Chatham University

Sustainability & the Environment

Chatham hosts special screenings of "King Corn" and "Big River" with director/producer Aaron Woolf on April 5-6

King Corn

Ian Cheney (left) and Curt Ellis sample their crop in Greene, Iowa. (Photo by Sam Cullman)

Director/producer Aaron Woolf returns to the screen and the nation’s consciousness with a feature documentary about two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation and impacts ecology far beyond the borders of Iowa. Chatham University will host a free screening of “King Corn,” the Peabody Award-winning feature documentary about the far-reaching impact of corn on our economy and our daily lives, at the University’s Eddy Theatre on Monday, April 5 at 7:00 p.m. Immediately following King Corn will be the Pittsburgh premiere of “Big River,” the new companion documentary to King Corn. Mr. Woolf will host a Q&A immediately following.

A second screening for the Chatham community will be held at Eden Hall Campus on Tuesday, April 6 at approximately 5:00 p.m. Transportation from the Shadyside Campus will be provided. For more information contact Chatham’s Office of Student Activities at or 412.365-1281.

In King Corn, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, best friends from college on the east coast, move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America’s most-productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat—and how we farm.

In Big River, Curt and Ian go to Iowa with a new mission: to investigate the environmental impact their acre of corn has sent to the people and places downstream. In a journey that spans from the heartland to the Gulf of Mexico, Ian and Curt trade their combine for a canoe––and set out to see the big world their little acre of corn has touched. On their trip, flashbacks to the pesticides they sprayed, the fertilizers they injected, and the soil they plowed now lead to new questions, explored by new experts in new places. Half of Iowa’s topsoil, they learn, has been washed out to sea. Fertilizer runoff has spawned a hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf. And back at their acre, the herbicides they used are blamed for a cancer cluster that reaches all too close to home.

Director and Producer Aaron Woolf received a Master’s in film at the University of Iowa, but got the bulk of his education in the field in Lima, Mexico City, and Los Angeles. In 2000, Aaron directed Greener Grass: Cuba, Baseball, and The United States, a WNET-ITVS co-production that won a Rockie Award and aired on PBS. In 2003, Aaron directed Dying to Leave: The Global Face of Human Trafficking and Smuggling, which won a Logie Award and aired on the PBS series Wide Angle. Aaron is the founder of Mosaic Films and an avid mountaineer.

About King Corn

Almost everything Americans eat contains corn: high fructose corn syrup, corn-fed meat, and corn-based processed foods are the staples of the modern diet. Ready for an adventure and alarmed by signs of their generation’s bulging waistlines, college friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis know where to go to investigate. Eighty years ago, Ian and Curt’s great-grandfathers lived just a few miles apart, in the same rural county in northern Iowa. Now their great-grandsons are returning with a mission: they will plant an acre of corn, follow their harvest into the world, and attempt to understand what they—and all of us—are really made of.

Ian and Curt arrive in the Midwest enthusiastic about their new endeavor. Iowa’s newest farmers lease an acre of land from a skeptical landlord and fill out a pile of paperwork to sign up for subsidies. The government will pay them $28 to grow their acre of corn—the first of many steps that reinforce the idea that more corn is what America needs.

Ian and Curt start the spring by injecting ammonia fertilizer. The chemical promises to increase yields fourfold, fueling the mission of abundance laid out for them. Then it’s planting time, and with a rented tractor, Ian and Curt set 31,000 seeds in the ground in 18 minutes. Their seed has been genetically modified for high yields and herbicide tolerance, and when the seedlings sprout, Ian and Curt apply a powerful spray to ensure that only their corn will thrive on their acre.

But where will all that corn go? Ian and Curt leave Iowa to find out, first considering their crop’s future as feed. In Colorado, rancher Sue Jarrett says her cattle should be eating grass. But with a surplus of corn, it costs less to raise cattle in confinement than to let them roam free: “The mass production of corn drives the mass production of protein in confinement.” Animal nutritionists confirm that corn makes cows sick and beef fatty, but it also lets consumers eat a $1 hamburger. Feedlot owner Bob Bledsoe defends America’s cheap food, but as Ian and Curt see in Colorado, the world behind it can be stomach turning. At one feedlot, 100,000 cows stand shoulder-to-shoulder, doing their part to transform Iowa corn into millions of pounds of fat-streaked beef.

