King Corn

by Stefani on 24-July-2008

On our recent road trip to Granny’s house, we noticed that several of the fields that only last year had been planted with cotton, were now full of golden stalks of corn.  

Just Before the Harvest

My guys remembered getting out of the car last fall to get up close and personal with the cotton and wanted to do the same with the corn, so we did.  

Kid in the Corn

But you see, as promised, this isn’t really a post about produce.

My boys got real excited about peeking through a shuck to see what “corn right on the stalk” looked like, but were profoundly disappointed. 

Not Your Grandma's Corn 

“What’s wrong with it?” they wanted to know.  This is not corn. This is hard, icky stuff. 

What is That?

When I told them that all that corn, as far as the eye could see, was inedible, not meant for human consumption (at least not until it’s gone through some processing), they were astonished. 

“Then why grow it?” 

Good question. 

They grow it because it means cheap food for cows (even though it makes the cows sick and lowers the nutritional value of meat). They grow it because it’s tough to be a farmer and you have to grow what sells and what the government will subsidize. They grow it because that corn is turned into a cheap version of sugar that goes into sodas, cereals, crackers, pastas and just about everything else that Americans love to eat, even though it’s slowly making people sick and shortening our lives. 

This whole discussion left my littles with a lot of questions. It left me with a lot of questions too.

So, when we got home, I got on Netflix and added King Corn to our queue. 

We watched it yesterday, and I have to say that the filmmakers did such a good job of documenting this issue in an understandable and also unbiased way. They didn’t come out swinging at the farmers or at Americans in general, or at the government. or even at the cattle industry. They just presented the facts about this whole vicious corn cycle that we find ourselves in. 

It’s definitely thought-provoking. Definitely. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Really.

My boys walked away from the cornfields with lots of questions, but after the film, they had just this one –

“But where do they grow the REAL corn?”

I’m stumped. 

*** edited to add: A few folks have written in with some concern that I might be blaming the farmers for the state of affairs with regard to corn production. I just wanted to be clear then that in no way at all am I knocking the folks that feed us. 

I have the utmost respect for the people who do the tough job of growing food for our nation, and I want very much to instill that respect in my boys too. Part of the reason I’m willing to risk life and limb to cross three lanes of traffic so that my kids can touch corn and cotton, is that I want them to know that the stuff they eat and use comes from somewhere. 

Part of the reason that I’m willing to fork over the high price of gasoline and regularly travel to see our rural relatives, is that I want my boys to know that they stand on the shoulders of people who have worked hard to eek out a living off the land. I want them to pick peaches even though it’s hot. I want them to shell peas and have purple fingers for days to remind them that food is work. I want them to know that those little experiences are nothing compared to the work that has gone into preparing the land, planting the crop, weeding and pest control, fertilizing, hoping, and praying, that the farmers do for us day in and day out. 

It’s a tough life, and I am in awe of those who do it. If you are among them, I thank you, truly. 

The reason that I wrote about this movie is that I am very concerned about this whole corn cycle that we’ve gotten ourselves into, and I think that film does a great job of presenting the history and the ongoing reasons that the government, the farmers, the cattle industry and the American people rely so heavily on a type of corn that may in the end be very bad for us. 

I don’t know the answers, but I think the questions are worth asking.
Sarah Jackson July 24, 2008 at 7:19 pm

they grow the real thing in WA and OR. And in CA. Not sure where in TX. Such a disappointment for little guys.

Corynne Escalante July 24, 2008 at 7:28 pm

my mother in law bought some of that cattle feed corn at a swap meet once… disgusting, but one of those legendary funny stories in the family now.

Taco July 24, 2008 at 7:33 pm

As long as we’re not attacking farmers, who work like dogs to produce what demand dictates so that they can make a living…we’re cool.

In addition to making money, the farmer was most likely rotating his crop. Cotton sucks the nutrients out of soil like crazy and can’t be planted in the same field every year.

Great pictures, by the way.

Stefani July 24, 2008 at 7:42 pm

Taco –

Point taken about the cotton. I didn’t know that, but then I imagine there’s a hell of a lot that I don’t know about farming.

It’s been really cool over the last few months to travel the same roads with my guys and note the changes. We’ve all learned a lot about the process, and I expect we have a lot more to learn.

And yes – I could not agree more about not attacking the farmers. I would very much like to see a lot more respect and a lot more REAL help for the people that feed us all.

That’s part of what I really loved about this movie. As I said, they did such a good job of giving both sides of each story… the farmer’s story, the cattlemen’s story, even the law maker’s thought process.

It’s all such a tangled web.

Melanie O. July 24, 2008 at 7:55 pm

They grow the real thing here in Wisconsin. They grow lots and lots of corn here and I’ve never seen golden fields like your pictures. Very interesting. I took a “History of Food” class once and we were challenged to find a product in the grocery store not touched by corn (it’s in some plastics and inks) and, of course, fed to animals. I think we came up with fresh fish, if we didn’t have it wrapped…

Cassandra July 24, 2008 at 8:12 pm

We’ve got real corn in Idaho too. I’ve never seen the golden fields like in your pictures. Ours are green as green can be with sweet corn right off the cob…

YayaOrchid July 24, 2008 at 8:43 pm

Somewhere where the weather is just right, there are corn stalks waiting to be plucked of their juicy sweet offerings. In Texas, that season is long past, hence the dry remains you see.

thank you for the info on the film. I’ve got to look for it next time I’m at the rental place.

