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.

King Corn in the Corn Belt

By
December 19, 2007

With the 12 presidential candidates spending their December tromping around Iowa talking about what’s important to them, we figured we might as well do the same.

With grant support from the Fledgling Fund, the WK Kellogg Foundation, and the SYSCO Corporation, we took “King Corn” back to its roots again last week, for a 10-stop tour of screenings, town-hall discussions, and — as it turned out — lots and lots of soup.

After opening the film in theaters in Minneapolis and St. Louis, we held screening-and-discussion events in the Iowa cities and towns of Algona, Sioux City, Greene, Charles City, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Eldora, Clear Lake, and Fairfield, and left the film playing for a week-long theatrical run in Cedar Falls.

It felt good to be back in Greene [where “King Corn” was made] and to catch up on all that had happened there since we finished filming in 2005. Another elevator has gone up on the west side of town, and much of the fall’s corn harvest was being stored there in what looked like giant anthills. There’s a new ethanol plant a few miles away, too, and Greene’s farmers have had a good year of high prices and decreased reliance on federal subsidies.

With the corn economy swelling, though, the pressures of consolidation have been mounting. Chuck Pyatt reported that there’s now a 7,000-acre farm in Greene, and that land buyers are just as likely to be urban investors as local farmers. Even Don and Elna Clikeman decided to get out rather than get big, and rented their Century Farm to an outside operator this year.

Curt with friends and colleagues (Aaron Wolfe on the far left, Ian Cheney to Curt’s right in the center) in Greene, Iowa.

The emerging ethanol economy has brought prosperity to Iowa, but it has also deepened the drive to squeeze more bushels of corn out of every acre of land. Farmers are applying more fertilizer, planting more high-yielding GMO seeds, and investing in bigger combines than ever before. Even in the ethanol age, corn-syrup factories and corn-based feedlots are demanding a steady flow of ingredients, too, and farmers are pushing hard to meet the dual demand.

But as we learned over and over when we sat down to eat last week, Iowa’s consumers are seeking out food that comes from somewhere beyond the industrial kitchen.

In Algona, a local family invited us to join them for artisan-cured kielbasa soup, and we met a woman not much older than me who is helping start a natural-foods co-op. She has a four-acre CSA farm of her own, too, where she grows fruits and vegetables for local members — many of them corn and soybean farmers who can’t eat the crops they harvest from their 1,000-acre farms.

In Sioux City, we were treated to homemade soup again, this time a tasty white chili. With the caucus approaching, the conversation there turned to politics — “Host a house party for Republicans and they’re polite . . . have one for the Democrats, and they pay $50 to get in the door and expect to make it out with $75 worth of food.” If only food was something the candidates were paying much attention to.

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In Charles City, Hattie Pyatt made a late-night stew, and Chuck helped us find a mechanic to change a belt on the old Dodge. They’d brought back maple syrup from Vermont in the spring, and in the morning Chuck and Hattie served up pancakes alongside sausage from a local packer.

Clear Lake was a double-header: harvest-squash soup or potato-leek, your choice, courtesy of the local Slow Food chapter. A hundred miles south, Fairfield ladled out creamy tomato.

By then we were full, and our tour done. We were thrilled with the warm reception people gave to “King Corn” along the way, and glad for the criticism when it was offered, too. Most of all, we were grateful to all the people who took us in and fed us warm meals in the icy weather. If anything can make you feel like farms and food are important, it’s the smell of soup when you walk in someone’s door.

You can find video clips from our Iowa Tour at Current.com, and posts on the kingcorn.net blog.

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