Food & Water featured

The concentrated ills of concentrated agribusiness

May 31, 2024

A review of Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry.

If you are a government-approved American hog farmer, you drive: a) a dusty pickup truck, from your barn to your local small-town feed store; b) a huge articulated tractor, through your thousand-acre fields of corn and soybeans; c) a private jet, which you fly from your midwestern corporate headquarters to a second or third home in Florida.

Barons, by Austin Frerick, published by Island Press, March 2024.

If you’ve read Austin Frerick’s new book Barons (Island Press, March 2024), you’ll pick the private jet. The hog farmer won’t drive to a small-town feed store, because small towns in agricultural areas are losing most of their businesses. The hog farmer won’t use a big tractor to till fields of corn and soybeans; as a hog specialist who raises no grain, he or she will buy feed “inputs” from big grain farmers who raise no animals.

But as two prominent US Department of Agriculture secretaries advocated, farmers should “get big or get out”. And a hog farmer who has really “got big” will want that private jet, either to get to a second home on the Gulf Coast or to make quick trips to Washington to lobby for subsidies and tax breaks.

In his highly readable book, Frerick describes the businesses of barons who dominate seven sectors of the US food industry. In the process he illuminates much in recent American history and goes a long way towards diagnosing environmental ills, socio-economic ills, and the ill health of so many food consumers.

Although two of the barons, Cargill Inc. and JAB Holding Company, are well over a hundred years old, all seven barons have seen explosive growth in the 40 years since the US government switched to very lax anti-trust regulations. Except for JAB (a little-known Luxembourg-based company that has recently swallowed coffee supply chains around the world), all the highlighted barons are US-based, and all are very much involved in international trade.

One of the companies is neither a grower, processor, nor retailer of food – its core businesses are in marketing and in owning and licensing genetics. Driscoll’s is the major brand of strawberries and several other berries sold in supermarkets in the US as well as in Canada. (Frerick writes that they control about one-third of the US berry market.) The company buys from 750 growers in two dozen countries, employing more than one hundred thousand people. The growers work to Driscoll’s specifications, but Driscoll’s has no legal responsibility to those hundred thousand workers.

Now that American consumers have learned to buy fresh – albeit nearly tasteless – fruit twelve months of the year, it’s essential for Driscoll’s to have suppliers in countries with different seasons. This has other business advantages, Frerick writes: “the Driscoll’s model is based on shifting farming out of the country to companies that don’t need to worry about US minimum wage laws or environmental regulations.”

For two of the barons profiled, most of the production as well as most of the environmental damage occurs closer to home. Jeff and Deb Hansen, who own that private jet from the opening paragraph, rule an empire known as Iowa Select which brings five million pigs to market each year. “Today,” French writes, “Iowa raises about one-third of the nation’s hogs, about as many as the second-, third-, and fourth-ranking states combined.”

Dairy barons Sue and Mike McCloskey own a vast complex in Indiana called Fair Oaks Farms. Besides being an (indoor) home to 36,000 dairy cows, and the midwest’s largest agri-tourism destination, Fair Oaks produces about 430,000 gallons of manure every day.

The huge hog, chicken, dairy or beef operations favoured by the current rules of the game share this problem – they produce far more manure than can be safely used to augment local soils. The result, in many locations across the country, is polluted groundwater, runoff that disrupts river and lake ecosystems – and an overpowering stench for residents unlucky enough to live just downwind.

For workers in the hog, dairy, berry, slaughter, and grocery businesses profiled by Frerich, working conditions are often dangerous and the pay is low. The book reflects on Upton Sinclair’s century-old classic The Jungle, in which immigrant workers toil for meagre wages in filthy and dangerous Chicago slaughterhouses. In the decades after Sinclair’s book became a runaway bestseller, workers unionized and working conditions and wages in slaughterhouses improved dramatically. Today, however, many of the unions have been defeated, many slaughterhouses have moved to small towns where there is little other opportunity for employment, and most workers once again are new immigrants who have little ability to fight back against employers.

The most widely recognized name in Barons is Walmart. The mega-retailer is far and away the largest grocer in the US. As such, there are obvious advantages in buying products in huge, uniform quantities – in short, products that barons in the hog, dairy, grain, and berry sectors are ideally suited to provide. It matters not whether these products are truly nutritious. What matters is whether the products are cheap and, in line with WalMart’s directives to suppliers, cheaper year after year. Still, French explains, not cheap enough for WalMart’s own employees to afford – WalMart employees in many states require government assistance just to feed their families.

Barons is not a long book – under 200 pages, not including the footnotes – but Frerick covers a lot of ground. He does not spend a lot of time discussing solutions, however, beyond some very good ideas sketched briefly in the Conclusion. Still, for people not already deeply familiar with industrial agribusiness and its associated environmental, labour, health and political ills, Barons is a compelling read.

Bart Hawkins Kreps

Bart Hawkins Kreps is a long-time bicycling advocate and free-lance writer. His views have been shaped by work on highway construction and farming in the US Midwest, nine years spent in the Canadian arctic, and twenty years of involvement in the publishing industry in Ontario. Currently living on the outermost edge of the Toronto megalopolis, he blogs most often about energy, economics and ecology, at