King Corn pleasantly surprised me. I didn’t know much about it when I started watching and was expecting a highly politicized and critical look at how we grow corn these days. Instead I enjoyed an hour and half with Ian and Curt as they attempted to grow an acre of corn in Greene, Iowa.
The pair became interested in our food system when they learned that their generation (30-somethings) was the first generation whose life expectancy was actually shorter than that of their parents’ generation. This worried the guys so they set out to investigate and their research led them to our processed food system. They sought out the help of “The Hair Detective” Stephen Macko, a UVA professor of environmental sciences who runs isotope analyses of hair samples. He performed this analysis on Curt and Ian and the results revealed that over 50% of the isotopes in their hair came from corn. You can watch the clip below. It’s actually pretty interesting.
The guys then set out to figure out how they got corn in their hair since they weren’t intentionally or knowingly consuming much corn. This journey took them to Greene, Iowa. Strangely enough, while Ian and Curt met in college, both of their great-grandfathers were from Greene. They rented an acre of land and set about growing corn so they could follow some corn from seed to hair.
They raise genetically modified corn using conventional methods. They planted 31,000 seeds in their small acre and treated them with pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Their input costs were $349.92. This included renting the land, buying seeds, renting equipment, and the fertilizers and assorted-cides. Their best-case-scenario projected income was $330, assuming they reaped a full 200 bushels of corn from their tiny plot. See the problem there?
At this point they did delve into the world of agricultural subsidies. They even met with Earl Butz, the man responsible for our current system of payments and subsidies. Butz was the secretary of agriculture in the 1970s and pushed for policies that encouraged farmers to grow as much as they possibly could. “Fence post to fence post” was his motto. Before Butz, the government regulated supply by paying farmers NOT to plant. If farmers had a particularly good year and flooded the market with corn, the government would pay them the following season to forgo planting more. Demand generally remained the same and regulating the supply kept the prices stable and allowed farmers to make a decent living.
Butz changed that system. He wanted to control supply rather than demand and reworked the subsidy system to reward farmers for increasing their production. The problem was that demand didn’t change and before long the excess corn flooded the market. The excess corn drove market prices down so the government stepped in to make up the difference. That is still how things work today. When Curt and Ian realized they’d actually be losing money on their little experiment, a fellow farmer reminded them that they’d actually be OK because the government would make up the difference.
Aren’t you glad your tax dollars are being so well spent?
Unlike me, the documentary maintained the tone of a neutral observer. The guys refrained from passing judgment on the system and continued to simply seek out information. They even tried to look at things from their great-grandfathers’ point of view and how they would have viewed the changes that came in the 1970s. The subsidies, the equipment, the scale. Really, they were very likeable.
To deal with the excess corn, companies were encouraged to find ways to use it. This led to the creation of CAFOs and grain-fed beef and to the chemical processing of corn into things like high fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin. Ian and Curt even attempt to make HFCS in their own little kitchen which is pretty funny.
Disclaimer: my opinion of this documentary is biased as their investigation led them to Park Slope, Brooklyn. Watching them drive down 5th Ave. passed Something Else and Associated and Al Di La made me happy and homesick all at once and earned them serious bonus points in my book. Why were they in Brooklyn? Apparently, Brooklyn’s annual soda consumption requires 20,000 acres of Iowa corn!
Also, if anyone out there happens to know Ian Cheney and wants to introduce me to him, I’d appreciate it. Move over, Joel Salatin, Ian is my new hero. This truck farm thing he’s got going on in Brooklyn sums up what I’d like to do with my life. Farming + NYC = perfect.