In Kansas, Knopf is part of a network called No Till on the Plains. They have an annual conference in Salina, Kansas, and here were 2,000 farmers from across the Great Plains. These are large scale, really traditional guys. These are not boutique back-to-the-landers. These are fourth and fifth generation guys who totally see that their soils are wrung out and are blowing away. And they want to turn it around. And that movement is growing steadily every year — it’s now up to about 20 percent of Great Plains farmers who are moving to this no-tilling system. And Justin is now Kansas’s voice in Washington on the American Farm Bureau.
In Louisiana, you see a lot of leadership from the business community. The person I focus on, Merritt Lane, is the CEO of a century-old barge company, a family-owned barge company, and he is a really important leader in the New Orleans business community. They all understand the vulnerability of their economy and they’re actually looking to the future and building what they’re calling a restoration economy.
In every one of these places, you see this momentum in the right direction. A lot of them are getting demand signals too. Companies like Wal-Mart are saying, “We’re going to give preference to farmers who reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.” That’s one of those big levers in the world. If Wal-Mart says, “We want low-carbon wheat,” all of a sudden you’ve got a lot of low-carbon wheat farmers out there. So there’s definitely enormous momentum in the right direction.
This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.