Back Forty: Barons behaving badly

Back Forty will bring you periodic reviews, interviews, and reporter insights about the stories they wrote. We hope you enjoy it as a companion to our content on and our Ag Insider policy news site. You can subscribe to the newsletter below.

Sue McCloskey, along with her husband Mike, owns Fair Oaks Farms and launched the dairy brand Fairlife, now owned by Coca-Cola. In 2022, they were among the defendants who paid $21 million to settle lawsuits related to animal abuse at the farm. AP photo by Michael Conroy.

By Bridget Huber

Walking the gleaming, overstuffed aisles of an American supermarket, a shopper is surrounded by an absurd amount of choice. In the dairy case alone, for instance, there’s skim milk or lactose-free, whole, glass bottled, local, filtered, ultra-pasteurized, organic, grass-fed, goat, soy, oat, almond, or macadamia.

Yet, as Austin Frerick writes in his new book, Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry, this sense of nearly limitless choice obscures the fact that a small and shrinking number of companies dominate every part of the food system. Frerick tells the story of seven of these behemoths, tracing the regulatory failures that have allowed them to become so dominant and the ways in which they’ve amassed power and enormous profits at the expense of the environment, smaller producers, workers, communities, and even our democratic institutions.  

The food industry is highly consolidated, but consumers don’t see the full extent of it since firms often operate multiple brands aimed at different price points. JBS, for example, the Brazilian company that is the world’s largest meat processor, sells meat under forty-three different brand names in the U.S. JBS and three other beef companies control 85 percent of the U.S. market. Two companies sell 74 percent of all milk in the U.S. One company — Nestlé — sells 73 percent of all baby food.

Cargill, the nation’s largest private employer, spells out this dominance in an inadvertently creepy passage that Frerick quotes: 

We are the flour in your bread, the wheat in your noodles, the salt on your fries. We are the corn in your tortillas, the chocolate in your dessert, the sweetener in your soft drink. We are the oil in your salad dressing, and the beef, pork, or chicken you eat for dinner. We are the cotton in your clothing, the backing on your carpet and the fertilizer in your field.

James Madison called monopolies “sacrifices of the many to the few,” as Eric Schlosser notes in his preface to Barons. Frerick gives many striking examples of these sacrifices, starting in his home state of Iowa, where hogs outnumber humans seven to one. Their copious waste, along with the runoff of synthetic fertilizers used to grow corn and soy — much of which feeds those hogs — has created a water crisis. The Des Moines Water Works spends an estimated $10,000 a day to filter nitrates and other contaminants so its water will be safe to drink. And most summers, two thirds of Iowa’s state-park beaches are closed to swimming for a week or more due to bacteria and algal blooms fed by that runoff.

Frerick, who has a knack for making explicit the connections between policy and the concrete realities of peoples’ lives, describes how meatpackers have consolidated market power, undermined unions, and driven down pay, turning jobs that once paid middle class wages into work that’s primarily done by immigrants and refugees who have few protections or other options. He unpacks Walmart’s style of “mafioso capitalism” that squeezes suppliers, hollows out rural downtowns, and pays workers so little that they must rely on government safety net programs like SNAP and Medicaid to meet basic needs.

Frerick traces the rise of Cargill, a “global empire” that he calls “arguably the most powerful private corporation in modern history,” from its birth in the shadow of the Homestead Act of 1862. The act granted settlers 160 of acres of public land and resulted in the creation of millions of farms in the Heartland. Cargill started out buying and transporting the grain sold by those farmers, but the company didn’t take off until the Great Depression, when it began buying up grain terminals on the cheap and building more. The original farm bill legislation, adopted as part of the New Deal, aimed to stabilize the farm economy by incentivizing farmers to plant less. But, as Frerick writes, this legislation “placed a ceiling on the growth of companies such as Cargill” because there was less grain to store and ship. So the company and its allies in Washington began methodically working to undermine it. 

