Film : "King Corn" - You really are what you eat
In "King Corn," Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, two recent East Coast college grads, enter a scientist's office to find out what they're made of - literally. That's how this movie with chilling insights into America's food industry opens.
Ian and Curtis's test results may surprise you, because the two are made almost entirely out of corn - like most of us. That's just one of many facts in this intriguing documentary, sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society. If you are interested in the homegrown food initiative that's enjoying popularity on the Island and elsewhere, you need to watch this film.
Spending two hours learning about the history, production, processing, and distribution of corn might not sound all that enticing, but director Aaron Wolf and writers Cheney and Ellis make the subject far more appetizing - and amusing - than you might imagine. Inspired by Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," the two friends are concerned that their generation may be the first at risk for a shorter life span than their parents.
After watching "King Corn," you'll think twice, not only about that fast-food meal you just enjoyed, but the juicy steak with its nine grams of saturated fat from corn-fed beef. In the old days when cattle were grass fed, their meat had only 1.3 grams of saturated fat.
Ian and Curtis decide to spend a year growing corn on an acre of farmland in Iowa and following it through the American food system. A good part of the movie's humor comes from the fact that Ian and Curtis know nothing about farming or how food processing and distribution work. Yet by coincidence, both have great-grandfathers who lived in the rural Iowa county where they plant their acre of corn.
They meet one relative who decided to move back to Greene, Iowa, the town where they set up shop, to enjoy his retirement years. An Iowa State University agronomist explains to the two how closely related corn is to grass and why Iowa happens to be an ideal location for growing corn.
They start their corn-growing project in January, obviously not a very good time of year to plant crops. So Ian and Curtis prepare themselves by doing research and engaging in popular local recreational activities like ice fishing. They take a trip to the corn-encrusted Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.
Dawn Cheney, the widow who lives in the original Cheney farmstead, describes to them what farming was like when it was still an occupation that provided all the food a family needed. Animation of kids' farm toys allows the guys to illustrate how family farms like their ancestors' have been replaced by much larger, industrialized ones.
By March, Ian and Curtis have learned how federal farm subsidies support the corn harvests. They ready their acre with fertilizer that will allow them to grow four times as much corn as their great-grandfathers. Ian learns how to drive a tractor, and Curtis discovers that his great-grandfather, a farm equipment manufacturer, built the first machine called a tractor.
The weather turns warm enough in May to start planting the 31,000 kernels that will produce their one-acre crop. Guess how long the planting takes? Eighteen minutes, thanks to modern farm equipment. When August comes, the duo tries a taste test with unexpected results.
Come October, it's time for Ian and Curtis to check the bottom line for their corn-growing project. The figures are enough to send them off to visit the late Earl Butz, Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, who was in his 90s when he was interviewed. From him they learn why the federal government began subsidizing crops and turned agriculture into agribusiness.
Once Ian and Curtis harvest their crop, their 180 bushels join the biggest corn harvest in American history, and it's time to bring out a celebratory bottle of wine. Six months later, after watching yet another family farm head for the auction block, Ian and Curtis decide to buy their acre of land and take it out of the food chain. It's a symbolic gesture, of course, but a measure of how much they learned from their experiment growing corn.
"King Corn," Saturday, May 10, 7:30 pm. Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for Martha's Vineyard Film Society members. Doors open at 7 pm.