King Corn

The Salted Cod recently viewed a screening of the new documentary King Corn and we were inspired to try to dig deeper and reach out to the creators of King Corn.

We had the great opportunity to ask Ian Cheney of King Corn 10 questions.

"King Corn is a feature documentary about two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation. In King Corn, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, best friends from college on the east coast, move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America's most-productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat-and how we farm."

1. What was your goal going into making King Corn?

Ian: Growing up on the East Coast, I had a decent understanding of where apples, blueberries and cranberries came from, but the majority of what I ate came from elsewhere. Put simply, my goal in developing King Corn with Curt and Aaron was to tell the story of where our food comes from -- by growing it.

2. How was King Corn financed? Were large donations made to the making of the film?

Ian: King Corn was a grassroots operation. Small foundations and dozens of generous individuals buoyed us through the first several years, until the Independent Television Service (ITVS) came on board with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

3. Did you have any previous education or experience in the food industry or agriculture going into this film?

Ian: In college I became very active in bringing local farmers to campus to supply their produce to the dining halls. Like many of my peers, I had an almost instinctual desire to forge a better connection with the sources of my food. As this work developed into the Yale Sustainable Food Project, I also completed a Master's degree studying the ways in which consumers become disconnected from the sources of their food. But it wasn't really possible to study food or farming at my liberal arts college, and most of the calories in the dining hall were from cattle ranches or processing plants thousands of miles away.

5. Did you ever raise enough to buy the acre of land? Was it left empty or was something else planted on it?

Ian: We couldn't afford to buy our acre of corn, but we're still hoping to -- although Chuck is more likely to sell us an acre on the edge of a field, as opposed to the middle of it.

6. Why did the farmer you stayed with end up leaving Greene? Was he forced out, retired, etc...?

Ian: None of Chuck's seven sons really wanted to be farmers, and I'm not sure Chuck feels that there is a lot of value left in farming, either. In fact, I read recently that in a recent survey of current Iowa farmers, more than 50% advised their children against farming for an occupation.
7. What does your diet consist of now? Have you tried to make an effort to modify your diet and/ or eat less corn byproducts after the completion of this movie?
Ian: Being on the road a lot, it's been tough to eat the way I want to. So much of our "foodscape" is made up of the same stuff -- junk foods and fast foods. I want to eat better, but on the road it takes a lot of time and money to find the foods I consider healthful or sustainable. Curt and I are actually trying to avoid corn-derived foods for the entire month of November -- so far so good, but I'm wishing we'd chosen a shorter month. Check our website for updates...

8. Do you believe that the average person would pay a higher premium for grass feed cattle if it was just as easy as buying corn fed cattle, knowing it was healthier and better for the environment in the long run? For example: if your local chain restaurant had two menu options, an organic grass feed burger for $12.00 and a corn feed burger for $7.00 with accurate descriptions of each item.
Ian: Some will pay more, some won't. That's true with everything. But corn-fed beef is artificially cheap. We subsidize it with our tax dollars, and then pay for the health problems it creates through our health insurance bills. And rural communities pay for all the problems the feedlot waste creates. So maybe if the menu said $7.00 + hidden costs (sick cows, fat people, polluted waterways), then the $12.00 burger would look a little cheaper. (Also, I just had a grass-fed beef burger at a bar-restaurant in San Francisco for eight bucks, and it was great.)

9. How did you connect with Michael Pollan? How large was his role/influence in the making of King Corn? Was the King Corn concept born before Michael Pollans omnivore's dilemma was published?

Ian: In my college days I met Michael at an event at Yale, and several months later he agreed to be an advisor to our film project. He'd begun work on his book, and was naturally very talkative about corn -- one of the reasons we honed in on Zea Mays. Throughout the process he was a wonderful help and inspiration, generous with his time and insights. We were in the final editing stages of King Corn when his book was published.

10. What is the best way average people can change the way our food system is currently set up for the better?

Ian: There's a lot to be done -- but I'd like to say, "Ask." Ask your waiter where the beef or pork or chicken comes from. Is it grass-fed? Pasture-raised? Local? Are there local options on the menu? Ask at the grocery store, at the convenience store -- and if you don't find what you want, ask why not?


View the King Corn trailer

You’ll soon realize how dependent the American diet and food system really is on corn. Read food labels and ask questions. Try to get out there and see a screening of King Corn while you can, it will be well worth your time.

Please check
http://www.kingcorn.net/ for screening times and cities.

The Salted Cod would like to thank Ian Cheney & Naomi Starkman for this great opportunity.


Otis said...

Good interview! Michael Pollan had an excellent op-ed in the NY Times recently, did you see it?

If you come out to Western Mass. this weekend, I'd like to show you what a barn full of silage looks and smells like.

I must also take this opportunity to quote a Ted Berrigan poem:

In Joe Brainard's collage its white arrow
does not point to William Carlos Williams.
He is not in it, the hungry dead doctor.
What is in it is sixteen ripped pictures
Of Marilyn Monroe, her white teeth white--
washed by Joe's throbbing hands. "Today
I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn
Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie
and ate King Korn popcorn," he wrote in his
Diary. The black heart beside the fifteen pieces
of glass in Joe Brainard's collage
takes the eyes away from the gray words,
Doctor, but they say "I LOVE YOU"
and the sonnet is not dead.

Ed Bruske said...

kudos on the interview, Trevor

tammy said...

Nice interview. I'm dying to see the film. Would it be wrong to buy popcorn?

Chef JP said...

Excellent interview! It throws much needed light on our Corn Culture!