BRIAN LAMB, HOST, Q&A: Aaron Wolf, in a story datelined St. Louis, October 12, 2007, the National Corn Growers Association says the film King Corn may be an interesting idea for a movie, but, unfortunately, does little to cultivate real knowledge about agricultural production.
When you read that, what was your reaction?
AARON WOLF, DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER, KING CORN: Well, at first I was very happy. As you know, in this world any publicity is probably good publicity.
The National Corn Growers Association is a check-off group, the leading representative of corn growers in America, and certainly one that represents the kind of conventional agriculture that we’ve become accustomed to. And that has been supported by government policy.
We were just a little tiny documentary that I made about my cousin and his best friend moving to Iowa and planting an acre of corn, and seeing what would happen with it.
So, when that announcement came out, I wasn’t surprised that they might have taken issue with some of the questions that we asked about the way we were doing things. But I was pretty happy that they were calling attention to us.
LAMB: When did you release your documentary?
WOLF: Our documentary – in something that’s kind of unthinkable, and you don’t dare dream of, if you’re a documentary filmmaker – had a pretty good theatrical release. It played in something like 50 cities in movie theaters, including here in Washington at the Landmark.
But it opened in October of 2007, October 12th.
LAMB: How long was it?
WOLF: How long was the run?
LAMB: How long was the documentary?
WOLF: The documentary was 90 minutes. So, kind of standard feature length.
LAMB: We’re going to show a little bit of it in just a moment.
There is a second paragraph in this that I want to ask you about. And actually, it was not a story, it was an announcement by the National Corn Growers Association.
”The film, which premieres in theaters Friday” – that was last October …
LAMB: ”… is an attempt to influence the Farm Bill, a federal law that governs the nation’s farm policy.”
Is that accurate?
WOLF: I guess – I guess it is. One of these – and I’ve been making documentary films for something like 18 years. And I think one of the things that documentary does well is, it attempts to put a human face on the consequences of policy decisions. So, we make a very abstract decision here in Washington. And one of the things I like so much about filmmaking is it gives you a chance to show what happens to real lives as a result of those decisions.
I’ve never really, until the past two films, wanted to take more of an active role in influencing at least the discussion of those things. But when that press release came out from the National Corn Growers, we had a chance to issue a counter press release – which was the first time I’d ever done anything like that – which said, indeed, we would like to influence the Farm Bill.
And I think there’s lots of things that I think we can put into that legislation that really will improve things for people.
LAMB: Well, just a couple of weeks ago, this release came out from the American Farmland Trust. I don’t know if you have any relationship with them – a group of farmers, part of the lobbying group here in Washington. They put out this announcement.
”After a presidential veto, the House voted 316 to 108 and the Senate voted 82 to 13 to overwhelmingly override the veto.”
LAMB: The 2008 Farm Bill ”provides funding to improve our environment, protect farm and ranch land, make local foods more widely available and dramatically increase food assistance for families struggling with rising food costs.”
Is that the way you would characterize it?
WOLF: Well, the answer is yes and no. I think the Farm Bill is like the U.S. Constitution or like the Bible, in that it is such a big document. It’s so complicated. There are so many ways in which it seeks to placate various interests, even interests that kind of – whose interests contradict one another.
Certainly, there are many provisions in the current Farm Bill that have done a lot to add more money to things that I think, myself, and the other filmmakers from King Corn would be in favor of – increased local production, increased conservation, a real conservation stewardship program.
But at the same time, it still is substantially very much like the previous Farm Bill, which maintains a system of direct commodity payments to farmers, which – whether or not the market demands it, these payments are made to farmers, and it has promoted a system of all-out corn production.
And our film looks into some of the possible detrimental consequences of that policy.
LAMB: We’re going to show about three minutes of the documentary in just a second.
Where is the Wolf family from?
WOLF: Well, the Wolf family – Curt is my cousin in the film. And the side of our family that’s from Iowa is on my mother’s side, on Curt’s father’s side.
So, I have this funny mix of being from the Deep South on one side – my mom’s side, Mississippi – and on the other side from Brooklyn.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
WOLF: I live in New York and in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.
LAMB: What year was this documentary made?
WOLF: We finished in 2007.
LAMB: But when did you start it?
WOLF: Well – oh, we filmed – the year we filmed was 2004 to 2005. And it just – it took a long time to put this story together.
It was very hard to fund. Nobody thought we could make a film about watching corn grow interesting. And it took a long time to kind of tease out the real story. A lot of footage ended up on the cutting room floor.
LAMB: How much – how many hours of video did you shoot?
WOLF: Do you really want to know?
WOLF: Something like 450. It turns out, when you go someplace for a year to make a film, you’ve got a lot of – you end up with a lot of footage.
LAMB: And the location where you shot most of this?
WOLF: Greene, Iowa, which is a lovely town, very unique in many ways, in northeastern Iowa.
LAMB: Which is currently under water.
WOLF: And currently under water, and I’d love to talk more about those floods, because I think, while we can’t control nature, we certainly can promote a policy that makes us less vulnerable to those kinds of things.
LAMB: Just before we roll on the video, how much did it cost you to do this?
WOLF: Probably about $450,000, $500,000 to make this film.
LAMB: OK. Let’s watch some.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
IAN CHENEY: When my best friend, Curtis, and I graduated from college, we thought we were done with professors and were supposed to feel like we had our whole lives ahead of us.
