Aw, Shucks. Three City Kids and an Acre of Corn
An Interview with the filmmakers of "King Corn"
November 20, 2007
Recently, The-Edge interviewed filmmaker Aaron Woolf and Curt Ellis who (along with childhood friend Ian Cheney) are the fellows behind the spunky new high-carb documentary, "King Corn." It took 18 minutes and a rented tractor to plant 31,000 corn seeds but following the trail of their 10,000-pound harvest took the boys through 30 states and Mexico -- and changed their lives.
|Watch out, you're being stalked! Aaron Woolf (left) and Curt Ellis want you to see their movie. And, unless you're seeing it at San Francisco's Red Vic Movie House, you might want to skip the popcorn.|
The-Edge: You may be familiar with the new editor of Earth Island Journal. Jason Mark has written a couple of books with Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange but the other half of the week he works as a farmer, running the only organic farm in San Francisco.
Aaron: We've heard of it! They just held a special screening of our film at Alemany Farm!
Edge: So you guys decided to make a film exploring the state of corn by actually growing corn and going through the whole process. How did this idea occur to you in the first place and how did you convince yourselves that you could actually do it?
Aaron: Curt's my cousin and we'd always talked about doing some kind of project together. He didn't know anything about film and I didn't know anything about corn. I couldn't have imagined a less interesting thing to make a movie about. Nor were we able to convince funders that a film about corn could have a wide theatrical release or lots of "scintillating moments."
Edge: We aren't talking popcorn here.
Curt: No. This is the serious type of corn.
Edge: At least you could insist on selling organic GMO-free popcorn at the theaters.
Curt: I can see some fellow selling grass-fed hot dogs outside the Red Vic [an independent movie theater in San Francisco].
Aaron: Actually, they DO sell organic popcorn at the Red Vic! But the truth is, we were inspired by Michael Pollan. He did an article for the New York Times magazine called "Power Steer" in which he bought a steer and followed it through the food system as a kind of participatory journalism. That was such a revelation. As a documentary filmmaker, you can sometimes get into this mode where you feel that, project after project, you are always observing. You yearn to be on the other side of the camera. That process that he helped develop and popularize -- about being part of the system you're documenting -- was really profound.
Curt: In the film, my best friend from college and I move to Iowa and grow an acre of corn and document the whole process. You can't actually follow your exact kernels since it's a pretty faceless system that corn enters after it leaves the farm. We grew ten thousand pounds of food using all the genetic modification and fertilizer and combine power we could get our hands on. And then we followed our harvest as it became two of the most important food destinations of corn -- high-fructose corn syrup and corn-fed beef.
Edge: Did you take advantage of the current Farm Bill's subsidies?
Curt: Farm subsidies were the way we made a profit on our acre.
Edge: Maybe that's a solution to hunger in this country: let ever poor person grow an acre of corn and earn a subsidy.
Curt: Yes, it's amazing. In times when corn prices are naturally low, subsidies make it profitable for anyone to grow corn. As a result, we've got this tremendous surplus of corn (or we did for a very long time).
Aaron: I think it's rather bizarre that we've cast our lot with an agricultural system that wants to make food and fuel and plastics from the same crop. And it's not just any crop. Corn is this most-venerated plant, a plant that we mythologize more than any other in this country. It's writ into our national sense of self. From a filmmaking standpoint, the fact that corn seems implicated in a major health crisis [obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer] is terribly ironic and quite sad.
Curt: The plant itself, over the past 100 years, has been bred to be, basically, a factory for starch. That starch has no nutritional value, it's just empty calories of sugar. The protein portion of the corn kernel has gotten smaller and the starch portion bigger. It's a terrific product if you want to make high-fructose corn syrup but it's a lousy product if you want to grind it up and eat it as cornmeal.
Aaron: During the making of the film, we illegally transported a small portion of corn from our field to the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico, where some very hospitable people ground up our corn, put slick lime in it, boiled it, put it into a mill and fashioned it into a tortilla. Everyone pretty much agreed that we had produced a tortilla that tasted very much like cardboard.
Curt: We happened to grow what the farmer we were working with suggested, which was Liberty Link" -- corn that was genetically modified to be sprayed with an herbicide called "Liberty" and not die. All the weeds were killed off but our corn continued to thrive.
Aaron: And if that's not "liberating," I don't know what is.
Edge: It's amazing that a company can create a product designed to kill any competitor. Natural world, watch out: We've created something that's protected by corporate patents and by corporate poisons! This is colonialism taken to a whole new realm.
Curt: We got only a $28 payment for growing our one-acre. But that's a lot if you're farming on a thousand-acre scale. However, about half our film production budget was funded by Independent Television Service, a San Francisco-based organization that receives about $12 million a year from Congress through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It's a very generous government subsidy.
Aaron: In the spirit of full disclosure, we made a film that was critical of the way that we subsidize corn while gladly accepting....
Curt: ... a government subsidy to finish our film! I think filmmaking is the only business that's lousier than farming, so I don't feel too bad about it.
Edge: Do you have plans for your next film project?
Aaron: I actually am less inclined to keep making films than I have been in the last 20 years. Partly because each film starts out with this idea that it's going to take one year and they all wind up taking three years. You blink, and three years are gone. But also because making this film has changed my life. I'm actually opening a grocery store in Brooklyn, New York, called "Urban Rustic." It's a kind of "know-where-your-food-comes-from" grocery store.
