Corn-Fed America


Curt Ellis says that today’s successful farmers are economists, not gardeners.


By Tobin Hack



After graduating from college, best friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis headed to the heartland to learn about food, America, and agriculture. That meant living in Greene, Iowa, growing one acre of field corn, talking with experts and locals, and following their harvest into the food industry. The year-long experiment resulted in, among other things, 10,000 pounds of corn, $28 in government subsidies, and a documentary film called King Corn.

Directed by Aaron Woolf, the fresh and innovative film recently premiered with two sold-out screenings at South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas. You can catch the film in the 2007-2008 Independent Lens series on PBS, or buy the DVD online. Plenty caught up with Curt Ellis to find out what commodity crop farming means today.

At the start of the film, a UVA professor analyzes your hair and tells you you’re made primarily of corn. Did you feel duped by the food industry?

It’s just bizarre, but it makes sense when you realize that 80 million acres in the American landscape are planted with the stuff, and something like 5,000 products at the typical supermarket are made out of corn in one way or another. This flood of cheap corn is kept in place by government subsidies and by the incredible productivity of our modern industrial farm, and it causes a lot of environmental and health problems. This is the year that the farm bill is coming up for debate in congress again, so it’s a good moment to get people thinking. As Michael Pollan says, it’s a food bill, not just a farm bill.

What’s farming like these days?

It took us 18 minutes to plant our 31,000 kernels of corn with a sixteen-row planter. I think, all told, Ian and I spent about two hours farming over the course of the year.

If you’re farming 1,000 acres, which is common, you’re pretty busy, but you spend a lot of your time maintaining your equipment, watching the markets, trying to figure out when to sell your corn. The people who are successful at farming corn on a big scale today are agricultural economists, they’re not gardeners.

The first time you taste your corn, your exact words are, “that’s disgusting, it tastes like chalk.” That bad, huh?

We didn’t understand until we got to the Corn Belt that all of that corn growing in the Midwest on the side of the highway is field corn, not sweet corn. The corn that’s grown in Iowa today isn’t eaten fresh off the farm. It’s shipped 1,500 miles on this crazy journey to become high-fructose corn syrup or corn-fed meat. That’s because, for as long as industrial food has been around, field corn has been bred to have as much starch as possible. We started to do that a few generations ago with hybridization, and we’ve gotten even better at it with genetic modification. We’ve got more starch in corn today, but what we’ve given up is the protein. I think something like 99.5% of corn in the U.S. is field corn.

Has your experience changed the way you eat?

I buy grass-fed beef all the time. I don’t drink soda. I try to avoid the beer that’s sweetened with corn syrup. But it’s really hard to eat well. I guess you just try to buy the good meat when you can, because that really makes a difference, and you eat as many fruits and vegetables as you can, and you try to support your local farms when you can. You also call your congressman and tell them not to trade away their vote on the farm bill.

Michael Pollan advised you throughout you project; what was the best advice he gave you?

He wrote an article about following one steer through the process of becoming a steak, to understand the beef industry. It was such a great model for how to tell the story of food.  If you want to really know how something works, you have to do it yourself. He chose one steer in a giant Kansas feed lot. We chose one small acre of corn in the middle of a field in Iowa.

 

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