CURT ELLIS: But we’ve just heard some rather disconcerting news. Someday, we were going to die. And maybe sooner than we thought.
For the first time in American history, our generation was at risk of having a shorter lifespan than our parents. And it was because of what we ate.
CHENEY: So, we started to keep track of what we were eating.
But we found we needed help making sense of our data.
STEVE MACKO, PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: So, hair is a continuous recorder. It’s a tape recorder of diet. And so, this hamburger that becomes part of my diet will eventually find its way into my hair.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Oh, there it is.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: There it is.
MACKO: All right. Well, I’ve analyzed your hair. And the real conclusion is that the carbon in your body really originates from corn.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: In corn.
MACKO: When I’m talking about corn, I’m not talking about corn on the cob, you know, sweet corn. I’m talking about the corn that’s being used a material that’s going into the foods that we use ubiquitously.
The apple juices and the grape juices that are canned, if they say ”sweetened,” that’s going to be a high fructose corn syrup.
And then you look down the meats – beef, pork, chicken – we feed them corn, and that gets turned into their biomass that we consume.
And you walk down the cookie aisle …
ELLIS: Corn starch. Corn gluten meal. Hydrolyzed corn protein.
CHENEY: Corn syrup, corn starch, corn syrup solids.
ELLIS: Corn starch.
CHENEY: Hydrolyzed corn protein. High fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup.
ELLIS: Corn King bacon.
MACKO: For Americans that I’ve run the isotope analysis on, those numbers are showing this huge weight of the influence of corn.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Who named it King Corn?
WOLF: That’s a very good question. You know, King Corn I think originates from the early, end of the 19th century cartoons of all the trusts – King Copper, King Cotton, King Corn. And corn is certainly reigning supreme in this country right now.
LAMB: Whey did you pick Greene, Iowa?
WOLF: Well, Greene was the town where our families came from. Curt’s great-grandfather and Ian’s great-grandfather, incredibly, came from this same county in rural Iowa. They had met and become best friends in college, and …
LAMB: At Yale.
WOLF: At Yale. And without every knowing that they had this coincidental family bond.
LAMB: How did you know them?
WOLF: Well, Curt’s my cousin, so I grew up with Curt. And that’s not the side of my family that I’m cousinly with, but by the magic of genealogy, I can claim some relations with Greene, Iowa, as well.
LAMB: We’re going to see something in a moment, but the whole idea of getting an acre of land for a – where did that come from?
WOLF: Well, you know, in some ways, I had long had this feeling as a filmmaker, you know, and it may be similar to what you do. You get to see and do all sorts of marvelous things and meet all sorts of marvelous people. But there’s this sense of frustration. You’re always an observer, and never quite a participant.
And this idea of participatory kind of journalism, however symbolic that participation is, was really appealing. And I read an article that Michael Pollan wrote years ago about – called Power Steer – about looking into the meat industry by buying a steer. And as an owner, instead of just as a journalist, he was able to follow this story. And I just thought that was so compelling.
And as it turns out, during the time that we were doing this story, he was also writing a book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which also looked into corn. He looked at a bushel of corn. We looked at an acre of corn.
But I think all of us had a kind of a yearning for not just to do something in the context of filmmaking, but to do something with our hands. You know, Curt and Ian come from a generation that’s increasingly digitalized. And Curt – I have known his since he was a toddler. He had this unnatural attraction to farm machinery, being a suburban kid from Oregon.
And I think we all imagined a very romantic vision. We all had a very romantic vision of what farming would be like. We knew nothing about it. You know, our friends’ mothers would send us garden gloves. And as it turns out, we hardly had to get our hands dirty.
LAMB: Who did you rent the land from?
WOLF: We rented the land from this fellow called Charles Pyatt. There was no auditioning. There was no screening. He was the first person that responded to our letter.
He was just – turned out to be an incredible man. And Chuck took us on, thought it was funny that we were doing it, thought we’d learn a thing or two. He had been involved in farm politics for a while.
And we couldn’t have had a more affable mentor.
LAMB: Here’s two minutes of this. You show how he signed up for the federal crop subsidy program.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHENEY: It was going to be a long time before we could do anything we’d thought of as farming.
But on the modern farm, you don’t have to wait for the snow to melt before you can get to work.
ELLIS: This looks like the place.
CHARLES PYATT, FARMER: The first thing you should really understand is what the farm program is. And it’s a very complicated program we have now.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: OK. So, you’ve got corn. You’ve got one acre. Here’s your base.
PYATT: Well, here we’ve got a chart that shows that the direct payment on corn is going to be 28 cents.
ELLIS: Payment from …
PYATT: From the U.S. government. Whether you like it or not, it’s part of growing corn.
CHENEY: Did or will you plant or produce an agricultural commodity on land for which a highly erodible determination has not been made?
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: So, you’re going to get 14 now, and you’ll get 14 in October.
PYATT: I don’t know of a single farm out here that isn’t in a the government program.
But I’ll guarantee you, if you go out and just raise an acre of corn without any government payments, you’re going to lose money.
CHENEY: Just for moving to Greene and telling the government we were going to plant an acre of corn, we were going to get $28.
And the more corn you grow, the more money you get.
We should have grown 1,000 acres.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Any way to describe the size of an acre?
WOLF: You know, there’s a detail in the movie when we first move out there, in which we ourselves are trying to figure out that same thing.
An acre is, what, something – 36,000 square feet. It’s about 11 rows.
