The Book That Made the ‘Hog Barons’ Squeal

A Q&A with author Austin Frerick on how the “barons” responded to his book and what consolidation in the food industry means for Main Street

Nina Elkadi June 6, 2024

In his new book, Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry (Island Press, 2024), Austin Frerick identifies contemporary “Barons” in seven different corporations—such as Cargill, Inc., the Driscoll’s and the conglomerate JAB Holding Company—who have taken over food systems and re-shaped communities. Frerick writes in the introduction, “I refer to these people as ‘barons’ to hearken back to Gilded Age robber barons such as John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan because I believe that we are living in a parallel moment when a few titans have the power to shape industries.”

A fellow at the Thurman Arnold Project at Yale University and former Treasury Department official, Frerick has been among the leading experts and researchers in competition policy and antitrust examining food industry consolidation. As co-chair of the Biden campaign’s Agriculture Antitrust Policy Committee, he helped advise several of the leading Democratic presidential candidates on agricultural policy leading up to the 2020 election.

Frerick’s interest in the barons of today’s food-industry is also personal. As a seventh-generation Iowan, Frerick’s interest in antitrust policy began as an undergraduate at Grinnell College where he researched corporate power in Iowa’s slaughterhouse communities.

Photo of Austin Frerick by Kris Graves, cover image of Barons from Island Press.

Barn Raiser spoke with Frerick about how agricultural consolidation has changed the landscape of rural America, and how to bring rural people out from their local Walmart and back onto “Main Street.”

What is it like writing about your home?

It started off as angry and it changed into profound sadness. I think that’s because the origin of the book is in Iowa. “The Hog Barons” chapter is what started this whole thing. This book came about because I published that article in Vox on the hog barons at Iowa Select Farms in Iowa, and I got a book deal from that. I noticed that I changed the tone from when I wrote it as a magazine article and made it into a book chapter. It now reads to me as profoundly sad, like it all kind of fell apart in Iowa. It’s grappling with the Iowa I grew up in and what it’s become, from the anger that’s everywhere to just how industrial the landscape has become.

You wrote that “as farms consolidate, more and more of the wealth leaves rural communities and flows to the Cargills of the world.” You also describe how your hog barons live in a gated community in Des Moines — far from the pollution and working conditions they are creating. A few weeks after your book came out, Jeff and Deb Hansen of Iowa Select Farms, the hog barons you highlight in chapter one, published an op-ed in the Des Moines Register, where they called themselves “stewards of [their] land and communities.” What was your reaction to that op-ed?

They employ their own spokesperson, like someone’s job is to do this for a living, and I just thought it was so poorly written. It reinforced in my head that no one’s ever the villain in their own story. And they’re just delusional. They’re living in a delusional world. They’re just not living in the same world we’re living, and I think the op-ed reflected that. To call themselves stewards of the land with a straight face, it’s just like, no one in Iowa thinks that. That’s an accepted reality at this point.

You hosted a book event in Iowa Falls, where the hog barons are from. What was the reception to your book like there?

Honestly that one shocked me the most. I was actually nervous for that event. I really haven’t been nervous at all during this whole book process. That was the one time I was a little worried for my safety. I turned that tracking thing on my phone so my husband could follow me. It’s a little scary, it’s like you’re going into the heart of the beast. At every book event someone asked me am I worried about my safety, which was, you know, an unnerving question to get all the time. But I had a completely different reaction when I got there. I was shocked. Not only at the turnout—I mean, like 45-50 people—but that there was not one dissenting voice. It was among the most incredible after-talk experiences I’ve had because it felt like a third or half of the room came up and talked to me afterwards, because they all know Jeff and Deb, the hog barons.

They all told me a different story of how Iowa Select Farms bamboozled the community from promises they made and didn’t keep for Des Moines and the intimidation tactics they used to build their empire. Iowa Falls is a beautiful town. It was the epitome of the American Dream for a lot of people and then Jeff and Deb just come in and kind of destroy things to their own personal benefit, and then they hightail it out of there. That’s one thing I kept hearing from people, how they did all this stuff, and then they just left.

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In the conclusion of your book, you discuss how “a sense of a distinct regional and local identity” disappears when local businesses disappear. “Unlike the barons, the owners of local businesses live in the communities they serve and are stakeholders in their success. Losing them means losing the glue that binds communities together.” What would need to change for the “Main Street” in rural communities to be revitalized?

This culture of efficiency we live in has stripped us of our community. It views everything as an Excel sheet. There are no coffee beans native to Iowa, you can get coffee anywhere. So much of what you’re buying into is interaction with another human, a sense of being. People bought coffee from my mom because of the human connection and Excel can’t capture that. I was really determined to make that point. Because I saw my mom, who used to work for her own coffee store, and later worked at a corporate Starbucks in Target

These communities thrive when middle class family farms are around. The biggest way to do that is by putting animals back on the land. These confinements have just destroyed rural communities in every way possible. We also need old fashioned trust busting and antitrust enforcement.

Could you explain how CAFOs are connected to Main Street? How are confinements impacting Main Street?

Denise O’Brien in southwest Iowa really drove home this point to me. She’s a longtime activist, and she talked about how much her street has changed in her lifetime. First of all, one human being can only watch so many cows on pasture—you can’t do robotics for that. Family farms pay local taxes, send their kids to local schools and spend their money locally in town. When that consolidates to one person who owns a big metal shed stuffed full of animals, and the owner of the asset lives in an urban rich community, and then has a low wage worker pop by and take care of things, that’s a very different occupation. It’s the difference between watching a cow on pasture to hauling out dead pig bodies, which is what a lot of that work entails. There’s a whole undercurrent of trauma a lot of these low wage workers experience from basically being surrounded by this incredibly cruel production model that is full of death and destruction.

You write that to change the current system and to “build a more balanced food system” we need to “challenge power directly.” How are you hoping your book will mobilize others to build a more just food system?

That’s my nice Iowa way of rejecting the whole change the food system with your fork mentality that’s been the theory of change the last few decades. To me, it just bifurcated the food system between those that go to the New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City and those go to Walmart. No one’s ever going to get you a seat at the table. So you have to fight for it.

Nina Elkadi

Nina Elkadi is a writer from Iowa who reports on the intersection of climate change and agriculture. Her work also explores the manipulation of science and how corporate negligence affects consumers and workers.

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