Wally Hartshorn (wallyhartshorn) wrote,
Wally Hartshorn

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"King Corn" and Community-Supported Agriculture

I've fallen behind here and have some catching up to do, but I'll try not to do it all in one post. (It's better to avoid writing something so long that people fall asleep before they reach the end.)

A week ago last Tuesday (i.e. January 15), Dawn and I dropped off Lando with Rosie & GM, then went to the Liberty Brew & View showing of King Corn. By the end of the evening, I was giving up corn-fed beef, Dawn was giving up soda (well, cutting back at least), and we'd bought $500 of fresh produce.

Liberty Brew & View is a monthly gathering, organized by Will Reynolds, to watch a politically-themed movie (usually a documentary) while enjoying some dinner and/or drinks. It's held in the back room of a bar which used to be a one-screen movie theater. After the movie, there's generally someone to speak for a few minutes about the topic. Previous gatherings have drawn about 20-30 people. This one drew over 100!

King Corn was very good. It's a documentary made by a couple of recent college grads who, after hearing that theirs is the first generation of Americans that might have a shorter lifespan than their parents, decide to keep a detailed food diary of what they eat while on a road trip. They eventually have their hair chemically analyzed to learn what it says about their eating habits. When we eat, whatever our body digests eventually is used to make hair, so chemically analyzing a hair sample can reveal what it is we've been eating. In their case, they learned that most of the carbon in their hair came from corn.


It turns out that corn is in a stunningly large variety of foods. For example, if you buy a burger, fries, and a soda, the burger is probably made from cattle that were fed corn, the fries were probably fried in corn oil, the soda is primarily high fructose corn syrup, and even the ketchup might well contain high fructose corn syrup. For that matter, even the juice that you buy for your toddler might contain high fructose corn syrup.

After learning this, these 2 college grads decided that they were going to move to Iowa for a year, raise 1 acre of corn, then follow it to see where it goes.

As I said, it was a very good movie. It was quite funny, as well as thought-provoking, and I learned plenty.

One thing we learned is that beef cattle tend to be sent to feedlots, where they are fed corn for about 3 months before they are slaughtered. Feeding them corn fattens them up more quickly (and in a much smaller area) than letting them eat grass. However, cattle evolved to eat grass, not corn. They'll eat the corn, but it does very bad things to their stomachs and digestive tract. If they aren't slaughtered quickly, they'll die within a few months anyway. In addition, to ensure that they stay "healthy", they are given large quantities of antibiotics. This kills most of the bacteria, of course, but the ones that it leaves behind are the ones that are resistant. These bacteria then are able to reproduce more easily, since they aren't competing with the other bacteria. The result is an increase in the population of drug-resistant bacteria.

After learning how the cattle are treated, Dawn told me that I wasn't allowed to eat corn-fed beef anymore. I was slightly annoyed by her remark, not because I disagreed with it, but because I had already been thinking along those lines earlier, partly as a result of reading Plenty. I'd much rather get credit for announcing the decision on my own rather than merely agreeing to a decision made by someone else! But that's just nitpicking on my part.

The end result is the same: No more corn-fed beef. So that either means finding grass-fed beef or becoming a vegetarian.

Actually, I'd already been toying with the idea of becoming a vegetarian again. I had been a vegetarian for about 8 months several years ago, partly just to see whether I could do it. I didn't go 100%, however. I described myself as a "private vegetarian, social omnivore". In other words, if I were out with friends, I didn't want them to have to make special arrangements to handle my eating requirements. If sausage pizza were ordered, I'd eat it. If there was a hotdog roast, I'd roast a hotdog. I've since learned that the term "flexitarian" describes what I was.

So I might well take the plunge and become a flexitarian again. We'll see.

One of the most interesting themes of the movie was the role of government subsidies in the production of corn. Industrial agribusiness operations are given millions of dollars, while small farmers growing fresh veggies get nothing. The sound bite for that was, "We subsidize Happy Meals, not healthy meals." When the guys start the process of raising their one acre of corn, they sign up for a federal government subsidy -- $28 for growing 1 acre of corn. Near the end of the movie, they total up all of their costs (renting the land, seed, fertilizer, herbicides), then subtract that from their proceeds from selling the 180 bushels of corn they grew, and find that they lost $19. In other words, they didn't actually make a profit from growing corn; they just made a profit from the government subsidies.

Anyway, here's the trailer:

(One of the guys you see in the trailer is Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which I had coincidentally just ordered before seeing King Corn. Small world, huh?)

After the showing of the film, there was a panel discussion featuring 2 local farmers, as well as 2 representatives of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. They discussed industrial agribusiness, organic farming, and buying locally-grown food -- topics that have very much been on my mind since reading Plenty.

One of the panelists mentioned that Hill Street Farms had 3 slots left in their community-supported agriculture program. I was quite excited, because that was one of the things I had specifically wanted to ask the panelists: Are there any CSAs in the Springfield area? When the panelists were done, I quickly went to talk to Andy Heck of Hill Street Farms, asked him for the details of the CSA, and told him that I would discuss it with my wife and then call him the next day. (Okay, so technically I didn't buy $500 of fresh produce that very night.)

So, what is "community-supported agriculture"? The short version is that you pay a farmer or group of farmers in advance for food that they will provide later. In the case of the Hill Street Farms CSA, it's $500 paid in January for fresh produce made available every Saturday for 24 weeks (from about mid-May until late-October). By agreeing in advance to buy the food, the farmer is able to grow a wider variety of foods, because he has a guaranteed sale.

For us, one advantage of participating in the CSA is it's a way to kickstart our "buy more local food, eat more fresh food" plan. Because we've already paid for the food in advance, that's a strong incentive to actually pick up the food and eat it. We have a Farmer's Market (and that's where the weekly pickups are), but to be honest there are some Saturdays where we've felt more like staying home rather than making the trip. And, when we have gone, we've tended to buy the same very small variety of fruits and vegetables each time (sweet corn, tomatoes, strawberries, peaches, maybe some broccoli). This will encourage us to eat more fresh produce, as well as a wider variety.

Of course, it will also require us to do significantly more cooking than we have in the past! I did a Google search on "beginning vegetarian cooking" and the top hit was Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. The reviews on Amazon were all good, except for a few that complained that it was too basic. Well, that sounded perfect for me! But before I had a chance to order the book, Dawn handed me one of her cookbooks -- Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison! Well, that saved me a bit of money!

Of course, before we can really start cooking, we'll need to find the countertops in the kitchen, but that's another story.

(Hey! Wake up! You've reached the end!)
Tags: books, community, dieting, environment, health, movies, vegetarian

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