Curt Ellis is a filmmaker and four-wheel farmer based in Brooklyn, NY. He co-created the documentaries "King Corn" and "The Greening of Southie," and is a Food and Society Policy Fellow. He is the co-founder of Wicked Delicate.

Back to the back to the land

Back to the beginning of King Corn

October 10, 2007

The confession

Let me begin with a confession: Four years ago, when Aaron Woolf, Ian Cheney, and I started work on the film that became “King Corn,” we sure didn’t imagine we’d still be at it in 2007. That said, here we are, and we can’t much complain.

The film is opening in theaters this week — a rare treat for a movie, not to mention one about watching corn grow. We’re here in New York now, handing out postcards and answering questions and waiting nervously for Friday night, and it has me thinking about why we set out on this curious corn-movie adventure in the first place.

Riding the F train

On the F train this morning, I got a nice reminder. A friendly-faced young woman with a bum knee and a crutch picked the seat next to me and sat down. In that nice way that always seems to happen in this town, I held her coffee and she asked me a question and we got to talking.

I gave her the briefest of my stock summaries of the movie — two guys, I’m one of them — move to Iowa, grow an acre of corn, and follow it as it becomes high fructose corn syrup and corn-fed meat.

“Wow! That is so interesting!” What? No, perhaps you misunderstood; it’s a movie about the farm subsidy program, anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, commodity prices, and other highlights from the official listing of the Most Boring Topics Ever.

“No, I’m really into that!”

Coming soon to a theater near you.

Back to the future

My first thought was, well, this is the woman for me. Since that was going nowhere, my second was, that’s true — a lot of people our age are interested in this farming stuff. Why?

Genevieve then told a story I think a lot of us share. Her family used to have a farm in the Midwest (Botkins, Ohio); they’d been there since 1850. Her mom left rural life about as fast as she could, so Genevieve grew up in New Jersey. But for her, the old farm didn’t feel like a dead end at all. She loved the big barn and the open space, and had some romantic (but in my opinion pretty darn reasonable) ideas about how rewarding it might be to grow her own food. The farm stayed in her family until only recently, when the ethanol boom drove the price of land up, and their 100 acres became part of a neighbor’s much larger operation.

With less than two percent of Americans now living and working on farms, our nation’s iconic lifestyle is almost extinct.

“I actually almost moved out there,” Genevieve said. Almost moved to Botkins, Ohio? Are you crazy? This is a born-and-bred New Yorker talking!

But it turns out Genevieve is like a lot of people our age. She just turned 30, and thinks farming actually sounds kind of fun. This is, I think, the reason Ian and I wanted to grow corn when we finished college instead of taking a desk job, and why we started work on “King Corn” with Aaron four years ago. Admittedly, growing GMO corn didn’t turn out to be as rewarding as growing actual people-food, but I think we’d plant something else on that acre if we did it again.

The new deal

I think beyond the obesity epidemic and the politics of the Farm Bill, there’s a cultural reason why so many of my friends are willing to go to a movie about watching corn grow — a topic that to an older generation is axiomatic for boring. There’s a new kind of back-to-the-land movement on right now, and it’s a whole lot of young people deciding to reconnect with something far away from the city.

In a food system facing a lot of problems, I think that’s a hopeful idea.

Win this poster!

Sustainable swag

For the memorabilia fans among you, I’ve got a soon-to-be historic “King Corn” movie poster to give away. Leave a question or comment on this post and Culinate will choose one of you to receive this ultimate sustainable swag.

eBay power sellers need not apply. Acre of corn not included.

There are 11 comments on this item
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1. by maggie on Oct 10, 2007 at 1:11 PM PDT

Wow, Curt Ellis is everywhere. NY Times, now this...Can’t wait to see the movie! The 7:30 showing on Friday sold out already...

2. by James Berry on Oct 10, 2007 at 5:32 PM PDT


I can’t wait to hear how the opening goes on Friday night. Congratulations!

3. by Linda Colwell on Oct 10, 2007 at 5:53 PM PDT

It is a hopeful time indeed if you are correct that your set is interested in the land again. My mom grew up in a PA immigrant coal mining town. It was her job to slaughter the chickens, gather the tomatoes, and help her aunt cure hams from the family pigs. She left the sustenence existence, moved to the city, married a doctor, but still returns home to make solvinian “pigs in a blanket”. About 10 years ago I raised some pigs, slaughtered and butchered them and made prosciutto. It challenged her to the core that I would want to do that and I thought I was paying her the ultimate compliment. I like to think about the multi generational perspective of familial food traditions and I understand there are correlations between family history on the land and food choices.

4. by valereee on Oct 11, 2007 at 4:34 AM PDT

It’s ironic that a documentary exploring the ways corn has changed American farming has no scheduled showings in corn country.

5. by Gravel on Oct 11, 2007 at 9:16 AM PDT

Can’t wait to see the film tomorrow!

6. by Courtenay Bouvier on Oct 12, 2007 at 11:50 AM PDT

Curt! I’m so excited that the movie’s finally done, and in the NYT and everything. I’m friends with the Bijou director and we’re pushing to get it there, and I’d bet you could even set up an event at the Englert. Anything to get you back to Iowa, right!;) Congratulations and kisses to Ian, and I can’t wait to see the movie!
Love --

7. by anonymous on Oct 13, 2007 at 10:11 AM PDT

Congratulations on the success of the movie! We were very impressed with how respectful and eager to learn Curtis and Ian were when they were down on the farm. Keep up the good work boys! And don’t worry the Pyatt’s are getting the word out in the midwest!

8. by lnersesian on Oct 16, 2007 at 7:51 AM PDT

Coming from another mid-30’s native NYC chick - I am dying to move to the country and have my own farm. It’s all in the two year plan. Congrats on all the publicity - can’t wait to see it!!!

9. by Nimie on Oct 29, 2007 at 10:58 AM PDT

We saw the film in DC and thoroughly enjoyed it. We were very impressed with the respect that was used in the interview of Earl Butts. Very tastefully done. The educational value of this film -- it should be shown in every elementary and secondary school in the nation. That possibly might stop the madness of what we are doing to the health of our nation.

10. by Shauna on Nov 19, 2007 at 9:37 PM PST

I am actually studying this new movement of homesteaders. Part of the intentions for homesteading now are to leave mass society and consumption, and also to live intentionally and simply. Can’t wait to see your movie. A bunch of us grad students are going.

11. by daphne on Jun 23, 2008 at 2:18 PM PDT

I have been pretty revolted by high fructose corn syrup for a long time now, but had no idea how MANY things processed corn turns up in. Thanks for illuminating an incredibly important issue that most (over-fed... overweight...) Americans don’t seem to have much idea about. As great doc films do, yours is already changing people’s minds and affecting policy (I hope!)--great, great work!

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