Stefani July 24, 2008 at 8:49 pm

As I understand it, and, I could be wrong, so somebody correct me if I am, sweet corn is harvested while the plant is still green, but feed corn, the stuff fed to livestock and turned into high fructose corn syrup, is harvested when the plant is dried up.

We passed lots and lots of big machinery working out in the fields to bring this stuff in, so it was definitely not the “remains” but the actual harvest.

Katie July 24, 2008 at 10:44 pm

Yes Id and Or are the places to get good sweet corn. I grew up among the potato/onion/corn fields.

It is amazing to me that we can actually make all of that JUNK out of corn. Amazing.

Mary Smith July 24, 2008 at 11:37 pm

Well, you taught me a lot in this post, too, Stefani. By the way, I had a look at Six One Way and all I can say is wow.

Teresa July 25, 2008 at 3:45 am

Sweet corn is grown here in Central Florida…and I love it when corn season comes around!

It sounds like you do amazingly fun things with your kidos. I love that you present reality to them. You arm them with an abundance of knowledge…you sound like a great homeschooling mama!

caroline July 25, 2008 at 4:09 am

But at least the field wasn’t a subdivision…yet.

I guess everyone has read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by now. We have to come up with a better way to support farmers, so they can afford to actually grow edible food.

heather July 25, 2008 at 5:08 am

what a conversation to have with your boys! you are so good at giving them the real (age appropriate) scoop on things. the topic of corn is huge… i’m going to check out that movie. you may be interested in the omnivore’s dilemma, a book by michael pollan.

Crystal July 25, 2008 at 5:18 am

Very interesting. I am putting that movie on my Netflix list.

Tracy July 25, 2008 at 5:29 am

up here in Wisconsin. Some of our corn is real corn. I eat it every summer.

Jennifer July 25, 2008 at 6:07 am

I also that King Corn was a good mvie, despite the crazy look I got from my husband when I said we should watch a show about some guys who grew a cornfield.

You might enjoy, “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan. I found it less overwhelming than the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Michelle Pendergrass July 25, 2008 at 6:14 am

We grow a lot of sweet corn here in Indiana. 🙂

Erin Glancy July 25, 2008 at 6:25 am

I have to admit I am a little sad when every field we pass is now corn… corn that will undernourish very animal that eats it. Ick!

I am going to check out that movie. Sounds interesting!

melissa s. July 25, 2008 at 7:00 am

i so agree with your review. this documentary was the final straw for me to remove all HFCS from our diet (not easy). also wanted to mention that king corn is an “instant watch” on netflix!

Miranda Simpson July 25, 2008 at 8:10 am

I do hope we are not suggesting that corn farmers are to blame for the high fructose corn syrup problem in America. Being a farm wife I can’t think of one farmer I know that harvests his corn and brews up HFCS in his barn.

Stefani July 25, 2008 at 8:19 am

No, not all Miranda. In fact, that’s one of the things I loved about this movie. It does a very good job of explaining why the farmers raise this kind of corn, why the government subsidizes it, why the cattle ranchers use it for food, and how the cycle has come about.

It doesn’t place blame anywhere, just explains the facts.

Believe me, I have the utmost respect for farmers, and they tough job that they do. I know full well that without those who are willing to make it their life’s work, the rest of us would go hungry.

Jonah Lisa July 25, 2008 at 8:27 am

I think the real corn is in Iowa.

Mary-Sue July 25, 2008 at 9:16 am

This is such a wonderful post. Thank you for thinking deeply about things like this and for encouraging your boys to do the same. You’re changing the world, Stefani, and I so appreciate your gentle, gracious way of doing it. Thank you for this.

Amanda July 25, 2008 at 10:24 am

Thank you for this great post & topic!

I saw King Corn on PBS, and then saw the producer/director on CSPAN, but can’t remember which show. I agree the movie is very thought provoking, and really gets you thinking. Learning not just about all the inedible corn we grow as a nation, but what we make with it,and how much we subsidize it is very eye opening. Cheap food that is bad for you.. I think we need to rethink our farm subsidies and the whole system. And ditto, I am not blaming farmers, just wondering how we can help fix the system that seems to be broken. I have recommended this film to any friend that brings up food, ethanol, HFCS and the like!

Lynn July 25, 2008 at 10:30 am

I think anything that makes us think about the world around us, where things come from, and our habits as consumers is a GOOD thing. Only with education can we make wise choices for ourselves that also support what we believe to be important.

jessica July 25, 2008 at 10:52 am

Hi- I am a first time commenter, long time reader! Here in NJ we have kick butt corn and tomatoes (and tons of other yummy veggies, my CSA share is loaded every week)! Everyone knocks Jersey but it’s not named The Garden State for nothing!!

