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Kernals of wisdom in Ellis King Corn

by: Sam Cullman, 
Ian Cheney, left, and Lake Oswego native Curt Ellis taste their harvest in Greene, Iowa. Cheney and Ellis harvested enough corn to make 57,348 sodas, 3,894 burgers or 6,725 boxes of corn flakes. Corn, the nation’s most planted, processed and subsidized crop has serious implications for the health of Americans — and small farms.

Lake Oswego native Curt Ellis knows what it takes to make a compelling film. There must be some element that causes the audience to laugh, cry, reconsider a belief, or, in the case of 'King Corn,' lose their appetite.

'King Corn' is a feature documentary about two friends, one acre of corn and the subsidized food that drives our fast-food industry. The information that high fructose corn syrup is in most everything we eat is the element that may cause you to lose your appetite for the foods you are currently eating.

The two friends in the movie are Ellis, a Lakeridge High School Class of 1998 Super Pacer, and Ian Cheney, his best friend from their years attending Yale University. The two, along with Ellis' cousin Aaron Woolf, formed Mosaic Films Inc. following college graduation and produced 'King Corn,' a film with a very compelling message.

When asked what was the inspiration of the movie, Ellis answered, 'I think it was realizing that there is this incredible disconnect between people in my generation and the sources of our food. That, you know, to be graduating from college and have taken classes in history, philosophy and science and to know nothing about the most fundamental thing in life: where our food comes from, felt like a significant failing in my own education.'

During his years at Yale, he and Cheney were involved in forming the sustainable food programs at the school. They helped plant gardens and set policy for using local foods in food service programs.

'We were frustrated that people weren't thinking about farms at all,' he said. 'We were in Connecticut for four years but didn't have any relationship to the countryside that surrounds New Haven. So my best friend and I starting pulling various stunts to make agriculture somehow relevant.'

Stunts like releasing sheep on the Frisbee field and setting up a wading pool filled with manure for students to wade through wearing rubber boots. They organized cider press parties and other events to try to get people interested in food again.

Those projects were all connected with the Yale Sustainable Foods Project and that program has taken off pretty successfully since then.

'That was all about a very different kind of agriculture,' Ellis said. 'That was the alternative world of local fruits and vegetables, organic farming or farmers' markets. But that wasn't what we were eating.'

Ellis admitted that he and Cheney were making daily trips to Dunkin Donuts for coffee and doughnuts.

'We ate the same stuff that everybody eats in this culture,' he said. 'And we had this realization that the real core of the American diet was something else and it as still coming from far away, from big commodity farms in the Midwest.'

And so the 'King Corn' project was launched. Ellis and Cheney, along with director/producer Woolf went to Iowa to farm corn commercially. They leased one acre of prime Iowan farm land, planted, tended and harvested it to learn about corn's impact on our diet. They learned about genetically modified seeds and chemically processed corn syrup which is causing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. They learned how our tax dollars pay farmers to grow the crop and threatens family farms.

According to Ellis and the 'King Corn' Web site, Americans eat more than one ton of corn apiece each year, in the form of soda, fast food and thousands of household food staples. High fructose corn syrup is the most used sweetener in the U.S. Sixty percent cheaper than sugar; we have upped our consumption of HFCS from 0.6 pounds in 1970 to 73.5 pounds in 2000.

'It's in everything,' Ellis said as he reviewed food labels in his parent's Lake Oswego home.

Over 66 million acres were planted in corn in the U.S. in 1970; by 2007, the number had increased to 92.9 million acres. Production has increased too, with average yield increasing from 86 bushels per acre in Iowa in 1970 to 180 bushels per acre in 2007.

Ellis spoke briefly about the Farm Bill, legislation presented every seven years to our nation's lawmakers.

'The Farm Bill is an unbelievably complicated piece of legislature,' Ellis said. 'And the farm bill for a long time has been something that only the farm states have cared about. But in reality it's a piece of legislature that reaches into our homes three times a day, and is largely responsible for the food we eat. And changing that legislature will be a long process, but it is clear that the tide has turned and people recognize now that the greatest problem we're facing is abundance, rather than scarcity.'

'King Corn' is not an aggressive film politically. Cheney and Ellis preferred to present the facts in the hope that Americans would be compelled to foster their own changes.

The film premiered in New York Oct. 12, and has opened in key cities across the United States with great reception.

'The response has been great,' Ellis said. 'We're still onscreen in Boston after a month, we're held over on a good run in Los Angeles. This week we opened in Omaha, Corvallis, Portland, Austin and Chicago.'

The film is currently showing at the Hollywood Theater, located at 4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd. in Portland. Showtimes are 7:15 p.m. and 9 p.m. Fridays; 1:30 p.m ., 7:15 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and 7:15 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays.

'('King Corn') has been a huge, huge hit for us.' said Richard Beer, artistic director of the Hollywood Theater. 'We actually sold out opening night so it's going to be around for awhile. It's a nice little sleeper hit.'

Ellis said DVDs of the film will be available in the next few weeks through the Web site at www.kingcorn.net. He will be interviewed Sunday, Nov. 18 on CBS' Sunday Morning show at 6 a.m. on KOIN Channel 6.

'Everybody eats,' said Ellis. 'The response from farmers so far has been as much about interest in the health implications of the corn in our diets, as in the ramifications over production of corn may have for farming.'