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RDR DVD REVIEW: King Corn

'King Corn' features Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis
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By Andrew W. Griffin

Red Dirt Report, editor

Posted: April 22, 2009

DVD REVIEW: King Corn

From Mosaic Films

“America wants and demands cheap food.”

That statement, made by the operator of a large cattle ranch in Colorado, appears to be all too true as one watches and learns about the origins of much of our food in the fascinating documentary, King Corn.

And yes, a lot of that “cheap food” that is the result of farm subsidies and commercial farming practices, is consumed by most folks in America. Much of it, notes this 2007 documentary, contains corn, usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup.

Two mild-mannered college-aged guys from the East Coast, Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney, decided to conduct a film experiment. Cheney and Ellis chose to move to Greene, Iowa, a small farming community where both, interestingly enough, had ancestral links.

While there, they got permission from a farmer to grow one acre of corn on his land, their “field of dreams,” so to speak.  It’s Iowa, after all. Their goal? To plant it, tend to it and hopefully get an idea of where it ends up down the chain.

That process, including a number of interviews with farmers, doctors, scientists, ranchers and corn industry spokespeople, are all featured.

Oh, and the corn, the real star of this film? Well, Cheney and Ellis use genetically-modified seeds, nitrogen fertilizers and powerful herbicides to grow their crop.

Now, King Corn is not an expose or hit piece. There’s actually a very methodical Midwestern feel to the film that is different from the Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock style of documentary filmmaking. It’s almost quiet, too quiet at times, with it’s acoustic folk music soundtrack and the nonobtrusive personalities of Cheney and Ellis, who look a little out of place at times.

But it is interesting to hear how in the 1970’s during the Nixon administration, there was a big push to expand agricultural production in the country. This led to bigger and bigger farming operations that pushed out the smaller farmers and changed the way food was grown in America. From the obese, grain-fed cattle, to the corn syrup that has replaced sugar cane as sweetener of choice.

Talking to a farmer near harvest time, the guys hear it straight, like only a farmer could, “We aren’t growing quality. We’re growing crap. Poorest quality crap the world’s ever seen.”

The farmer then says he doesn’t care what is done with his corn crop, he just cares about selling it.

And much of it goes to make that high-fructose corn syrup, which the guys actually make in their own apartment kitchen at one point.

In fact, it’s when Cheney and Ellis go to New York, where a lot of corn-laden products end up, that they meet a guy who comes from a family devastated by diabetes, the young man showing a photo of himself looking morbidly obese, a result of a steady diet of corn syrup-laden soda pop.

And then there is the interview with Earl Butz, Nixon’s agriculture secretary, who played a major role in shaping food policy. Butz, an Indiana native who was a controversial figure in his time, had no apologies for his policies. A man who lived through the Depression and knew a time when food took a big chunk out of an average family’s budget.

And what is impressive is that Ellis and Cheney and writer Aaron Woolf and their crew show that corn really impacts our lives in ways that we might never think about, from fast food to farming to our long-term health.

This is not your grandfather’s farm. This is an industrial operation and the acre planted by Cheney and Ellis are pretty much a speck in a sea of corn kernals heading to the grain elevator, bursting at the seams.

King Corn is a highly recommended documentary and educational tool. Repeated viewings may even be in order.

Grade: A

Copyright 2009 West Marie Media

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Andrew W. Griffin

Editor & Owner.

Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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