Film highlights Iowa farming practices

Monday, January 11, 2010 9:45 pm,, The Cedars Valley homepage

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RICK CHASE A farmer spreads anhydrous ammonia in a 2007 file photo. (RICK CHASE / Courier Staff Photographer)

DECORAH – Iowa agriculture takes center stage again in a documentary about how farming practices impact the environment.

A little more than two years ago, the documentary "King Corn" was released. The award-winning film showed how 1 acre of corn is produced and the impact subsidized production has on America, like obesity.

"Big River: A King Corn Companion" made its state debut Friday at a Practical Farmers of Iowa event in Marshalltown. The 28-minute sequel documents the environmental impact of raising the state’s most abundant crop.

The only Northeast Iowa screening will be Jan. 23 at the Oneota Film Festival in Decorah.

Both films will be shown at the festival, hosted by Luther College and sponsored by Seed Savers, starting at 1:15 p.m in Valders Memorial Hall of Science, room 206. A panel discussion will follow.

"It’s going to be fabulous," said Ruth Jenkins, festival director. "The film raises a lot of questions for Iowans how we’re farming. It’s a scary place to be when people are saying we have to change what we’re doing."

"Big River" tracks the trail of fertilizers and chemicals used to produce corn. The film examines how farm runoff travels through waterways and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico, where pollution has created an aquatic dead zone. The goal isn’t to blame farmers, film officials said, but to scrutinize the safety of farm chemicals and highlight the importance of soil and water conservation.

Filmmakers Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney, who live on the East Coast but whose grandfathers farmed near Greene, returned to Iowa to evaluate how the pesticides and fertilizer they applied touched the world. The friends traveled via canoe on waterways to find out, talking to experts along the way.

"The goal is not to indict farmers, but to encourage all of us to weigh the long-term consequences to the short-term gains," producer Aaron Wolf said. "We need to make wise decisions for the next two generations and not the next harvest."

Ellis noted farmers are in a tough spot. The government, economy and consumers want as much food as possible, and that means chemicals are needed, he said.

Marian Riggs Gelb, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council, encourages Iowans to see the film.

"I think it’s entertaining, yet accurate in the depiction of consequences that are occurring because of the decisions we’re making in agriculture," Gelb said.

The Oneota Film Festival is free and open to the public. However, attendees are encouraged to pre-register online at, which also lists a complete schedule of events.