Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America's Food Industry by Austin Frerick.

Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America's Food Industry
by Austin Frerick
Island Press (March 26, 2024)

Few books about America's industrial agriculture system and food industry uncover the billionaires behind its biggest corporations.  But a new exposé by Austin Frerick, a former tax economist at the U.S. Treasury Department and current fellow at Yale University's Thurman Arnold Project, reveals the amassed fortunes of Big Ag's most powerful families.  Barons: Money, Power, and Corruption of America's Food Industry exposes these ill-gotten gains and a cadre of complicit government players who made it all possible.  The USDA's dismal Census of Agriculture (February 13, 2024) disclosed that 141,733 farms shuttered between 2017 and 2022.  Barons reveals that these losses happened at the same time that big food producers and merchants garnered both stunning profits and government handouts. 

Frerick is an expert in agriculture policy with an antitrust law focus. He served as a co-chair for the Biden campaign's Agriculture and Antitrust Policy Committee. In Barons, Frerick steers his experience and scholarship into a pointed denunciation of Big Ag's unbridled and monopolistic wealth. It's an overdue censure. In fact, many times during the book, I was surprised by a recurring sense of personal validation. Being from rural Iowa and witnessing the 1980's Farm Crisis take hold of my family and neighbors, Barons takes a long overdue stand for the farm community of my youth. It's a painful loss knowing that today's industrial food system rises from the ashes of America's family farms. And it is no accident.

For folks who haven't kept up with our recent history in food production, Barons will be a wake-up call about the food in our grocery stores. Most Americans can agree that we want to see family farms with pastured livestock and tidy croplands dotting the countryside. We want to think that most of our groceries come from these untroubled places of our imagination. But Frerick shows us that this earlier model of farming has been absent or in a state of decline for a generation. The meteoric rise of industrial-scale farming in the last 50 years means that the food we buy today assuredly comes from warehouses packed with living animals under a whir of exhaust fans or from cropland doused with Roundup.

While Frerick offers the details of this agricultural dystopia, his focus is elsewhere. He wants to expose the families and policymakers who've built this system. Resurrecting data about today's confinement farms, labor violations, and environmental pollution, Frerick presses beyond the emotional draw of disgraceful industrial practices to take aim at the system's big money. He unmasks the people who build fortunes by garnering monopolistic shares in agriculture and food distribution consolidation – obscene wealth, unearned.

Author Austin Frerick. (Photo supplied by Austin Frerick)

Through seven carefully researched chapters (there are 58 pages of citations), Frerick shapes the story of the American food industry around a few families who make a killing from our government-backed industrial model. Each chapter uncovers an individual family's origins in ag business and ways they gamed policy and deregulation to their own advantage. Some of these family names will be familiar – like the Cargill-MacMillans of Cargill, Inc. and the Waltons of Walmart. But most of the families in Barons are hidden behind their brands. The hog producers, Jeff and Deb Hansen, built a Midwestern empire called Iowa Select Farms. Mike and Sue McCloskey own a massive confinement dairy operation called Fair Oaks Farms and invented a modified-milk called “Fairlife.” The Batista brothers, Wesley and Joesley, own a global network of slaughterhouses under the brand JBS.

Frerick uses these families' stories to look at America's history with farm practice and policy. “Each chapter,” he says, “is built around both a baron and a key concept. For example, the Grain Baron chapter is really about the Farm Bill. I used the story of the Grain Barons to tell the history of the Farm Bill and how it has corrupted the food system.” Likewise, , a chapter about the McCloskey dairy barons exposes agriculture's checkoff system–in which individual farmers must pay a fee on each unit of product they bring to market. Frerick skillfully reveals how an otherwise mundane industry marketing program has been twisted to support lobbying on behalf of major corporations, not farmers. . In a carefully researched book, Frerick makes ordinary insider knowledge both compelling and urgent.

At times, Frerick deftly switches his approach to include his his family’s own connection to these food empires. Frerick's mom owned a bakery and his dad drove truck and delivered beer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He positions his family's experience against this backdrop of what's happening across rural America as the billionaires of Big Ag gather ever growing shares of their markets. From the emptying out of rural communities to the pastures that used to contain small herds of cows, Frerick dispels the illusion that rural and small town America is just a wholesome destination for weekend bike rides and microbrews. In truth, Rural America has been sacrificed for a brutal food industry and the personal fortunes of its barons. And Frerick doesn't let us look away.

Sara June Jo-Saebo is the founder of the Midwest History Project and author of I Have Walked One Mile After Dark in a Hard Rain, a book that uncovered new facts about an 1848 settlement of Black Americans in Wisconsin. She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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