May 21, 2024

Farm & Food File: Meet the ‘Barons’ who ‘corrupt’ your dinner table

The first economist, Scotland’s Adam Smith, had it right almost 250 years ago when, as writer Eric Schlosser notes in the foreword of an important new book by Iowan Austin Frerick, that “merchants and manufacturers were ‘an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public.’”

Few groups know this better than American farmers and ranchers who have seen the most vital sectors of their food-producing business — like meatpacking, grain merchandising and seed technology — overtaken by today’s ever-growing, ever-grabbing “merchants and manufacturers.”

Frerick, like Smith, gets it right from the start in the callout title of his new book, “Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry.”

Full disclosure: Frerick is a valued colleague and friend. Barons includes a handful of references to previous Farm & Food Files.

In it, Frerick digs deeply into the rise of seven of these powerful, largely unknown baronial food families to tell how each came to dominate their respective sectors and how they now wield their accrued market power to make everything — from their neighbors to the environment to you — pay for it.

He begins with the compelling story of Jeff and Deb Hansen, two of the most unlikely hog farmers you’ve never heard of. Both were Iowa farm kids who, after marriage, began a hog enterprise with three sows.

Their drive, skill and innovations soon led them to expand. Then expand again. Then really expand.

Now their company, Iowa Select Farms, Frerick writes, “employs more than 7,400 people … and brings about 5 million hogs to market annually.”

Iowa Select became a cornerstone for the CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operations, takeover of Iowa’s — then the nation’s — hog sector.

Since 1992, Iowa’s CAFO-based hog population statewide has increased by “more than 50% while the number of hog farms has declined by over 80%.”

That rise delivered the Hansens a private jet — whose tail is reportedly emblazoned with the humble brag, “When Pigs Fly” — multiple homes and kingmaker status in Iowa’s agbiz-dominated state government.

Their home state, however, hasn’t fared as well. Pigs, for example, now outnumber Iowans seven to one and produce the “manure equivalent to the waste of nearly 84 million people,” or “more than the population of California, Texas and Illinois combined.”

Some “farmers,” huh?

Wait until you read about dairy barons, Sue and Mike McCloskey, whose cows produce 4 million school cartons of milk each day and 430,000 gallons — or a staggering 16 times more — manure.

Or, the “faceless” Reimann family of Germany whose Luxembourg-based JAB Holdings is now the “world’s second largest purveyor of coffee” through brands like Peet’s, Caribou, Krispy Kreme, Panera Bread and others too numerous to name.

What is known, however, is that JAB entered the coffee-slinging business just 12 years ago and is now a global, if unknown, baron.

Other barons include the Cargill-McMillian family, the world’s most dominant grain merchandising company; “The Berry Barons,” J. Miles and Garland Reiter, who own Driscoll’s through which they control “about one-third of the U.S. berry market” while not “actually growing any berries” at all; the Brazilian “Slaughter Barons,” Joesley and Wesley Batista of JBS infamy; and the Walton family whose domination of American grocery retailing continues to grow.

Frerick’s skill as both a serious academic and gifted storyteller keeps the pages turning as his colorful cast of characters build empires with everyday dinner items like pork chops, milk, coffee and strawberries while few Americans even know who they are.

And even fewer know the ruinous impacts their rise in market power has had on rural America’s environment, economy and people.

Frerick, a Fellow at Yale University, knows and his Barons warns us that these modern “merchants and manufacturers,” just like their 18th century counterparts, are nothing more than naked mercantilists.

Alan Guebert

Alan Guebert

Farm & Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Source material and contact information are posted at