What first drew my attention to the documentary “Hanna Ranch” was the phrase “produced by Eric Schlosser.” Schlosser’s pedigree — as author of “Fast Food Nation” and commentator in the excellent 2009 doc “Food, Inc.” — suggested that I might enjoy this look at a Colorado cattle ranch known for its progressive environmental operations. (Full disclosure: I have a weakness for such food-and-agriculture-in-crisis docs as “Fed Up,” “King Corn,” “More Than Honey,” “A Place at the Table” and “Super Size Me.”)
But I had no idea that another name featured in the film would keep me so utterly spellbound.
Kirk Hanna, the late proprietor of the ranch that bears his family’s name, was a charismatic commodities broker who became known, in the late 1980s and 1990s, as an “eco-rancher” for his almost evangelical promotion of something called Holistic Resource Management (HRM). The philosophy of sustainable land use tries to balance everything: rain, runoff, bugs, wildlife, sunshine, pasture, manure, people, you name it. As the theory espoused by Hanna goes, raising cattle isn’t bad for the environment, despite what some say. Stop cows from grazing, the thinking goes, and the prairie will ultimately turn into a desert.
Cattle, in other words, are simply doing the job that buffalo once did. We need them, but we also need to think about the future.
Much of the first half of the film deals with Hanna’s championing of the HRM way of life, which for him was more than a dry theory. This made Hanna, who died in 1998, something of a weirdo, both to more traditional ranchers, who didn’t cotton to new-fangled ideas, as well as to ecological activists, who would not expect a cowboy who looked like Tom Selleck to be on their side.
It’s a fascinating tale, told with interviews with Hanna’s family and associates, and illustrated with archival footage and beautiful new cinematography of the prairie.
But at some point “Hanna Ranch” becomes a film about something both larger and smaller than a ranch. I don’t want to spoil the way the film builds drama — yes, drama — but Hanna’s personal story, which involves family squabbles, battles against urban sprawl and his own sense of purpose in the world, eventually takes over from the professional one, creating a narrative with a moral that is not just important, from an ecological standpoint, but also deeply, unexpectedly moving, on a human level.
My advice: Don’t Google anything about this guy. Just watch the movie and let it carry you away.
Unrated. Contains brief obscenity. 73 minutes. Available via Amazon Instant, iTunes, Google Play, the Sony Entertainment Network, Xbox and on-demand cable.