Boy, I don’t know. I guess we should put it in terms of a baseball field or …
LAMB: Or a football field.
WOLF: … football field.
LAMB: You showed that little board as they went into the office. It said $1.92 a bushel.
WOLF: Yes. How about that?
LAMB: I have a story here from a couple of days ago. Midwest floods send corn prices soaring past $8 a bushel.
LAMB: Now, the fact they’re getting $8, now, would they still get – if you were still doing this today – the $28 for that acre from the federal government?
WOLF: Well, there’s all sorts of different kinds of subsidies. The subsidy that was referred to in this scene is a direct payment. And farmers are still getting commodity direct payments.
I know what the exact figure would be per acre. It’s adjusted, given the history of fertility of a given acre of land.
LAMB: Even if you’re making money.
WOLF: Even if you’re making money, you’re still getting commodity payments now.
LAMB: Do you know why?
WOLF: Well, in order to answer that question, I think we have to kind of look back at the origin of the current subsidy program. I don’t believe, and I don’t think very many people at all believe, that subsidies – all subsidies – are to blame for some of the problems described in King Corn.
But around the time of the Nixon administration, a fellow named Earl Butz, who was the secretary of agriculture, really helped alter the way that subsidies had been around in the past. Subsidies initially were an outgrowth of the Roosevelt administration’s Agricultural Adjustment Act, which helped support smaller scale farms by supply control, price supports, taking some land out of production – not just to pay farmers, as so famously has been said, not to farm, but as part of a long-term soil management strategy, conservation strategies.
We still have aspects of the Farm Bill that are like that. But we began in 1973 to imagine that agriculture in America’s time had come. And it was the time of this speculated Soviet grain deal. It was a time in which American export markets seemed to be opening up.
And Butz wanted to pull out all stops. And he wanted to create an agricultural subsidy system that would encourage farmers to plant fence row to fence row, and not pay them not to farm, but to pay them to farm, which I think had lots of long-term consequences.
Part of that was a direct payment, a direct subsidy payment, whether or not the market demanded it, because it was thought that we could find all these uses for it.
Instead what we did is we created for a long time this chronic glut of corn that allowed us to scramble to come up with different uses for it. Some of those uses are corn-based ethanol. Now we’re scrambling to feed the corn-based ethanol idea, which we came up with at first as kind of a disposal strategy for corn.
High-fructose corn syrup is another thing that we – the Japanese invented in the late ’60s, and it took hold here, because all of a sudden we had these big, huge piles of corn. And because they were subsidized, the price was kept low. And that allowed us to sell this miraculous new liquid sweetener at much cheaper prices than we’d been able to sell other sweeteners before.
LAMB: There was this figure. According to the Environmentalist Working Group – whoever they are – that over 10 years, the U.S. paid corn farmers $51.2 billion from ’95 to 2005.
WOLF: It’s a staggering amount of money – $51 billion, imagine that – to grow corn.
LAMB: We’re going to show some more of the documentary. Who shot it?
WOLF: It was shot by my friend, Sam Cullman, who is a terrific documentary filmmaker, in his own right. And I shot some of it, and Ian shot some of it.
LAMB: Who is Ian Cheney?
WOLF: Who is Ian Cheney?
LAMB: I mean, how did he get into this?
WOLF: I don’t know, but …
LAMB: Other than the relationship between those two guys. When did you – what were they doing when you went to them?
WOLF: I think Ian’s going to really like that Brian Lamb on C-SPAN said, ”Who is Ian Cheney?”
But Ian is Curt’s best friend from college. And, you know, Curt and I have been close since he was a kid, and I’ve been making films for a long time.
I really wanted to make something about food. I really was troubled by this. And especially with – the previous film was about human trafficking, and we filmed in 18 countries. And I was constantly coming and going from this country.
And it’s impactful when you’ve been abroad, and you land in America, and you notice the girth of Americans. And you notice the kind of an unhealthiness about us, even after having been in countries with much less resources.
So, we have this kind of paradox of why does the richest country in the world have such a poor diet? But I had no idea how to tell this story.
And Curt and Ian, as it turned out, had been asking the same questions in a much more personal way. How is it that our generation, they asked, has got a potentially lower life expectancy than the previous, for the first time in America?
And it had to do with diet. They began to look into these things.
LAMB: But what were they doing at the time?
WOLF: Well, they had just graduated from college.
WOLF: Yes, Curt and I …
LAMB: From Yale.
WOLF: … were building a house together in the Adirondacks, and I felt like, you know, that kind of older sibling asking him questions: What have you learned in school? And the stuff that he was learning, I thought was fascinating.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
WOLF: I went to Middlebury College in Vermont. And then I went to the University of Iowa for graduate school.
LAMB: And what year did you get out of Middlebury?
WOLF: I finished Middlebury in ’86.
LAMB: This next clip is putting fertilizer on crops. It’s about three minutes and 45 seconds.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ON THE RADIO: January soybeans at 5.45, down one and three quarters, and May soybeans at 5.48, down one and a quarter cents.
RADIO COMMERCIAL: With three fungicides and an insecticide. What do corn growers really want? More corn. Way, way more corn. Go where no one’s gone before more corn.
That’s more like it. Comprised of four separate registered products …
ELLIS: I’m Curt Ellis. And this is Ian Cheney.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Hi, Ian, (INAUDIBLE).
CHENEY: How are you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Good. How are you guys doing?
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: What could I help you with today?
