I often hear people say "it's a small world." But I really don't think about it much until "that small world" comes right into my life -- and in this case my heart.
Almost seven years ago, two young men, graduates of Yale University, stopped by and spent the night at our farm.
One, Ian Cheney, we had never met before, but the other, Curt Ellis, we new fairly well -- hence the visit. We first met Curt near Portland, Ore., when he was 12 years old and gave a toast during the wedding celebration of his sister, Mary. She just happened to be marrying my younger brother, David.
Curt and Ian were traveling across the country on an "odyssey" of sorts, trying to learn more about American farming and America's food system. Curt's cousin, Aaron Woolf, is a documentary filmmaker and had agreed to do a movie on the subject. At that time they had no idea exactly what it might be about, but both of the city-raised men seemed very interested in agriculture. Curt had even spent some time working for an Amish farmer following his Yale graduation.
We didn't hear from them again directly until December 2006, when we received a DVD of "King Corn," the documentary the two had finally finished.
The film will be shown locally on April 15 on PBS' Independent Lens series.
Here is a synopsis from the film's press information:
"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."
They start out the film by saying that they will not live as long as the generation before them -- because of corn. The film also states that corn -- specifically the 5 percent of America's corn made into high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) -- is the reason that diabetes and obesity in America have risen in the last 30 years.
They also focus on America's beef cattle that are fattened with corn. They imply it has been "too cheap" and "too available," because it has been subsidized. (Note: The film was finished before the current ethanol boom.)
So of course, imagine our surprise -- and hurt -- when we watched the film, which we felt was very negative to family farmers such as ourselves. I think my oldest son, still shell-shocked after watching, summed it up best.
"It's well done but ... it's so wrong."
So many of the basic facts are wrong and there are so many misstatements, including the premise of the movie itself. The film seems to ignore the fact that what we eat is a personal choice.
I, for one, have never seen a farmer or a corn plant force a Twinkie or a soda pop on unsuspecting victims.
The filmmakers also ignore the fact that obesity and diabetes has also risen dramatically in Europe, Mexico and Australia in the same time period and those countries do not have HFCS in most of their products (World Health Organization).
They also ignore that in the same time period, the number of working mothers has risen dramatically, making "home cooking," and in many cases "healthy eating" a thing of the past. Not surprisingly, fast food restaurants have sprung up "everywhere."
It also fails to mention that despite the fact that America's food is more affordable than any other country, we still have people in the U.S. who struggle to afford decent meals.
They started out to make an independent film, but as noted in many reviews, the film seems to follow University of California-Berkeley professor Michael Pollan (a professor at the University of California-Berkeley and author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food"), and many of his speeches right down to the name of the film. Curt has said he was "an early advisor," and is also listed as a "contributor."
Ironically, the filmmakers also received a "generous" government subsidy to help pay for the project.
"King Corn" would be much easier to dismiss, if I didn't know, like or respect Curt, my sister-in-law, Mary and their family. But I do, and my family does as well.
So when (in the movie) Curt and Ian take a bite of field corn, (not sweet corn) well past "roasting ear" stage and into the dent stage, throw it back into the field and call it "crap, " it hurts -- a lot.
It hurts because we take pride in what we do. We are proud of the fact that Americans pay less than of their take-home pay for food than any other country. We don't think our food supply is "too cheap." We work hard to make that happen.
In the last six months, the film has been shown at various independent movie theaters across the United States.
We even went and saw the audience's reaction when Curt was showing King Corn in Columbia. (And yes, he already knows what we don't like about the film. I wrote him a five-page letter!)
Curt and Ian also were featured recently on ABC's "Good Morning America," and the National Corn Growers were denied a chance to appear on camera.
Reviews of "King Corn" have been very favorable -- it is a well-done film. However, after reading many of the reviews and web postings, I have found that some people seem to buy into the fact that corn is the "magic bullet" that caused our obesity problems. At no time does the film, or many of the posters, talk about personal responsibility.
The problem is that not only the film is full misstatements and incorrect information, but also reviewers (many in large newspapers) are perpetuating that with "their take" on the movie.
We even went and saw the audience's reaction when Curt was showing "King Corn" in Columbia.
It's like a snowball rolling down a hill; it just keeps picking up more and more snow and speed until one day there is an avalanche.
It's that avalanche that I fear: both of bad publicity and my real fear, an avalanche of "rash" actions. Some of the web posters have called for "banning" corn. At our viewing, one woman asked if farmers would stop raising corn because of the "ethics."
For example here are two of the reviews:
"A jauntily hip analysis of the path corn takes from Iowa cornfields to the ultimate ruination of agriculture and America's health." -- Toronto Eye Weekly
"King Corn pulls the husk off the scandal of modernized agriculture specifically the industrialized, subsidized, largely mythologized world of American farming." -- The Washington Post.
Scandal of modernized agriculture? Ultimate ruination of agriculture and America's health?
I do fear that if we, as producers, and small town residents, keep ignoring attacks and untruths, that movies like "King Corn" and people's perceptions of it, could be the "ruination" of modern agriculture -- and rural America. And then where will we be? Eating lead-laced cornflakes from China?
Despite what you may think of HFCS, or government subsidies for that matter, I think most here in Saline County would agree that we still have many "family farmers."
In our county we have seen few farms forced out of business in the last 25 years -- despite (former) low commodity prices. In fact, U.S. statistics show that in the same time period, we have lost fewer family farms than in the years preceding that.
And here in Saline County, a large number of young men and women (many of whom are college-educated) have come back to join their family's operations. Not to mention many who have "come back" to agriculture-related businesses.
That doesn't sound like the ruination of agriculture, does it?
In fact, those are all good signs for our community -- as most people agree that young people coming "back home" to make a living is a goal of small towns. And the more farmers, the more local businesses, etc. (Ever try to get a farmer out of town to shop? Good luck.)
So I hope farmers and Saline County citizens will watch "King Corn" when it airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 15, on KCPT (Channel 19) and KMOS (Channel 6).
I would like to be an ostrich and "stick my head in the sand" when it comes to this film, but unfortunately that leaves, well, a big part (and getting bigger) of my anatomy exposed, if you know what I mean. (Note: I know for a fact corn didn't make that "part" bigger.)
After watching, if you are a farmer, please let someone know what you think is wrong in the film -- someone who may not be as familiar with farming as you are.
And if you aren't a farmer, please don't let "King Corn" be the last word on agriculture in America and Saline County. It is much more than a 90-minute film. Talk to a farmer, take a tour and ask questions.
At my house, I guess I thought one night's stay, a corn-fed steak, home-grown food and good company would leave two young men with all they needed to know about today's family farm.
Obviously, it takes much more than that. After all, it has taken me over 20 years to understand the ins and outs and rights and wrongs of agriculture. I certainly didn't learn all that in my first acre, or in a 90-minute film. And I don't want others to think they can.
It's only through communication that we can understand each other better.
So, why does it bother me so much? I guess the real truth is I have an 8-year-old niece and two nephews, ages 6 and 1 1/2 years in Portland, Ore., and I don't want the last word to be that their aunt, uncle and cousins in Missouri grow "crap." After all, it said so -- in their uncle's film.
So, yes, it's personal.
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