Commercial-scale food production and environmental conservation are often viewed as fundamentally at odds with one another. This documentary, based on the book of the same title by Miriam Horn, challenges that idea by bringing viewers face to face with people who produce our food and whose livelihoods depend on the land and sea. Following a downstream transect through the Mississippi River basin, we meet Montana ranchers working to protect the landscapes of the Rocky Mountain Front, farmers in Kansas who have eschewed tilling and insecticides, and fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico trying to restore and sustain the red snapper population. In each case, the motivation is to preserve an income source and a way of life—which means working with, not against, the natural environments in which these livelihoods and traditions are rooted.
Through narration by Tom Brokaw, the film directly (and maybe with more repetition than necessary) connects food production in the heartland with American exceptionalism and the core American identity. Less explicit but just as clear is the premise that conservation and conservatism can be ideologically compatible. Property rights, traditionalism, and self-sufficiency are among the values that impel the film’s subjects as they forge sometimes unexpected connections with government administrators, scientists, and conservation groups to protect the environments where they work from threats such as development, erosion, and overexploitation. “Hold on to what you got,” “leave it like it is,” and similar statements convey their shared sense of stewardship and legacy.
The film stops short of exploring how choices in one part of the basin might affect outcomes downstream. But it does highlight how decisions informed by science can have both economic and environmental payoffs.