CHENEY: Ah, fertilizer.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Fertilizer. OK. What kind of ground are you guys working on. Is it a sandier type soil?
CHENEY: We haven’t done any analysis of it, but it’s just your basic brown, Iowa …
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: OK. Essentially, the crop needs nutrients in order to produce the maximum yield. And you want to have the biggest potential out there to get the biggest yield you can.
The past couple of years, we’ve had probably 200-bushel corn around here. And we like that a lot. So …
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Here you go.
ELLIS: Thanks. You look like a farmer now.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: You stand right in this area, you’ll probably get a good smell of the ammonia.
CHENEY: Oh, yeah. I got it.
ELLIS: Any advice for driving with this thing?
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Yes, don’t hit anything. That’s a bad thing.
RICH JOHNSON, FARMER: OK. We know that there’s 43,560 square feet in an acre. And we’re going to try to mark out one acre for corn.
ELLIS: So, I push this forward?
JOHNSON: Yes, as far as …
ELLIS: I’m terrified.
All right. We’re up.
ELLIS: Are you kidding?
JOHNSON: Well, do you want to go another round?
ELLIS: Yes. But slower, maybe.
JOHNSON: No. We’ve got to go this speed.
Hit the brakes.
ELLIS: How – where’s the brakes?
ELLIS: All right. I’m (INAUDIBLE) to find me a tractor (INAUDIBLE).
JOHNSON: Well, let’s go.
CHENEY: All right.
CHENEY, NARRATING: Thanks largely to our 150-pound injection of anhydrous ammonia, we could grow four times as much corn as our great-grandparents could have gotten from the same piece of land.
CHENEY: You’ve got to follow this little line.
CHENEY, NARRATING: On almost farm, there was a tank of ammonia fertilizer.
And it seemed to be working. Elevators were full in almost every town we saw. In fact, they were a lot more than full.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Holy shit!
ELLIS: That was fun.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: How long did it take you to shoot that last scene? And how many times did you take?
WOLF: The climbing up the corn piles?
LAMB: And then sliding down?
WOLF: Well, that was a pretty – that was a pretty quick operation. We weren’t exactly – didn’t exactly have permission to go do that, so it kind of was just get in, set up the camera and go.
LAMB: Overall, how much – how often did you run into people that didn’t want to cooperate with you on this?
WOLF: You know, not very often at all. I think – but more so than we would have several years ago. It’s a funny time to be a documentary filmmaker in America right now.
On one level, documentaries are more popular than they’ve ever been before. On another level, I think there’s been some really irresponsible work done in the realm of documentary that has made people feel quite vulnerable.
You know as well as anyone, it’s very easy to be manipulative when you’re producing somebody. And I believe that filmmaking is a real collaborative act. And that collaboration extends not just among the production team.
But if you asked somebody to be in your film, you owe them a great deal of respect. And from the outset, we knew this film was delving into controversial territory, but we really wanted that tone to be as respectful of all the opinions that go into how we should farm and eat in America – and particularly with the farmers, you know. The primacy of their voices was really important to us.
LAMB: Will you get your money back?
WOLF: I think we will on this film. I think this will be the first documentary I’ve ever done that really – it’s just coming into the black now. And that’s pretty unusual for this kind of work.
LAMB: How many films and documentaries have you yourself done?
WOLF: This is my sixth long project.
LAMB: Let’s look at the Greene, Iowa, festival. This is where your operation – for how long – how many days do you think you spent in Greene?
WOLF: At least – I don’t know – 100, 90, 100?
LAMB: Let’s watch the Greene festival, and we’ll continue the discussion about some of the issues involved in all this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Welcome to your own home town.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: We are in the lovely town of Greene, Iowa, celebrating Greene River days.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: And you are who?
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: I’m the Queen of Greene. Yes.
Greene has always been an agricultural community. And Iowa alone would produce enough corn to feed the entire United States.
CHENEY: The agriculture of our great-grandparents had come a long way. Curt’s great-grandfather’s tractors had evolved into 32-row planters. And sprayers with a 90-foot span.
And if my great-grandfather Claire could fly his plane over the Corn Belt today, he would see more than two trillion corn plants – the largest corn crop in American history.
CHENEY: Curtis and I are going to do a taste test on our corn to see how it’s coming along, to see how it’s tasting.
ELLIS: It looks good.
CHENEY: It looks great.
ELLIS: It’s not very good, Ian.
It tastes like sawdust.
CHENEY: I think that looks like the nice corn porridge.
Yes, it’s disgusting. It tastes like chalk.
ELLIS: I really thought it would taste better.
It tastes like crap.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: If you’re standing in a field in Iowa, there’s an immense amount of food being grown – none of it edible.
The commodity corn, nobody can eat. It must be processed before we can eat it.
It’s a raw material. It’s a feedstock for all these other processes. And the irony is that an Iowa farmer can no longer feed himself.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: You know, we’ve gone a little over halfway, and we’ve touched a lot of bases. But if you’re out there watching right now, you’re saying, well, what’s the point?
LAMB: What’s wrong with corn? And how much more do we do, make – I mean, do we grow corn today than we did, say, you know, 30, 40 years ago?
WOLF: Well, we grow a lot more corn. And part of that is having more acres in production. But part of it are these incredible agricultural efficiencies that have been developed. Using lots and lots of anhydrous nitrogen fertilizer, as we saw in the previous clip, you know, improves the yield by a factor of four or six.
