|Ian Cheney met with students around a campfire at the home of biology and environmental studies teacher Jenn Rinehart.|
It all started with a simple question: why are so many things made from corn?
That question planted the seed of a thought, which grew into a film, which blossomed into a career focusing on the issues surrounding sustainability for Ian Cheney, who visited Western Reserve Academy as the 2012 Knight Fellow.
Cheney is the co-creator of the feature documentary King Corn and director of The Greening of Southie and the feature documentary The City Dark. He is also leader of Wicked Delicate, a documentary and advocacy company in Brooklyn, N.Y., director of the film Truck Farm, and co-founder of FoodCorps.
Over the course of his visit, Cheney shared, through three all-school lectures and visits with students in a variety of settings, how he developed his career and how our choices as consumers can make a difference.
“Pick something small that you consume, eat or use, figure out where it came from and its story, and then decide if you are OK with that story on some level,” Cheney said. “It can be so overwhelming to try and tackle too many issues, so by starting small we can stay sane.
“When I started changing my food habits it started with just meat. Then I moved to eggs and dairy and then I started growing my own vegetables. If we get frustrated that we are not changing fast enough, we will give up on the idea that change is even possible. We have to make it easier on ourselves to be better consumers.”
Cheney first started thinking about his food choices while an underclassman at Yale. One of his professors shared a story about a group of Peruvian farm children who had been poisoned from drinking milk accidently mixed with a pesticide used on the grape farm where their parents worked.
“The fact that he tied the deaths so closely to our dining hall (which served grapes harvested in Peru) made me want to change,” Cheney said. “It has been a continual process of trial and error since then. We (Cheney and his college roommate, Curt Ellis) wanted to make a difference on campus and try to make people realize that farms exist and that food has a backstory. Today the Yale campus looks much different as there is an on-campus farm and the food in the dining hall comes from local farms.”
It was while re-evaluating their own food choices that Cheney and Ellis started questioning why so many farmers grew corn and its environmental impact.
“You can take the starch from corn and make thousands of products,” Cheney said. “Corn is also used to feed cattle and the feed lots in the U.S. produce an amount of waste that is equal to a city of 1.7 million people. In addition, because of the conditions in the feed lots, 70 percent of the antibiotics consumed in the U.S. are by cattle.”
The research led the duo to produce the 2007 documentary King Corn, which earned a 2008 George Foster Peabody Award. In the documentary, Cheney and Ellis plant a single acre of corn in Iowa and follow the crop’s journey from the cornfield to the dinner plate.
“When we were making the documentary it surprised us how you can’t understand the food industry without knowing a little bit about everything,” Cheney said. “When we moved to Iowa we thought farming would be stereotypical images of red barns, girls in pigtails and sunshine. But the farms looked very different from what I had pictured and the farming itself was very different.”
Cheney and Ellis quickly learned that farming was not as simple as planting seeds in the ground. First, they had to sign up for government subsidies. Then, before planting 31,000 seeds that are genetically altered to resist herbicides, they had to inject their acre of farmland with an ammonia-based fertilizer. Their acre of corn produced 10,000 pounds of corn that was sent to feed lots in Colorado, and the runoff from their farm extends all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
King Corn also caught the attention of the corn growers industry, which started a $25 million advertising campaign touting the benefits of corn shortly after the film came out.
His experiences in Iowa, and the lack of farmland in his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y., led Cheney to start a farm in the bed of an old pickup truck. He turned the endeavor into a short film, Truck Farm, and a learning opportunity for local schools.
“The more we can embed in our education that anything we consume has a backstory and comes from somewhere, then we can become better consumers,” Cheney said. “We started visiting schools that were unable to get to a farm so that, maybe, we can get more young people interested in food and they will become farmers one day.”
Urban farms have grown in popularity across the country in recent years and, while Cheney said it is not realistic that the food produced can feed an entire city, there are other benefits.
“Urban farms introduce more green space into a city and studies have shown that people feel better when they have access to green space and natural light,” he said. “They also provide fresh food in cities where it is not available – what are known as food deserts. In those areas urban farmers can chip away at the obesity and high diabetic rates in the residents. Finally, urban agriculture reminds people in a city that food has a story – it comes from somewhere.”
Cheney shared with students some of the projects he is currently working on with Wicked Delicate, including Missing Modernist, a documentary on architect Robert Metcalf, and Greening the Gulf, which focuses on the efforts to build LEED-certified buildings in Doha, Qatar.
“Our challenge is to craft a story that people want to watch,” he said. “We are always thinking about what the audience wants to find out. Our films are not just trying to make an argument, we also need to tell a story.”
He also offered advice for those looking to create a job for themselves the way he did.
“It is important to not be passive in your career-making process,” Cheney said. “If you don’t find a job posting that fits your skills and hopes, that may mean you have to create that job and make the world better for it. It has been a pleasure to create this quirky career of film making, advocacy and truck farming, and it is very rewarding to be able to hire people with similar interests.”
At the end of his visit, Cheney reflected on a student body that is eager to make a difference in the world.
“In every class I have been in at WRA, I’ve had a student tell me they want to get involved or know someone who wants to get involved in some aspect of farming,” Cheney said. “I am very buoyed by the enthusiasm that young people have in thinking about their food choices. I have also been really impressed at how the students are respectful of each other, not just me.
“How rare is it to have a community like this that challenges you and supports you in equal measures?”
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