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Meeting King Corn

(article, Curt Ellis)

Former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz died February 2 at age 98. Known for his philosophy of “get big or get out,” Butz ushered in an era of 1,000-acre corn farms and billion-bushel harvests before a racist joke forced him from Washington in 1976.

I was born three years after Butz left office, but I grew up eating the bounty his policies left behind. Thanks to production incentives that began with the 1973 Farm Bill and his “fencerow to fencerow” stump speeches, federally subsidized corn-based meats and sweets were the staples of my childhood.

But reared on high-fructose corn syrup and corn-fed beef, my generation has seen an epidemic increase in diet-related disease, and the situation looks worse for our younger siblings. The Centers for Disease Control now predicts that current first-graders may stand a one in three chance of contracting Type II diabetes. 

So when I graduated from college, my best friend, Ian Cheney, and I decided to see up-close what was going wrong in our food system, by moving to Iowa and running a one-acre model farm. My cousin Aaron Woolf filmed our experience, and together we wound up with 10,000 pounds of corn and a documentary film.

[%image "reference-image" float=left width=450 credit="Photo courtesy Curt Ellis" caption="A photo from 1976 with (clockwise from upper left) Donald Rumsfeld, Gerald Ford, Rogers Morton, Earl Butz, and Alan Greenspan. Butz is telling a joke en route somewhere on Air Force One. The image hung in Butz's apartment when Curt and Ian visited him in Indiana."]

We stayed for two years in Iowa, and learned more than we ever wanted to know about how agribusiness works. We injected fertilizers, toured feedlots, and tried our best to cash in on the Butz-era subsidies that still reward all-out production. We drove a $400,000 combine, and tried to make high-fructose corn syrup in a Cuisinart.

But the most remarkable moment during our stay came just as we were getting ready to leave. We found out that the architect of the modern diet was living in a suburban nursing home in Indiana, and he was willing to see us. 
Dr. Butz, as he preferred to be called, had a modest apartment, with Indian corn on the door and gag gifts on the bookshelves. When I shook his hand, my voice cracked.

“We’re . . . growing an acre of corn,” I said. 

“Well, it’s changed since the days when I was your age,” he shot back.
Dr. Butz recounted the birth of the modern food system with pride. Cheap food, fueled by federal production incentives for corn and soy, had quieted protests over expensive meat and eased worries about hunger. It had untied the hands of entrepreneurial farmers who wanted to experiment with economies of scale. And, in a point Dr. Butz returned to several times, it had left Americans with so much disposable income that even kids my age could afford cars. At his alma mater, Purdue University, there was a parking shortage.

For the better part of an hour, Ian and I tried to muster up the courage to challenge a system that spent, from 1995 to 2005 alone, $51 billion subsidizing cheap corn. Why flood the nation with processed commodities that become fast food? Why drive family farms out of business for the sake of grain companies? Why not subsidize fruits and vegetables in place of corn syrup?  

But as our meeting went on, I realized that Dr. Butz’s policies of abundance were somehow understandable. When Earl Butz finished college in 1933, it was the middle of the Great Depression; when Ian and I graduated, it was the obesity epidemic. I had never known scarcity, and had little respect for its power.

Still, for those in my generation, watching the House and Senate go to finalize another Farm Bill based on the old model, it’s hard to see any lasting appeal of Butz’s program: more cheap corn, cheap soy, and cheap food. We’re ready for a new kind of farm policy, one that responds to our generation’s realities of obesity and Type II diabetes and leaves Butz’s fears of scarcity behind.

p(bio). Curt Ellis co-produced the documentary "King Corn." Currently a Food and Society Policy Fellow, he is 28.

For more of Curt Ellis' work, see his recent blog posts on [/mix/dinner_guest "The Dinner Guest Blog."]

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