Genetic modification is just another tool to get more and more yields.
And I think if you saw in some of these clips, you know, we have made a choice. And to ask the question, what’s wrong, it’s a complicated question, because in American agriculture, we made a choice to promote more over to promote other considerations. And what might those other considerations be? Isn’t a bigger harvest a better thing?
Well, a bigger harvest has clearly come at the cost of a healthier harvest. As one commentator later in the film says, when you choose to just select for production, you give up other things in the mix. And that’s what happens in the world of biophysics.
And one of the things we gave up is nutrition.
Another thing we’ve given up is soil conservation. Another
thing we’ve given up are many environmental considerations.
Michael Pollan has famously said that there’s an algorithm in which our health care expenses have gone up in lockstep with our food prices going down.
We’ve built a system, as you saw Curt and Ian demonstrating there, that has promoted a kind of a commodity corn that is not edible. It’s meant to be fed to animals, or it’s meant to be processed into other things.
And that has really become the building block of the fast-food nation. If you go to McDonald’s you don’t see corn on your plate, but hamburgers are much fattier than they used to be, because we feed so much more grain to cattle. The French fries get half their calories from the oil in which they’re cooked. Sometimes that’s corn oil, sometimes that’s soy oil.
And principally, our soda is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. And high-fructose corn syrup is a very interesting product. And it is – has a sweetener profile, a fructose, glucose profile very similar to refined sugar, or even to honey.
But by subsidizing it in the way that we have, we made that ingredient so cheap, that an entire food industry was able to build itself around sweetening things with high-fructose corn syrup. And it became pretty much the most ubiquitous food ingredient there is. The average supermarket has thousands of products sweetened with honey fructose corn syrup.
We’re so used to this sweetener in our foods, that we hardly don’t even know what the baseline is for sweetness anymore.
So, we did make a choice in American agricultural policy, for one kind of farming, one kind of food making. And I think we’re starting to see the consequences of that choice.
LAMB: This documentary on DVD sells for how much, if somebody wants the whole thing?
WOLF: I think it sells for $19.95, or something. It’s available on Amazon. It’s available at Docurama Films. It’s also available at our Web site, KingCorn.net.
LAMB: And you shot it in 2004 and ’05. You released it in late 2007.
LAMB: We just had a Farm Bill that was passed over the president’s veto, after – you know, they have one of those about every six years.
Here is from your documentary the Colorado cattle farm part. And most of this was shot in Iowa, but here’s the Colorado cattle farm episode.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHENEY, NARRATING: We’d moved to Iowa to grow corn. But to see where corn goes, we would have to leave the Corn Belt.
ELLIS: I’m Curt.
BOB BLEDSOE, FEEDLOT OWNER, WRAY, COLORADO: Nice to meet you. I’m Bob Bledsoe.
CHENEY: Ian Cheney.
BLEDSOE: Ian, nice to meet you.
Yes, it’s cool to look out there at all those cattle and feel warm and fuzzy that I’m feeding a lot of American people.
Our operation is that we buy calves, and we bring them into the feedlot, and feed them for 140 to 150 days here, and then sell them to packing plant as fed cattle.
Basically, 14,000 to 16,000 head are finished here. We don’t like being big, but right now, you’re looking at a family farm in Yuma County, Colorado.
CHENEY: We were still getting used to the new look of the family farm. But the farms in Colorado did have one major thing in common with the farms we’d seen in Iowa.
BLEDSOE: We’re a cattle company, but we do grow a lot of corn, about 7,000 acres every year. And it is all used for animal feed.
CHENEY: The grasslands of eastern Colorado, where cattle traditionally grazed, have become some of the biggest corn farms in the country.
And corn has replaced grass as the principal feed for cattle.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Whose voice are we hearing?
WOLF: That’s Ian’s voice there.
We wanted to really, to tell the story, where narration was necessary, with Curt and Ian being the narrators, and not the omniscient narrators that we’ve become accustomed to in kind of television documentaries.
But, you know, that same folksy voice, and the same folksy approach that we – that they brought to it, we wanted to bring to the narration.
LAMB: Is Mr. – well, Mr. Bledsoe says he’s a family farm. What’s the size of that family farm? Is it all his?
WOLF: Well, that had 15,000 head of cattle. Yes, it’s an extended family. I think it is typical of the way that some families have had to react to the changes in American agriculture, where it really is like a small corporation with a family business.
But we’re seeing increasing consolidation in American food, you know. Three or four companies control 80 percent of the cattle. Four companies control 50 percent of the pork.
We’re having – the Bledsoe’s family, as much as it looks like a big operation, really are the next on the chopping block. We’ve had a policy that has pushed for larger and larger operations, smaller profit margins, throughout the food industry. And I believe that comes at a cost.
And the cost has to do with the health of our foods, as we’ve talked about. But one of the biggest lessons of making this film is that the health of our food system is really tied into the health of our rural communities, as well.
The year that we were in Greene making that film, you know, they burned down the old elevator, because it had become obsolete with the sizes of the harvest. They had to close the high school down, because there were no longer enough students to make a football team.
We’re seeing this all around – we’re seeing – all around the country we’re seeing this. And I believe we lose something big when we lose that kind of stewardship that goes along with small-scale family operations.
And when we just promote this kind of intense row cropping – corn-bean rotations, and increasingly now corn on corn – we lose a lot of other things, like our topsoil. These recent floods affected us terribly.
