Kansas ‘introverted farmers’ featured in Discovery channel movie

Two Kansans are featured as heroes in a new Discovery Channel documentary on conservation scheduled to air Thursday night.

“Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” includes Justin Knopf, a fifth generation farmer from Gypsum and fourth generation farmer Keith Thompson from Osage City.

The documentary is based on Miriam Horn’s best-selling book based on the same name about the inspirational work of people across the nation who earn their livings working on either the land or sea.

The documentary is narrated by Tom Brokaw.

The show will air on the Discovery Channel at 8 p.m. Central Standard Time.

The nearly two-hour documentary premiered during the 2017 Sundance Festival and will be shown in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

“Out on America’s vast working landscapes – the ranches of the Mountain West, the farmlands of the Great Plains, the waters of the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico – a quiet revolution is under way,” Judy Stoeven Davies wrote an Fall 2016 article for the Environmental Defense Fund about the book and movie. “Tens of thousands of unsung conservationists are leading some of the most important work in the nation to restore America’s grasslands, soils, rivers, wetlands and fisheries.”

Knopf remembers it was 2013 when he was first approached about the book and documentary. He grows wheat, soybeans, corn, sorghum alfalfa near Salina using methods to increase the microbial soil through no-till and crop rotation strategies. He partners with his brother and father in working the farm. He is vice president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers board of directors.

“The author of the book had a story in her mind and she was reaching out to working ranch groups and folks who had spent time in the heartland,” the 39-year-old Knopf said. “She was looking for characters. We do a lot of stewardship and conservation on our farm but we are not doing anything magical or incredibly unique.”

Knopf and Thompson of Osage City have both become leaders in no-till farming – meaning rather than plow, spray and use invasive techniques to farm their land, these farmers use crop rotation and diverse crops to create healthier soils. Thompson has been no-till farming since the early 1990s.

“I honestly think there is nothing on this earth that is worse for the health of the earth, humans and environment than tillage,” the 68-year-old Thompson said. “Nothing is worse.”

Knopfs family farms about 4,000 acres; Thompson, 2,700.

The two farmers were filmed planting crops, harvesting and working with cattle.

“They wanted to know if I’d be interested in participating (in the documentary) and the phone was silent for at least 45 seconds and my first response was ‘You mean with cameras and everything?’ Knopf said.

And yes, that’s exactly what it was — two producers, a videographer and an assistant.

“They came during harvest and I said I would be busy, you’re welcome to come along but I am not going to sit and talk,” Knopf said.

He didn’t. Non-stop for three days one of the producers rode around with him on a combine, frantically writing notes.

Thompson said the first time the film crew approached him it was at a no-till conference in Salina. By then, he had traveled to South America to learn more about how farmers around the world are using no-till practices.

Thompson learned about practices to keep the soil from eroding. He attended conferences.

“I remember telling my son, Ben, we are going to start making money,” Thompson said. “I could see it was going to cut costs by doing things this way.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner