Written by Caballero Oscuro
King Corn follows two friends as they leave their city life behind to plant and harvest an acre of corn in Iowa. Along the way, they learn about the way corn has dominated our food system, as well as the nature of our farm subsidy program. There’s powerful subject matter available here, as the film could easily focus on either the folly of city boy novices attempting to enter the insular rural farm world, the insidious nature of corn products in our food supply and their effect on our health, or the impact of farm subsidies on small farmers, industrialized farms, and the US taxpayers as a whole. Unfortunately, the documentary’s multiple themes result in a lack of focus on any one of them, so viewers are left with a smattering of information about each of them and an entertaining final product, but not a hard-hitting or especially insightful documentary.
Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis trace their roots back to the same small farm town in Iowa, but their ancestors long ago abandoned the rural life for the big city. As Yale grads and devout city boys, they know absolutely nothing about the complexities of farming, but they have the gusto to embrace and follow through on their crazy idea to plant their own acre of corn and attempt to track it through to food production. Upon arriving in Iowa, they secure an acre of land and set about learning the ropes regarding equipment, fertilizer, and seed, as well as signing up for the omnipresent farm subsidy program.
With their crop in the ground, they set about learning where the corn goes after harvest, a journey that eventually takes them to 30 states and Mexico. They learn that today’s genetically altered corn bears little resemblance to the corn raised by early settlers of our continent, and it’s no longer an appetizing food source in its basic form. However, in conjunction with high-powered fertilizers, it is designed for maximum yield, allowing farmers to fill their silos past capacity like never before, contributing to an over-production of the crop. With so much corn in such abundant and inexpensive supply, it has become a core staple of our food chain, with corn syrup long ago replacing sugar as our primary sweetener and corn becoming the primary food source of most of our nation’s cattle farms. As an example, they point out that a typical McDonald’s meal is fully reliant on corn, from the corn-fed beef, to the soda sweetened with corn syrup, to the fries made in corn oil.
After their successful harvest, they attempt to track their crop to its final destination but find it to be an impossibility. Their small crop is mixed with the harvest from other large local operations before being sold off to its eventual owners. They are able to determine that about half of their crop will likely go to cattle feed and some will find its way to our food supply, but can’t specifically track their crop since the era of small farmers being able to mill and market their own product disappeared long ago. Their harvest allows them to collect the balance of their meager farm subsidy, which leads to their discussion about the impact of the farm subsidy program on US farmers and eventually the general population. With the government paying the farmers to produce above market demand, food prices are kept low and food supply is kept high, potentially contributing to our nation’s increasing obesity rate. Their study is couched in generalities and doesn’t explore the issue from a medical standpoint, but it raises some alarming concepts that might prod viewers to seek out further information.
King Corn is now playing in limited theatrical release in select markets. It will be broadcast in the 2007-2008 season of the PBS series Independent Lens.