Tracing 'King Corn' Through America

Two filmmakers chuck city living and move to Iowa to raise an acre of corn. Over the next year, they document how cheap corn prices have transformed America and follow their crop from the field into our diet. The two also discover the harsh realities of farming in America and, thanks to the U.S. government subsidies, eke out a small profit.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

This year in the United States, farmers planted 93 million acres of corn. This is the story of just one of those acres. The plot of land in Iowa was seeded, worked and harvested by two city boys - filmmakers actually - who wanted to find out how farming was changing in America.

Their documentary called "King Corn" opened this weekend in New York, and NPR's Robert Smith invited the filmmakers and their corn into our New York studios.

ROBERT SMITH: All that's left of that acre of corn is a couple of cups of greenish-brown liquid.

Mr. IAN CHENEY (Filmmaker, "King Corn"): I brought an amazing jar filled with almost completed home brewed, high-fructose corn syrup. Now, let's see, it's - oh, it looks sort of like baby throw-up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis are making their own high-fructose corn syrup with corn they actually grew themselves. It's been simmering for a couple of days. They added enzymes and a tiny amount of sulfuric acid.

Mr. CURT ELLIS (Filmmaker, "King Corn"): Getting sulfuric acid in New York City, though, is not particularly easy. It's - I had to actually go to an auto part store.

SMITH: We're going to do the final part of the recipe, the cooking infiltration right here in the NPR studios with my trustee rice cooker I brought from home.

(Soundbite of plastic container)

Mr. ELLIS: Do you want a Teflon?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Smells a little bit like a tamale.

Mr. CHENEY: Yeah. Smells good, smells really good.

SMITH: Cheney and Ellis became fascinated with corn when they were in college together on the East Coast.

Mr. ELLIS: You eat chips out of a bag. They've got some corn product in them. If you eat candy, it's sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. If you eat a McDonald's hamburger, it's corn-fed beef. It's the raw material that makes the whole process food kingdom run.

SMITH: When they graduated, they took their cameras to the Midwest and found a farmer willing to rent them an acre of Iowa soil, a plot so small it made the neighbors chuckle. As they showed in the documentary, modern technology made the whole process a piece of corn cake.

(Soundbite of documentary, "King Corn")

Mr. CHENEY: Planting 31,000 seeds was not exactly a hands-on experience, but then again it only took us 18 minutes.

Mr. ELLIS: Oh, I think we've spent all of two hours the whole year, I mean, farming.

Mr. CHENEY: Yeah. It was ridiculous. You know, we thought we were going to be sinking our hands into the soil and living our agrarian dream, but it's just machine operating.

SMITH: And filling out forms. The two enrolled in the farm-subsidy program and got $28 of federal incentive to plant their one-acre corn crop. And while they were awaiting the harvest, the filmmakers traveled the Midwest talking to farmers about how agriculture has changed in this country. They were amazed that the huge yields they could now get out of the ground.

Mr. CHENEY: You know, at the same time as we were becoming disillusioned with the new look of the family farm, we also could pretty plainly see why all those decisions had been made to, you know, mechanize agriculture and use pesticides and use genetically modified corn because it makes your work easier, and you don't have to spend as much time in the sun.

SMITH: The two end up tracking down the man responsible for many of those decisions - Earl Butz, the secretary of agriculture under Nixon. He ended the practice of paying farmers to leave their fields fallow. Butz is now 97 years old, and he explained to the filmmakers that all this cheap agriculture may have hurt the small family farm, but it sure helped this country.

Mr. EARL BUTZ (Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Nixon Administration): It's America's best-kept secret. We feed ourselves with approximately 16 or 17 percent of our take-home pay. That's marvelous. That's a very small chunk to feed ourselves.

SMITH: Of course, those low-food prices also meant that Cheney and Ellis only made a few bucks on the 10,000 pounds of corn they harvested. And after they sold it, that cheap corn likely got made into animal feed, junk food and high-fructose corn syrup - just like the stuff that's boiling next to us, which has them feeling a tad bit guilty.

Mr. ELLIS: We grew enough corn to grow to make about 80,000 sodas.

SMITH: I mean, in a weird way couldn't you view this as kind of an organic product? I mean, you guys grew the corn with your own hands. You've watched it. You processed it on the stove. You made it into corn syrup. I mean, how could it be bad for you if you made it from your garden?

Mr. CHENEY: I just - you know, as you're twirling this brown goo in this martini glass, it looks like it's from another planet. And I guess way back down the line that did come from our corn but, you know, I don't know that I would call that natural.

SMITH: The documentary "King Corn" will open around the country this fall. The high-fructose corn syrup is already in the candies and sodas at a theater near you.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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