Over decades, they chipped away at protections for small farmers, promoted the industrialization of agriculture, and opened overseas markets for commodities. Earl Butz, agriculture secretary under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, liquidated the grain reserves, designed to stabilize prices for farmers, and sold that grain to Cargill and other exporters who, in turn, sold it abroad at a huge profit.

In 1976, Frerick writes, Cargill’s chairman and CEO pushed for the company to become more active in politics, with the goal of removing production controls from the farm bill. Cargill officials served on a task force that advised President Ronald Reagan on reorganizing — or deregulating — the USDA. The effort paid off. In 1996, amid intense lobbying, Congress passed what Frerick calls the “Wall Street farm bill.” The legislation “neutralized or eliminated all provisions that were designed to maintain balance” in the farm economy, skewing U.S. agriculture in favor of Cargill and the rest of the barons. Over the protests of family farmers and consumer groups, President Bill Clinton signed it into law.

The ’96 bill incentivized farmers to plant commodities, especially corn and soy, even on marginally productive land. It subsidized the production of cheap feed that drove the development of CAFOs, feedlots, and other confined animal agriculture operations. And it led companies like Cargill to find new uses for corn, primarily ethanol, whose production exploded in the wake of the ’96 farm bill. Ethanol is now the single largest use for the U.S. corn, even though its image as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels is, as Frerick puts it, “largely known to be a farce.”

Beyond Cargill, the book abounds with instances of barons behaving badly. These include Mike and Sue McCloskey, who founded Fair Oaks Farms and the dairy brand Fairlife, which now belongs to Coca-Cola. Fair Oaks is an industrial ag theme park that draws half a million tourists each year to its Dairy Adventure, Pig Adventure, and Crop Adventure. In 2022, the McCloskeys and Coca-Cola paid $21 million to settle lawsuits after activists exposed instances of animal abuse at Fair Oaks. 

Frerick also details how JBS bribed Brazilian government officials, hired children in the U.S. to clean slaughterhouses, and conspired to fix wages for meatpacking workers. And he relates how JAB, a German conglomerate that owns Peet’s Coffee, Panera, Krispy Kreme, and dozens of other major brands, built its empire on wealth amassed through ties to the Nazi regime.

Still, Barons is less an exposé of corporate misdeeds than an indictment of our regulatory system and the many ways the government — under both Democratic and Republican administrations — has failed to break up monopolies, prevent them in the first place, or meaningfully hold them accountable for wrongdoing. 

Despite the Biden administration’s promises to promote competition and fairness, and to crack down on exploitative employers, Frerick offers many examples of how the USDA, under Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, has fallen short. For example, Vilsack’s USDA has allowed six pork processing plants to increase line speeds in a pilot project, even after a court halted a similar Trump-era program because it failed to consider worker safety. And, despite lawmakers’ calls to dilute JBS’s power or hold it accountable, the USDA has “failed to take any action that would even remotely improve the situation,” Frerick writes. Instead, the USDA trumpets the fact that it has spent a billion dollars to build or expand local and regional slaughterhouses, in theory providing smaller producers with the infrastructure they need to compete. But this “roundabout” approach won’t meaningfully alter the industry’s structure, Frerick contends, and “does virtually nothing for the millions of Americans who are being overcharged by JBS and their ilk, or the ranchers who are forced to depend on a handful of companies to buy their cattle, or the workers on the kill line.”

Frerick, a policy guy who has worked for the Open Markets Institute and the U.S. Treasury, has no shortage of recommendations for how we could rebuild the system to benefit the many, instead of the few. “As a society,” he writes, “we make decisions about how markets are structured, about the rules that govern them and what constitutes fair play, about who holds power and who does not.”

This would mean enacting rules that bar meatpackers from raising the animals they slaughter, for instance, and make it more difficult for big companies to get even bigger through mergers and acquisitions. We should also enforce laws that are already on the books, Frerick writes, like the Robinson-Patman Act that prohibits companies like Walmart from temporarily dropping prices when it opens a new store in order to drive competitors out of business. 

The only way to build a more just system, Frerick says, is to “challenge power directly.”