"King Corn" began with the simple question: "Where does our food come from?" The fact that it took three years to figure out where it came from and where it went and illuminated so many unpalatables in the system. I thought maybe I could create a store where those issues were not so cryptic.
Edge: So you're going to draw in locally grown food for local consumption?
Aaron: Definitely local. We need to begin to envision a food system that anticipates a diminishing petroleum supply. There's an oft-quoted statement that food travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate. It suggests that whatever you're eating in America today, you're chasing it down with a glassful of diesel.
We should emphasize local -- like we did up until 50-60 years ago -- and maybe sacrifice some of the bounty and variety. If were eating grapes from Chile and tomatoes from Mexico (and those grapes and tomatoes, in order to travel so far have been selected for durability and shelf-life over flavor and nutrition) maybe we should go back to eating things seasonally (which our metabolisms are designed to do). Maybe if we give up those winter tomatoes, the summer tomatoes will taste all that much better.
Aaron: The film doesn't really seek to blame anyone, except ourselves. We were taught that progress meant TV dinners. Backyard garden plots were associated with the Depression and WW II victory gardens. When we came back home triumphant, it seemed like putting that same spirit of mechanization and efficiency into our food that had served us so well in war-time production made a lot of sense. That's when we saw the middle- and the upper-class first start to eat processed foods.
Edge: While the poor were left to languish -- growing fresh, healthy produce in gardenplots!
Aaron: I think it's a great irony that now the middle- and upper-class are the ones leading the charge to eat fresher foods and our least-affluent communities are now suffering with the industrial food system that we invented in the Fifties.
Edge: In the Bay Area we have Rainbow Grocery, Berkeley Natural Foods, farmers' markets, and mobile produce vans that are bringing fresh organic produce to the inner cities.
Curt: But those things are limited to cities on the coast, in the Midwest or in college towns. They're largely limited to people of a certain socioeconomic and political background. The real question the film tries to address is not those "hopeful fringes" of the food system but the Very Big Middle -- i.e., how are we eating in the Heartland? So far, those little signs of hope haven't gained traction in the mainstream. The middle of the food system is still King Corn.
Edge: It has been proposed that Food Stamps should not be honored for purchases of junk food but that could only be used to purchase fresh produce and other healthy foods.
Curt: But you can't even buy produce in most of the places where people use Food Stamps. Look at the South Side of Chicago. It's very difficult to find anything other than a brown head of iceberg lettuce.
Aaron: But that is slowly changing. People have critiqued the "snobby" nature of the Slow Food Movement, but lots of progressive trends have begun in elite circles. In fact, in New Haven, Connecticut now, you can use WIC-issued Food Stamps in the farmers' markets. The rules about where you can use Food Stamps and who supplies our school lunch programs, those come from laws that we write.
Curt: I think one of the reasons we have such a screwed-up food system is because a lot of it is determined by this legislation called the Farm Bill. Most urban dwellers think has nothing to do with them, when he converse is true.
This is the bill that determines the fate of 300 million acres of the American landscape. It determines what we serve in our school lunch programs; where Food Stamps are given out and what they can be used for; how much money we give to farmers to grow which things. And, unfortunately, it looks like the Food Bill that we are going to pass will be a carbon copy of the previous one that pays farmers to grow the raw ingredients for our least-nutritious foods.
Edge: For the first time in memory, people are starting to understand that it's not the "Farm Bill," it's the "Food Bill." There are even alternatives now. There's Lautenberg's bill, the "Fresh Act."
Curt: The Fresh Act is a really striking thing. It's a protest against the way things are and it offers a realistic alternative. The fact that it was proposed by a Democrat from the Garden State (my home state of New Jersey) and a Republican from the Corn Belt (Dick Lugar, who's distinguished himself as a lone voice on all sorts of issues) is really telling. This effort is really bipartisan in nature. Food is super-political is a lot of ways so it's really encouraging to see the Fresh Act say: "We're going to stop ALL commodity agriculture payments and instead replace it with a system that guarantees farm insurance for growers of everything that's grown on a commercial scale." That means organic tomatoes as well as commodity cotton.
Edge: There's a lot of food activism in the Bay Area. There's the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), the Oakland Institute, the International Forum on Globalization. Will you have a chance to visit some of these groups while you're out here?
Curt: (Laughing) Not on this trip. We've been on a whirlwind tour. We've been on the road with the film for about a month now trying to make sure people show up at the theaters. We'll be on the road for another couple of months.
Aaron: We'd love to talk about doing that on the next round but, in the meantime, what insures that this message gets out is the theatrical release and telling those groups about the film. The theatrical release is a money-losing proposition (we're spending far more on publicists than we'll ever make at the box office) but it's one of the best ways to raise the national profile of these issues.
Edge: Before I let you go, I have something to share. Through a bizarre coincidence, I happen to have some corn in my pocket. These kernels came from Mexico and were passed around in a woven basket at the 25th Anniversary Party for Pesticide Action Network.
Aaron: Oh my God, they're beautiful! They look like heirloom red corn! Isn't that wonderful. Aren't the gorgeous! Can we keep some of these for demonstration?
Edge: I'd be honored.
For more information contact: