Plowing new ground: the sequel to ‘King Corn’

A couple of years ago Curt Ellis (left) and his friend Ian Cheney decided to teach themselves about agriculture by planting, growing, harvesting, and selling an acre of corn in Iowa. They filmed it all of course and released a documentary about the experience called “King Corn.”

The neophyte farmers travelled the country with their movie which explored the impact of subsidies on US farms, and on food choices for American consumers.

Now they are back with a sequel. Curt Ellis admits that’s a little unusual in the documentary game.

“I think that’s probably for good reason,” he laughs.

Yet they have done it all the same.

“I guess from the minute we finished ‘King Corn’ we had a realization we hadn’t told the full story. ‘King Corn’ is really the food story of one acre of Iowa farmland, and we spent a year growing one acre of corn and following our harvest off the farm. But by the end of the year, having learned our harvest was going to become high fructose corn syrup and corn-fed confinement-raised meat, we realized there was something else at least as valuable as the corn we had grown, and that was the land we had tended and the way we had tended it.”

Ellis and Cheney went back to Iowa and explored the ecological impact they’d had on their acre of soil, through the way they had plowed it and applied various chemical herbicides and fertilizers.

“We really only spent two hours over the course of the year actually farming,” he says. “And most of that time was spent spraying things, injecting anhydrous ammonia, or spraying a cocktail of herbicides on our field of corn that had been genetically modified to make it withstand a direct spray. So there was clearly a chemical process as much as a biological process going on. ”

Ellis and Cheney followed the run-off from their land through the watershed and into the Mississippi. They also talked to various experts about the health impact of modern farming methods.

“The goal of the “Big River” film was to create a follow-up to “King Corn” that would introduce people to these consequences that are hidden behind our everyday meals,” Ellis says. He talks about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the flow of fertilizers in the run-off from Midwestern farms, and about reports of cancer clusters in some farm communities.

Ellis will bring both films to a screening at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis on Wednesday. Several local organizations are sponsoring the show, which will include a panel discussion of some of the issues raised.

He says at other similar events there have been a number of farmers in the audience and there has been a great discussion. He expects that to be the case in Minneapolis too.

“It’s not always friendly,” he says. “But I’ve been pretty amazed by how friendly it is. Both “King Corn” and “Big River” are pretty moderate films. We are not taking a finger-wagging approach to these problems. You know we are really all in this together. The reality is our food system is in trouble right now, and the only people who can fix that are all of us coming together.”

“Big River” is just 30 minutes long and Ellis hopes it will have use as an educational tool in schools and for environmental advocacy groups.

Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis look to the future in “Big River” (Image courtesy WickedDelicate Films)

Ellis laughs when asked if there will be a King Corn III, but then mentions the next big project will be called “Truck Farm” which is about how the two film makers took the rust 1986 Dodge pick-up truck which appeared in “King Corn” and put a roof on it so they could grow vegetables. In time they turned it into a community supported agriculture subscription farm serving 20 people. This maybe the only farm which can actually drive around town.

“It started just because Ian and I moved to Brooklyn after we finished our film projects and we wanted to grow food, but we didn’t have any land, so we turned to the only open space we knew of which was the bed of the old pick-up truck.”

You can see episodes from the project at WickedDelicate films. Ellis sees it as a fun way to spur discussions of the very real problem of so-called ‘food deserts,’ areas in cities where healthy food is hard to find.

“We had a neighborhood kid who kept eating the parsley down to a stump,” Ellis says. “So that was our only pest problem.”

The hour-long version of “Truck Farm” will probably premier next spring. They are also working on a film about light pollution from urban areas.

You can hear our conversation here:

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