But had we had the kind of smaller, family-scale operations that we’d had 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, where we were rotating four crops, where we had a cover crop, where we raised cattle on pasture, we would have healthier meat, and we would have a lot more resilience with these kinds of floods when they come up.
LAMB: From your documentary, here’s the section on fructose. You mentioned some of that earlier.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Hey, look at that.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Prior to about 1970, nobody ate high-fructose corn syrup, because it was too expensive to make.
Today, the dominant sugar in the Western diet now comes from corn.
Corn is very cheap, so it’s beneficial for people that are making processed foods to sweeten their product with high-fructose corn syrup, because it costs them less and they save money.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: OK. (INAUDIBLE).
AUDRAE ERICKSON, PRESIDENT, CORN REFINERS ASSOCIATION: Food and beverage manufacturers were looking for a lower-cost sugar substitute. And by the late ’80s, we had fully taken over half of the sweetener market in the United States.
High-fructose corn syrup is known to enhance flavors of spices and fruits. It lessens the acidic quality of spaghetti sauces. It provides good browning properties to bread.
It’s all a part of a complex, innovative system that makes these foods available to us in such a variety of choices for such low prices.
CHENEY: Every single item I saw in this aisle contains corn syrup.
CHENEY, NARRATING: In the last 30 years, America’s consumption of table sugar has fallen. But our overall consumption of sweeteners has gone up more than 30 percent, largely because of a dramatic increase in our consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: By the way, who was the woman that was the spokesman there in the film?
WOLF: Her name is Audrae Erickson. And she’s the, I believe the president, but certainly the spokesperson for the Corn Refiners Association, which is a trade group based here in Washington.
LAMB: I didn’t see the process of making fructose itself. Why not?
WOLF: Well, there is a scene in the film where Ian and Curt attempt to make high-fructose corn syrup on their stove top. You know, it was a creative solution to a typical documentarian’s dilemma, which is we weren’t allowed into the factory, so we learned as much as we could about what goes on in there, and tried to do it on our stove top – which, of course, you can’t, really.
High-fructose corn syrup right now is the subject of a big publicity campaign by the Corn Refiners Association, in which they say that it’s no worse for you than sugar. They say much what Ms. Erickson says in the film, that it’s a ubiquitous and useful food ingredient. They say that it qualifies under the USDA’s definition of the word natural.
And it is natural in the sense that perhaps it comes from a natural source. But when you see how it’s made – using ingredients like sulfuric acid and lots of enzymes that have been created in the labs to convert the dextrose in the corn to sucrose and to fructose – you get this feeling that a lot of our food is made more in a laboratory than in a kitchen these days.
And while high-fructose corn syrup I think is not worse for you than some of those other sugars, we’ve clearly promoted a system that has allowed that ingredient to become cheap and everywhere.
Now that the input costs are going up – corn prices have gone up substantially since we made this film – I’m afraid that we’re going to end up with a system that’s kind of the worst of both worlds, one that was built on the ubiquity of cheap input grains like corn, and, you know, enabled the building of an entire infrastructure based on that kind of ingredient.
And now, we’re going to have, with the promise of cheapness, the promise of cheapness and abundance, now we’re going to have expensive foods that are not very good for you.
LAMB: Earlier you talked about obesity that you saw coming back into this country, and also about sugar.
LAMB: And that word often connotes diabetes. You have a section here in your documentary about diabetes.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: In a recent analysis, we found that drinking one soda per day, on average, almost doubled the risk of type two diabetes compared to only occasionally having a soda beverage, or not at all.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: My dad, he had a pain in his toe for over six months, and he found out. He was that diabetic that way. And they cut his big toe off. And before my father died, it went from his toe to his foot to below the knee, to above the knee.
And then they wanted to start cutting on the other leg. My dad said, no, that was enough. And he just gave up.
My mom died of, a direct result of diabetes. My grandmother died a direct result of diabetes. My sister, Madeleine (ph), she’s been a diabetic for years.
I was recently diagnosed with diabetes.
We don’t think of what we’re putting into our system. We don’t really think about it.
CHENEY: By the end of September, we’d been corn farmers for almost nine months. It was becoming clear that our acre wasn’t just a game for seeing where food came from. We were growing an actual crop that was destined to be eaten by actual people.
MICHAEL POLLAN, AUTHOR, THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA: If you take that meal, you take that McDonald’s meal, you don’t realize it when you eat it, but you’re eating corn.
Beef has been corn fed. Soda is corn. It’s all high-fructose corn syrup. That’s the main ingredient. Even the French fries, which are – you know, half the calories in the French fries come from the fat that they’re fried in. And that fat is liable to be corn oil or soya oil.
And so, when you’re at that McDonald’s, you’re eating Iowa food. Everything on your plate is corn.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Why do some many Americans not care about what they put in their bodies, and watch their weight go up?
WOLF: I’m not sure I agree with that presupposition. I think that many Americans do care very much about what they eat.
I think that many Americans are pinched in terms of time. It takes more time to prepare a good and healthy meal than it does to eat convenience foods.
We’re in a very strange moment in the American foodscape right now, in which half of – there are two fast-rising groups, food groups, that are selling more and more every year. And one is the convenience foods, the one-handed foods, foods you can eat while you’re driving. And the other is organic produce and foods that are made with a very overt consciousness about issues of sustainability and eating.
So, we’re seeing maybe a kind of schizophrenia in American thought. But there’s clearly a disparity in terms of demographics where one group of food is much more available than the other.
