By Curt Ellis & Ian Cheney
Two college grads are told that their hair analyses indicate that the carbon in their bodies comes from corn. This simple factoid inspires them to relocate to Iowa to follow an acre of corn from planting to final product. They find out that corn, in some form, is in just about everything. Beef is corn fed, fruit juices and junk food contain high fructose corn syrup, bread and other junk food has corn starch and more corn syrup. If you were to take everything containing corn (and soy) out of the average supermarket, you could replace the supermarket with a small veggie stand.
Our two intrepid documentary producers borrowed an acre of land from a farmer near Greene, Iowa and helped (sort of) plant 31,000 kernels on that acre. With modern equipment that took about eighteen minutes. Since they used Liberty Link (GMO) corn, weeding was a simple matter of one spraying, which didn’t take very long either. Throughout this summer project we get a good look at farming in Iowa, how it has changed in the last thirty to forty years and how production during that time has skyrocketed. As we’ve seen elsewhere, the meddling of government has had a profound effect. Farms have gotten rapidly larger and those that didn’t got squeezed out. The system is rigged so it is impossible to make money without government subsidies.
There are many entertaining and educational moments as they wait for their corn to grow. They use Fisher-Price toys and stop motion photography to illustrate how farms and farming have changed over the last thirty years. They taste test their corn when it ripens. The look on their faces tells it all. Neither of them is able to swallow the corn. They learn how to make corn syrup in their kitchen. A lot of chemistry is involved and, once again, after tasting the result, there is no swallowing.
On the educational side, they study where the corn goes after harvest. About half goes to animal feed and almost a third goes to ethanol and exports. Most of the rest becomes sweetener. Sixty percent or more of cattle feed is corn. If the animals were not slaughtered on the feedlots they would die in six months anyway on that kind of feed. The filmmakers visit Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture who changed the system in the 1970s. Before Mr. Butz, the government paid farmers not to produce and he thought that was the dumbest thing we’d ever done. I won’t argue with that. He changed the system to pay farmers to overproduce so we would have cheap food. I suppose he succeeded in a way, at least for a while.
Ellis and Cheney take a low-key approach to all of this. There are no hysterics, hyperbole, or big accusations. They are respectful to Earl Butz who looks feeble and a little sad as he rolls away in his motorized wheelchair (he died not long after the film was released). The farmers, especially the older ones, don’t like what is happening to agriculture but don’t see that they have many choices. The final scene sums up what is happening to the traditional farm when they visit six months after harvest to find the farmer auctioning off the farm and the house he was born in. THUMBS UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2009.