I’ve been wanting to see King Corn since it was released last year, but there wasn’t a chance it would appear in a theatre here in Knoxville and I missed the PBS broadcast here so I had to wait for the DVD release of this documentary about the current state of the American agricultural business. This past week I finally had my chance to view it and my reaction was, “Not bad, pretty good in fact.”
The conceit here is that two friends (writers Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis), fresh out of college and having nothing better to do, decide to grow an acre of corn to see how the U.S. farm system actually works. It turns out their great-grandfathers lived in the same Iowa corn town at the turn of the century (they document this curious coincidence) so they go back to their roots – their greatgrandfathers’ Iowa corn town – to lease an acre of farmland and grow an acre of corn.
The “boys” are personable, articulate, and appealingly naïve. They ask good questions, they don’t preach. There’s nothing overtly ideological in this movie. Even Earl Butz, the former Secretary of Agriculture who initiated the current farm subsidies back in the 1970s before resigning his post over some racist remarks is allowed to speak his mind.
They also raise some interesting points – again without judgment: “Just for moving to Iowa and growing an acre of corn the government was going to pay us $28 – we should have raised 1000 acres!” And one of the farmers they talk to says, “I guarantee, if you’re not in the government program you’re going to lose money.” It’s an assertion born out at the end when the two add up the cost of growing their corn and find the current market price is less than what it cost them to produce the crop. Fortunately for them, there were other government programs that pushed them into profitability. The point: The U.S. government encourages over-production, which creates low market prices, by using tax dollars to subsidize the farmers – and the farmers know it.
But even with federal government subsidies, you can only make so much unless you get into volume – serious volume – by growing thousands of acres of corn. There are no family farms out there in the corn belt, in fact one farmer, who leases thousands of acres of land (from former farmers who are now no more than land-owners) baldly states his preference: “Get rid of all the housing and you can just farm through everything.” Every time you have to turn your tractor you lose productivity.
In the course of the film, Cheney and Ellis speak to a rancher running a Confined Animal Feed Operation (CAFO) who talks about how cheap corn has directly led to industrialized animal production. They talk to a woman at a plant that produces high-fructose corn syrup (they even try making their own). And they interview Big Ag’s harshest – and smartest – critic Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food,
If you’ve read your Pollan you won’t learn much from this film. The film-makers don’t attempt to cover everything – they don’t address the ethanol issue and its impact on corn prices. Nor do they discuss the use of land that had previously been set aside in the interest of conservation being put under the plow because of artificially high corn prices. Nevertheless, King Corn presents a solid overview of the place corn holds in our food supply and its wide-ranging effects.
The “boys” do have a nice sense of irony so watching the film is a pleasant experience and not overly negative. The special effects consist of using kernels of corn, sheets of construction paper, and a toy barn to make some of their points – a charming wink to school projects. And there are several subtle and not-so-subtle references to Field of Dreams.
All in all, I recommend the film. You’ll enjoy watching it and probably learn something important at the same time. What more could you ask from a documentary?