Saturday, May 14, 2011

King Corn: growing trash for 28 dollars' worth of government subsidies per acre

On Thursday I attended a free screening of King Corn, hosted by Young Urban Farmers CSA as part of their 2011 workshop and event series. Released in 2007, this film - at times quite funny and overall much more lighthearted than other documentaries, like Food Inc - follows the adventures of college buddies Ian and Curt as they move from the East Coast of the US to rural Iowa to the small town where as luck would have it, both of their great-grandfathers grew up. Their goal: to grow an acre of corn and follow it from field to end product.

Although King Corn didn't teach me much I didn't already know about the food system and corn's role in it, I experienced my fair share of moments of shock and disbelief. The funny thing is, if I hadn't spent a lot of time this spring helping Young Urban Farmers CSA (YUF CSA) turn back yard lawns into vegetable gardens, I may have had very different reactions. Take for instance the fertilizer Ian and Curt buy for their corn: anhydrous ammonia, or pure ammonia gas, which is highly toxic and very dangerous if not handled correctly. A specialized machine injects it into the ground where it will wait to be sucked up by the corn. What does YUF CSA do? We keep the soil healthy, which in turn keeps the veggies healthy, by adding compost and other organic matter. We feed the soil rather than forcing chemicals to sit in it.

Another real kicker was watching Ian and Curt plant their acre of corn. It took all of 18 minutes, and they didn't get their hands dirty. In fact, the only indication they may have done work in the field is visible in grease stains from operating yet another industrial farming machine. The only oil-dependent equipment YUF CSA uses is a rototiller, once per yard when it is first turned from sod to veggie. Elaine, our Head of Operations, shows us how it's done:

The variety of corn Ian and Curt planted has been genetically modified to generate a huge yield, tolerate growing in very dense rows, and resist the pesticide that is used with it. In other words, this corn tastes like chalk. Because most of it is used to make animal feed and high fructose corn syrup, the flavour has literally been bred out to make room for more starch (more calories). It's a raw material and definitely not destined for the grill in cob format. Again, the contrast to YUF CSA's approach is startling: we choose plant varieties that grow well in our climate and taste good... and that's it!

There's much more I could say... about how little Ian and Curt actually did in terms of farming; about how creepy a field of corn looks at ground level because absolutely nothing else is growing there; about how wrong it is to force cows to eat so much corn that they develop ulcers and would actually die of illness if we didn't take them to slaughter as early as we do. But what I really want to highlight is the irony of modern farming: people who grow corn can't feed themselves. Farmers can't feed themselves. As one farmer put it, "[we're] growing trash, the best trash in the world, because the government pays us for it". Ian and Curt received $28 in federal subsidies for that one acre they grew. Never mind the surplus corn sitting in giant piles outside of the already full grain elevator. Never mind the obesity and diabetes caused by everything we turn corn into. Never mind the toxins we put into the ground that eventually end up in our drinking water. It's a sad picture, one that farmers from as recently as two generations ago couldn't have imagined. I for one am happy to support an alternative food system that allows me to eat food straight out of the ground, grown 2 km from my home with no chemical inputs. There's nothing healthier than that.

Have any of you seen this documentary? How did you feel when you watched it?


  1. It makes no sense does it? I don't get it. What will it take to get off corn? It really is a symptom of a much greater problem, so vast and complex and huge - it makes my brain hurt.

    That is great you are getting involved in a CSA! It is awesome, watching food grow.

    Let's get back to basics!

  2. It makes no sense from a health or environmental standpoint, and it makes a lot of sense from a purely economic standpoint that only takes profit into account. And you're absolutely right about it being vast, complex, and huge: this film was 90 minutes long and only really scratched the surface. Not that I blame them! You can only cover so much, and the problem is enormous.

    Watching food grow is an incredible experience that relieves my stress and anxiety about the state of the world!!! :)