I spent last Friday evening watching the documentary King Corn in a packed conference room at the St. Cloud Civic Center. King Corn is an engaging film that efficiently and entertainingly (Who knew Fisher-Price farm sets could tell us so much about policy and economics?) tells the story of how corn is raised, where it goes when it leaves the land, and what its ubiquitousness means to human, environmental and economic health. Anyone familiar with Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation will not be surprised by the conclusions of the film: corn is way, way too much of a good thing, and government policy is only making things worse. That message was not new to most of the other people present in the room. They were all attendees of the 2008 Minnesota Organic Conference—farmers, marketers, government personnel, researchers, activists and various other players in the sustainable ag world who have dedicated their lives to fight the monocropping malaise brought on by corn, corn and more corn. But what struck me about the film was the helplessness exhibited by the various subjects of the Maize Monarchy. Everyone interviewed—from farmers to university scientists to a former USDA head—seemed a little perplexed as to how to extract themselves out of a system where we don’t so much as raise corn, as serve at its beck and call. They were being carried along by the powerful corn current and didn’t seem willing or able to swim to shore and strike out in a different direction. When the lights went up at the end of the film, a bit of a cloud hung over the room. For me, that dark feeling didn’t lift until 8:30 the following morning, when farmer Tom Frantzen opened his mouth and let loose one of the most inspiring keynotes I’ve heard in a long time. Take a listen to what he had to say in episode 45 of the Ear to the Ground podcast. He makes one believe that palace coups are possible.
By coincidence, Tom and Irene Frantzen farm within 30 miles of Greene, Iowa, the town where King Corn was filmed. In recent years, their crop and livestock farm has become a model for how food can be raised in the Midwest using sustainable methods. They’ve hosted numerous field days and extensive on-farm research has been conducted on the Frantzen operation. They have proven you can produce crops and livestock in the Midwest using diverse systems that protect the environment and are economically viable.
I’ve visited the Frantzen farm several times over the years, and what’s impressed me is that they weren’t always sustainable. When they got started farming in the 1970s, the Frantzens raised a lot of corn using a lot of chemicals, and produced livestock such as hogs in a confinement-type system. But during the 1980s it became clear that farming this way was not sustainable economically or environmentally. Like many innovative farmers within the sustainable agriculture community, the Frantzens aren’t afraid of change, and they aren’t immobilized by the political-industrial complex that thinks it runs agriculture these days.
The 370-acre Frantzen farm is now certified organic and it utilized innovations such as shelter belts, managed rotational grazing and deep-straw pork production. Tom and Irene’s conversion to organic hog production is particularly inspiring. As Tom told me in 2000 for an article in the Land Stewardship Letter, the day he turned his hogs out of confinement into a hoop house bedded down with straw was more than a tweak in production systems—it was a life-changing experience. “I peeked into the hoop house to see 180 pigs in one massive straw nest—snoring,” Tom recalled. “I laughed until I cried. Their stress was gone, and so was mine. I know I’ll never go back to confinement. Once you cross that road, there is no way you can go back.”
As Frantzen explained at the Organic Conference last Saturday, such a moment of clarity is important on his farm because it proves that he is not separating his mode of making a living from his values and quality of life goals. That’s one of the basic tenets of Holistic Management. The Frantzens have been trained in this decision-making and goal-setting system, and Tom says it has helped them figure out how to take a big picture view of the farm and life in general, and adapt to changes along the way. It’s also helped them monitor whether a “tool” has become a means to an end, or an end in itself—a tail wagging the agricultural dog.
Realizing that something like raising corn has become a self-destructive goal, rather than the means to a healthier end is not easy, especially if you are “getting by” somewhat comfortably (the recent spike in corn prices is making life pretty comfortable for some corn farmers). As Tom said on Saturday: “Changes are not created by comfortable people.” And although high corn prices may bring temporary comfort, what about the future? Are we loyal to raising corn, no matter what the long-term costs, or are we loyal to a long-term sustainable future? To Frantzen, the choice is simple: “Being loyal to the future is what we have to have.” (Loyalty to the future has become a big issue recently within the sustainable agriculture community, as concerns are raised that farmers raising organic and natural livestock will get out of the business so they can focus on raising high-priced feed grains for short-term profits.)
Frantzen’s statement about comfort and its relationship to change brought me back to King Corn, where many of the subjects of the film seemed, if not pleasantly comfortable, somewhat comfortably numbed by what corn was doing to their communities, to the land and to their families. None of them seemed to like what was going on, but they weren’t uncomfortable enough to change things. Even the owner of a giant beef feedlot (a major user of corn) in Colorado just shrugged his shoulders and said the dominance of corn was the result of the American consumer’s demand for cheap meat and there wasn’t much he could do about it. Earl “fencerow-to-fencerow” Butz, interviewed in a nursing home and a feeble shadow of his former USDA Big Cheese self, didn’t make a convincing case that when he was ag secretary he had any more control over the situation than the local farmer. People like that would have us believe it’s just the invisible hand of King Corn moving us around like chess pieces. I can’t buy that we’ve all become so sheep-like. In fact, people like Tom and Irene Frantzen are proving that independence and self-determination are still alive and well in rural America.
It’s important here not to focus exclusively on corn as the bad guy. Let’s not forget it makes a good feed grain and source of human food, and that it grows well in the Midwest. I can speak from experience—there’s nothing like bringing in the last load of corn on a crisp fall day. But in case you doubt corn’s dominance of agriculture (and society) is out of control, consider this: in 1970 66.9 million acres were planted to corn. In 2004, that figure was 80.9 million acres. By 2007, 92.9 million acres of yellow gold covered the landscape. In some southwest Minnesota counties, well over 90 or 95 percent of farmland is given over to nothing but maize.
But corn is not inherently evil. The same attitudes and policies that made corn the monocrop king could make lima beans or apples or even pasture grass into too much of a good thing. All in good measure. Tom Frantzen himself raises corn and says he enjoys it too much to give it up completely. Note: he enjoys corn, and feels in control of the relationship he has with it. In the Frantzens’ case, corn is part of a diverse crop rotation that features small grains, soybeans and hay. And once it is harvested, that corn is fed to the Frantzens’ livestock which then produce manure for the farm’s soil, completing a tightly looped nutrient cycle on the operation.
Corn isn’t the enemy. Our comfortable relationship with it is. “Who creates change?” Frantzen asked rhetorically on Saturday. “Uncomfortable people create change.”
Here’s to people like Tom Frantzen remaining quite uncomfortable.