In affluent communities, increasingly, you know, in suburbs and university towns, there are good fresh farmers markets. When you have working communities where there’s a lot more poverty, it’s no wonder that a McDonald’s Happy Meal becomes impossibly seductive not to buy for a single working mother.
And in some parts of the country, we still have what we refer to as food deserts, meaning only those processed foods are available.
This comes back to policy, again. We need to have a Farm Bill that allows food assistance programs to work not only in bodegas and pantries and low income groceries, but in farmers markets as well.
LAMB: The Farm Bill was $307 billion, I believe. And it was 673 pages.
One place that I found an article in the New York Sun, which was not positive, it said this.
”Experts say the soggy state could produce less than two-thirds the usual corn harvest,” talking about Iowa after the floods. ”Wet weather kept some four million cornfield acres out of the 86 million total unplanted. Now floods have killed many already sprouted stalks. What bitter timing for farmers. Corn prices are already record high because demand is, too. Part of the demand is stoked by the distilling of corn into ethanol – something subsidized, tax credited and encouraged by the federal government for years. Alas, however, just when the farmers, who got politicians to juice up corn prices at the expense of consumers and taxpayers, can now make a killing, those farmers have a third less corn to sell.”
LAMB: I read that, only because this Farm Bill passed overwhelmingly.
LAMB: Over 300 votes in the House, over 80 votes in the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats.
What do they know that the rest of the people complaining about this don’t know?
WOLF: Well, I think it passed overwhelmingly, because it placated a lot of interests. It placated conservation interests by adding a little bit incrementally more for conservation. It placated people who want organic farming by giving a little bit more than it had given before. It kept the commodity people happy by continuing with things like the direct payments.
When something passes by 300 votes in the House, you have to think, too, that it satisfied a lot of short-term interests. If there were a piece of legislation that required more of a long-term vision in the Farm Bill, I can’t think of one.
When corn cost $3 or $4 a bushel last year, or $1.65 two years ago or three years ago when we made the film, we could have set up a reserve program, like we have for the federal petroleum reserves. I mean, it goes back to biblical times, this idea of seven lean years and seven fat years.
We could use that Farm Bill to promote things like more local agriculture or more grass pasturing that would survive those floods better.
We could also use it to promote more young farmers. You know, it’s kind of a funny outgrowth of this film, is that we have people of Curt and Ian’s generation that are trying to get into agriculture now. And the USDA could set up a whole division that promotes young farming. We’ve got a 58-year-old average farmer in America now. And if we want to think about the long-term plan, we have to have a Farm Bill that’s farther looking than the one we passed.
LAMB: In your film, a farmer talks about the government subsidies.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHENEY: Two weeks before harvest, the price for a bushel of corn at the elevator was $1.65. We had spent $142 to rent the acre. And with $133.24 for seed and chemicals, and $74.68 to rent and run the equipment, our total costs added up to $349.92.
But even if we got a huge yield, like 200 bushels, we would only get paid $330 from the elevator – a loss of $19.92.
ELLIS: It looks like we may lose money growing and selling this corn.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Oh, yes.
ELLIS: But we might make a little bit.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: But you’ll make money off the government. And that’s what it’s all about.
Well, see, you probably only had half of your initial payment. You get that. And then you’ll get a counter-cyclical payment. And now you’re going to get a loan deficiency payment.
It’s the government payments that are keeping the guys going. It ain’t the value of the crops.
ELLIS: How much money do you think comes into Greene every year from the federal government?
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Oh, it’s by far the largest industry. In Greene, by far.
But if it wasn’t for that, you wouldn’t see the crops planted out here, either. You wouldn’t be raising 11 billion bushels of corn.
ELLIS: Our $19.92 loss was going to be offset by a $28 direct payment from the government, and several other subsidy payments that we hadn’t even known about.
POLLAN: We happen to have a kind of subsidy system – and we haven’t always had it, only for the last 30 years or so – that rewards the overproduction of cheap corn.
KEN COOK, PRESIDENT, ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP: Corn is the crop we’ve spent the most money on over the past 10 years. And so, we’ve got mountains of grain all over the Midwest, because the subsidy programs keep the production going full blast.
POLLAN: All that cheap, surplus corn goes somewhere. And in fact, a lot of it’s going into our bodies.
COOK: There is a role that the subsidies have played in making the raw material available for an overweight society.
We subsidize the Happy Meals, but we don’t subsidize the healthy ones.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Who were those two fellows that we saw?
WOLF: One is Michael Pollan, the author of ”The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” And the other is Ken Cook from the Environmental Working Group, whose work you cited earlier.
LAMB: Yes. Michael Pollan, isn’t he kind of a lightning rod for some people in the farming business?
WOLF: He definitely is. He definitely is. And I think that’s because he’s taken on a lot of entrenched interests in his work. So …
LAMB: And the other fellow, where is he based?
WOLF: Ken Cook is based in Washington. And one of the things that he did was to make all those subsidy payments public. So, now, EWG.org is a place where you can go and see what your neighbor is getting in terms of farm subsidies. You can see the way …
LAMB: You mean individual neighbors? Names?
WOLF: Individual neighbors. Names. Yes, it’s all public information, but he had to sue to make it available.
LAMB: And that’s EWG.org.
LAMB: One last clip. You went looking for Earl Butz. Who is he, before we show this? And where did you find him?
