Rick Hammond might look like a man of contradictions to an environmentalist. His methods of farming — using chemicals, satellite-guided machinery, and high-tech seeds to grow corn, soybeans, and beef cattle — might brand him as the enemy. But he’s also an ally, fighting to keep the Keystone pipeline from crossing his land. And, as the journalist Ted Genoways points out, no one is more concerned with sustainability than a family farmer who has held onto land for five generations, and wants it to last for at least another five.

But where environmentalists and food-movement activists might see contradictions, Genoways found consistency. There was a logical explanation for Hammond’s choices.

“The people in the food movement have a lot of ideas about how farming should be reformed, and I think a lot of them are correct,” Genoways says, “but they’re not grounded in very much knowledge of the pressures farmers face and the reasons they aren’t reforming.”

Genoways wanted to understand these pressures, so he did something unusual: He spent a whole year listening to the Hammonds as they worked to sustain crops and cattle on their homestead in Nebraska. In writing his new book, This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Farm Family, he learned that there’s real economic pressures keeping farmers from abandoning industrial agriculture.

Grist spoke with Genoways about how Hammond and his family have fought the Keystone XL pipeline, why they have little patience with nostalgia for traditional farming, and what climate change means for a region running low on water. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q. Why did you decide to focus on the Hammonds?