Great post, I can’t wait to watch King Corn, freshly added to my Netflix ….

Janeen July 25, 2008 at 11:18 am

My family is on a continuous search for knowlege about our environment and sometimes that involves political films like King Corn. I’m anxious to see this one after reading your post. We’re very anti-ethanol here, just because it’s not at all a plausable solution for energy when it takes more energy to process the ethanol than to process oil for fuel and takes up land for growing food as well. Also, just to produce enough ethanol for the U.S. gasoline use, we’d have to have over 70% of our land growing corn…ugh NOT a solution.

Our poor farmers, doing whatever they can to survive. I wish people in the city knew where their food came from…knew what the farmers have to go through, saw them all out here in the country praying for rain. I had no idea of their plight until I moved to the country myself. Now I’ve joined their crusade and try to educate my city dwelling family members.

YayaOrchid July 25, 2008 at 11:30 am

Whew! Now you’ll have ME thinking!! 🙂 I thought the sweet corn that isn’t harvested was allowed to dry up and become what we see in the pictures above. I guess you’re saying there is sweet ‘edible’ corn and then there is the corn raised for feed and corn syrup products. Which brings me to th question, is ‘sweet’ corn nutritious? Is that the same corn used by countries such as Mexico for their basic staple: tortillas? Corn plays such an important role in the lives of Mexicans, it is their main crop, I think.

Carolyn July 25, 2008 at 11:32 am

We grow real corn here in Colorado being so close to Nebraska. We drive by fields and fields every day!
Thanks for the information about King Corn. I hadn’t heard of it.

Julie Alvarez July 25, 2008 at 2:20 pm
Karen July 25, 2008 at 2:46 pm

I watched the movie back in May, and felt so bad for the farming community which has really gotten the shaft. Your post resonates so much, I thought I’d share the one I wrote in May:
Thanks very much for blogging about this. The solution out of the “corn maze” will come about because good people like us honor our children’s important questions.

molly July 25, 2008 at 2:59 pm

it’s amazing to me, to see how your growing season is so different from ours. Your corn is ready for harvest, ours is as tall as me, but green as anything. I”m so curious to know if the farmers will get another crop off the field before your growing season ends. (Does the growing season ever end in TX??)

Great post. I have wanted to see that movie, but I don’t think they have it at the local joint. Maybe only on netflix. I’ll have to look again.

I appreciate your support for farmers’. The state of farming today is overwhelmingly bleak. They DO need our support.

xo. happy weekend, friend.

Miranda Simpson July 25, 2008 at 6:08 pm

Stefani I do truly apologize as my last post did sound quite defensive. I appreciate the wonderful way you go about teaching your children to view all sides of the coin, so to speak. Thank you for taking the time to offer such a thought provoking post. It is a scenerio that I wish had an easy fix! : )

Christine July 25, 2008 at 7:57 pm

Thank you for bringing such a great subject to light. I saw King Corn a few weeks ago and loved the documentary. I think one point that has to be made about the farmers is that most farmers have no other choice than to grow feed corn. In fact, the farmer that they spent time with and leased them their patch of land said the government subsidizes farms growing feed corn at a higher rate than regular corn. What a sad situation. I actually didn’t know how much we’ve relied on processed corn until I saw the documentary. Definitely a must see.

Lizzie July 26, 2008 at 6:55 am

Where do you live that the corn is as advanced in growth as the photos display? Ours is still green and growing. We live in Indiana.

Stefani July 26, 2008 at 8:50 am

Oh no, Miranda! I didn’t think that you were being defensive. I thought you were asking a valid question, and standing up for your hard working husband and community. ! I don’t blame you one bit for that, and I was happy to have the opportunity to clarify my thoughts.

Maria July 26, 2008 at 9:58 am

BTW…those are some awesome pictures.

Regina July 26, 2008 at 12:52 pm

Economics, biology, botany, nutrition and more – all in a single “field” trip.

Amazing, isn’t it!

Hannah July 27, 2008 at 12:19 pm

Great post!
Tell them they grow the real stuff here in upstate New York and that we grow it in our garden – the colorful kind for popcorn too!
Its so great that you’re teaching your children where food comes from.

Mompaca July 27, 2008 at 4:21 pm

It is amazing that our kids are so out of touch with farming and where things come from. You are very lucky in that you have a family farm to take them to instead of some “farm” for tourism.

Thanks for recom the movie. I can’t wait to watch it.

Those bandana shorts are great. Please do more tutorials.

Annika July 27, 2008 at 10:20 pm

I buy beautiful delicious sweet corn at our farmer’s market in Hollywood, and all the vendors there are within 200 miles of Los Angeles, so… I think I want to start driving and look for the corn fields.

Lisa Kirker July 28, 2008 at 11:13 am

Great post!

Lisa Clarke August 1, 2008 at 9:50 pm

Where do they grow the real corn? New Jersey! It’s the most delicious, mouthwatering corn ever. Mmmmmmm.

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