WOLF: Earl Butz is the first graduate of the then-brand new program in agricultural economics at Purdue University. He graduated in 1935, in the middle of the greatest scarcity our nation had ever known, and in many ways dedicated his life to trying to get as much production out of agriculture as possible, maybe because of that upbringing.
It’s interesting, in contrast to Curt and Ian, the stars of the film, who graduated in the middle of an obesity epidemic. And this scene is what happens when those two generations encounter each other.
LAMB: And he was the secretary of agriculture during the Nixon administration.
WOLF: He became the secretary of agriculture in the Nixon administration, and then moved back to Indiana.
LAMB: And he’s died since this.
WOLF: He died just a few weeks ago at the age of 98, I think the oldest living former Cabinet member. And when we interviewed him, he was 96 and pretty sharp.
LAMB: Here’s Earl Butz.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
EARL BUTZ, AS SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE: What we want out of agriculture is plenty of food. And that’s our drive now. This year, 1973, we’re going to see the most massive increase in production of farm products ever in the history of this country. And next year, we’re going for a still further increase on top of that, as we pull all stops.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Oh, all right. Just a moment. Is he expecting you?
CHENEY: He’s got some corn on the door.
ELLIS: Dr. Butz?
We’ve been making a film about a year we’ve spent growing an acre of corn.
BUTZ: Growing an acre of corn, huh?
ELLIS: Yes, sir.
BUTZ: It was changed from the days when I was your age.
CHENEY: What part did you play in creating the food system that we have today?
BUTZ: When I was a youngster on the farm, we had these program, cutting back on production. We paid farmers not to produce. One of the stupidest things we ever did, I think. But they got paid for not producing, instead of paid for producing.
And when I became secretary, we stopped that system.
ELLIS: We’ve heard from some people that they think there’s too much food. What do you think of that?
BUTZ: Well, it’s the basis of our affluence now, the fact that we spend less on food. 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.
And that includes all the meals we eat at restaurants, all the fancy doo-dads we get in our food system. I don’t see much room for improvement there, which means we’ll spend our surplus cash on something else.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Earl Butz. You all dressed up for that one.
WOLF: Yes. Well, you know, I mean, we wanted to be respectful. And even though we had come to disagree very much with the policy choices that he had made in the ’70s, I think the approach to journalism, to filmmaking, to telling stories needs to start with that baseline of respect.
And in the case of Butz, you know, a lot of the respect comes from, where did this guy come from? I mentioned in the introduction that he graduated from college, looking into the science of agriculture in the Great Depression.
Curt and Ian graduated in the middle of an obesity epidemic.
I think that every once in a while we come upon these fulcrum moments in decision making. And Butz’ decision in 1973 is similar to what some people are saying now. OK, corn prices are high. We’ve got a big market. We’ve got a lot of demand. We’ve got to grow fence row to fence row.
I think it’s exactly the opposite. We have an opportunity right now to reassess the full cost accounting of what we do in agriculture – not just for next year’s harvest, not just for next year’s paycheck, but for what kind of environmental degradation we’re doing for the long-term stability of the land, so we can continue to get good harvests, what kind of vulnerability we have to floods, and I think, ultimately, what kind of food we want to feed ourselves.
When we eat locally and we eat seasonally, in a diminishing petroleum environment, that’s a much more sensible thing to do than what we do now, which is transport the average bite of food 1,500 miles from farm to plate.
So, we have a chance now to envision a new agriculture and a new food system. And I look forward to being part of that discussion.
LAMB: What are you doing right now? What kind of work are you doing?
WOLF: I, strangely enough – I’ve been making films for 18 years. After this one, instead of leaping into another project, I opened a grocery store.
WOLF: In Brooklyn, New York, that features locally produced foods.
LAMB: How long has that been up?
WOLF: It’s been open since December, and it’s very challenging.
LAMB: Where is it?
WOLF: It’s in Brooklyn on North 12th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
LAMB: Big? Small?
WOLF: Small. It’s about 2,400 square feet. I’ve never done anything like this before. But as I told you before, I wanted to feel more like I was participating.
I’ve also gotten very interested in agricultural policy, and would like to be more involved in making that happen.
LAMB: Can you make money with your grocery store?
WOLF: That’s a very good question, and I’ll get back to you in six months.
LAMB: Are you active politically now, say, for instance, in this political campaign?
WOLF: I have been, yes. Just a little bit of organizing. But I think, trying to look at politics not just as it pertains to candidates, but as it pertains to issues, is what I want to do.
And it’s hard for me to imagine an issue that’s more fundamental to our connection to the Earth, to our connection to our health than agriculture and food. And it was right there all along, and it was only in the last few years that I’ve come to understand that these are the most fundamental decisions we have to make.
LAMB: One of the things – and we don’t have time to talk about it, and it wasn’t in, that I can remember, in your documentary, is that total agribusiness contributions in 2007 were $109 million to members of Congress.
WOLF: Yes. Agribusiness has had an enormous lobby and an enormous influence on the way policy has been shaped in the last 30 years.
But the reason why I didn’t specifically target agribusiness and their role in the film is because we, the public, haven’t spoken about these issues. So, their voice has gone undiluted.
Let’s see what happens now as we engage real people, everyday people, people who eat, not just people who farm, in the Farm Bill. And then we’ll talk about influence.
LAMB: Aaron Wolf, producer of the DVD, the documentary, the movie called King Corn, thank you very much for joining us.
WOLF: Thank you so much.