Following the trail of high fructose corn syrup, Ian and Curt hop attempt to make a home-cooked batch of the sweetener in their kitchen. But their investigation of America’s most ubiquitous ingredient turns serious when they follow soda to its consumption in Brooklyn. Here, Type II diabetes is ravaging the community, and America’s addiction to corny sweets is to blame.

The breadth of the problem is now clear: the American food system is built on the abundance of corn, an abundance perpetuated by a subsidy system that pays farmers to maximize production. In a nursing home in the Indiana suburbs, Ian and Curt come face-to-face with Earl Butz, the Nixon-era Agriculture Secretary who invented subsidies. The elderly Butz champions the modern food system as an “Age of plenty” Ian and Curt’s great-grandfathers only dreamed of.

November pulls Ian and Curt back to Iowa. Their 10,000-pound harvest seems as grotesque as it is abundant. They haul their corn to the elevator and look on as it makes its way into a food system they have grown disgusted by. At a somber farm auction, Ian and Curt decide to tell their landlord they want to buy the acre. The next spring their cornfield has been pulled from production and planted in a prairie, a wild square surrounded by a sea of head-high corn.

About Big River

Big River opens with footage from the Iowa floods of 2008. Heavy rains devastated towns and cities and washed countless tons of topsoil, herbicides, and fertilizer off Iowa's fields and into its waterways. The floods call Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis back to Iowa to reconsider the ecological impacts left behind by the acre of corn they grew and followed in the Peabody winning 2007 documentary King Corn.

Where the first film was an investigation into food, Big River narrows its focus on water, exploring the myriad forms of pollution sent downstream by the modern farm. The action of the film unfolds in a series of chapters, each taking place on a different branch of the river system that carries Ian and Curt's runoff south from Greene, Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico.

The friends first learn that the herbicides they sprayed on their acre delivered residues to Flood Creek, the stream that runs along the edge of their old farm. These herbicides are turning up in drinking water, too––so millions of rural Americans have been exposed to agricultural toxins at the tap.

Following their runoff south by canoe, Ian and Curt enter the Cedar River, a waterway clouded with topsoil from Iowa's eroded land. Revisiting the intensive plowing they conducted in growing their King Corn farm, Ian and Curt learn that America's food supply depends on a fragile mantle of soil that covers the heartland––and is quickly washing away. In 100 years of farming, half of Iowa's soil wealth is gone. Making matters worse, erosion of carbon-rich topsoil is a major contributor to climate change.

Ian and Curt next visit the fertilizer factories that have replaced the natural fertility of the Corn Belt. At Terra Industries, furnaces fueled by natural gas extract nitrogen from the air, with 2000 cubic feet of fossil fuel required for Curt and Ian's acre alone. Gas-thirsty nitrogen has another ugly habit as well: it’s drawn powerfully to water, so spring rains carry it off the farm.

Further south, Des Moines, Iowa is home to the largest nitrate-removal facility in the world. There, managers of the local water utility face a challenge their coastal colleagues have scarcely heard of: fertilizer residues running in the drinking water at levels far above the legal limit. Thanks to their multi-million dollar plant, the Des Moines Water Works is able to keep its residents safe. But without it, the city's infants would face increased risk of disease or death from Blue Baby Syndrome.

The nitrate-removal plant in Des Moines only removes a small fraction of fertilizer residues in the Raccoon River, so the majority of Iowa's nitrates continue south, entering the Mississippi. Ian and Curt dock their red canoe and rejoin the river by paddleboat, winding up at the southernmost edge of Louisiana, where the Big River enters the Gulf. In the coastal town of Cocodrie, shrimpers are seeing a diminished catch and dead fish in their nets. The cause? A 300-mile Dead Zone where fertilizer-fueled algae blooms have choked off the sea-life. Shrimper Donald Lirette tells Ian and Curt their acre of corn is part of the problem: 'You're passin' your environmental problems down to me.'

Back in Iowa, Ian and Curt begin to wonder if their acre of corn could have contributed to another tragedy; one that had hit much closer to home. While their acre was maturing, LaVon Pyatt, who along with her husband Chuck had leased Ian and Curt their acre of land, was dying of a non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Ian and Curt hadn't imagined there could be a connection at the time, but indeed it now seems that there was: their acre sits in the middle of a cancer cluster that has claimed the lives of numerous women in the area. And the pesticides they sprayed are largely to blame.

In a journey that has spanned more than two thousand miles, Ian and Curt are back where they started, at an acre of land they asked to produce an abundant harvest... by any means necessary.


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