King Corn

I live in Minnesota, was raised in Nebraska, and have spent much of my life enjoying the benefits of the corn-based economy of the midwest. I enjoy my steaks medium rare, my corn sweet, and my corn syrup appropriately high-fructosed. Nonetheless, I thought I’d check out Aaron Woolf’s documentary about two guys who try to find out what’s really going on with America’s obsession with corn, and in the process learn a little about farming and agriculture, not to mention their own heritage as well. It’s a well-crafted film, but while Woolf does a nice job of exploring what it means to be a modern-day farmer, there is also enough limitations of the movie to really explore the issue fully.

The premise of the movie seems benign enough: two strapping East Coast lads set out to plant an acre of corn so they can find out what happens to their crop once its all growed up and ready to set out on its own. So they head off to Greene, Iowa, where (it turns out) their great-grandfathers both grew up together. They rent an acre from an old lifelong Iowa farmer and set about tilling, planting, fertilizing, and eventually spending the night with 180 bushels of their own corn. Along the way we find out about how much farming has changed in the past several decades, how our desire for cheap food has led to an explosion in corn production, and why High Fructose Corn Syrup is basically like drinking liquid secondhand smoke.

And this is where I take issue with King Corn. Sure these two guys have good intentions, but an acre of corn? Really? That’s how they’re going to find out how corn works its way into our daily diet? Why not just skip the pseudo-farming altogether and get right to the point? That being, as near as I can tell, that because government subsidies and technological advances have led to such massive increases in corn production, we now eat a lot of corn-fed beef and consume a lot of high fructose corn syrup. And they do have a point there: grass-fed cattle live better than their corn-fed counterparts, produce higher quality beef, and aren’t actually being slowly killed by the food they are eating. HFCS is not exactly good for us either, so bonus to the dudes on that one too. But it’s not as if the filmmakers are exposing some kind of long-held secret or anything. They also don’t have a very large pool of individuals to interview for the project: a professor here, a farmer there, and an anti-climactic interview with Earl Butz, the former US Secretary of Agriculture, don’t exactly make for a bulletproof argument.

So while I applaud Woolf’s intentions, I don’t know that I really learned a whole lot from King Corn that I didn’t know already. I’m guessing (though not certain) that the same would be true for most folks. Still, the movie is interesting enough to watch, and I recommend it for anyone who is interested in what goes on behind the slick veneer and shiny packaging of most of the foods we eat every day.

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