Food connects all the dots in life (A review of BARONS)

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

For all the national and global perspectives in the book, BARONS —subtitled “Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry”— has an “Iowa air.” That tag is not about the odors from farm factories. Nor is it a cheap shot at Jeff and Deb Hansen, who have owned Iowa Select Farms for about 30 years and sell 5 million hogs a year. They are dubbed “The Hog Barons”—one set of the seven barons the book title comprises. 

The “Iowa air” referred to is the persona of the author, Austin Frerick, 32, a seventh-generation Iowan, graduate of Grinnell and now a Thurman Arnold Fellow at Yale University. In the Arnold Project, faculty, students, and scholars collaborate on research dealing with competition policy and antitrust enforcement.

In BARONS, Frerick (like many Bleeding Heartland contributors) worries about what happened to the Iowa he knew as a paper boy delivering the Cedar Rapids Gazette or helping out at his mother’s bakery shop.

He recalls, “The most jarring change is that the animals have disappeared from view. At some point they started vanishing: first pigs, then cows. The red barns that used to house them sit abandoned or have been knocked down to plant more corn or beans. But even though you no longer see them, the hogs aren’t gone.”

Fast forward to 2024 and he writes in his concluding chapter that if needed reforms are not made,

my home state will continue down its current spiral. Iowa’s water will grow more and more toxic, matched only by the state’s political climate. […]

But it doesn’t have to be that way. My vision for the American food system is simple. It’s one in which any American can sit down in a locally owned restaurant or go to a neighborhood grocery store and buy affordable local food that was grown, picked, processed, transported, cooked, and served by folks earning a fair wage.

Between that old memory and that continuing hope are 180 pages of informative well-written text. In one of the early reviews, Publishers Weekly gave BARONS its coveted “buy this book” salute.

So it should be an enjoyable, easy read. But by the time you reach the fourth or fifth “baron,” despair may slow the page turning. You may wonder if anything be done about this—and you can’t read news about the Iowa legislature for a day-brightener.

A suggestion for reading

A recommendation: you might try reading the seven-page intro. Then go to the light at the end of tunnel and read the thirteen-page conclusion.

Then maybe you can muster a challenging “Oh Yeah?!” instead of a submissive “Oh No!” as you read about The Hog Barons, The Grain Barons, The Coffee Barons, The Dairy Barons, The Berry Barons, The Slaughter Barons, and The Grocery Barons. Enjoy reading the conclusion again.

In the chapters on each “baron,” recurring themes include market domination, misleading marketing ploys, getting political support through campaign contributions or outright bribery, and paying fines of millions of dollars, which some barons can easily afford.

The Hog Barons: The Iowa barons are covered first. It’s a good because everything seems to go downhill from there. The Hansens seem an exception because no fines or other penalties have been levied against them. They’ve worked hard, made lots of money, contributed to political campaigns and charities, but as for the impact of their legal operations—as Frerick puts it—“The environment simply cannot handle so much pig shit.”

The Grain Barons: Cargill-MacMillan Family, Cargill Inc. Minnetonka, Minnesota. Cargill is the recipient of some of Frerick’s harshest comments: “Cargill is now arguably the most powerful private corporation in modern history.”

And Cargill has used that power to shape farm bill legislation that leads to obesity thanks to government support for corn syrup and other unhealthy ingredients. “People are eating more unhealthy foods because these foods are subsidized by the government while healthier foods largely are not.”

The Coffee Barons: JAB Holding Company, controlled by the Reimann family in Germany, owns Caribou Coffee, Bruegger’s Bagels, Krispy Kreme, Panera Bread, and a dozen others. The chapter also points out that EssilorLuxottica based in Paris, France, owns LensCrafters, Sunglass Hut, Pearle Vision, Target Optical, Ray Ban, and five other similar businesses.

The Dairy Barons: Sue and Mike McCloskey, Fairlife and Fair Oaks Farms. The chapter opens with a diversion as the McCloskeys offer a “Disneyland of agricultural tourism” at their Fair Oaks Farm in Northwest Indiana.

The chapter’s serious focus includes the checkoff system in which producers pay a mandatory tax to fund marketing of their commodity. Industry behemoths control how money paid by smaller producers is used. Frerick writes, “It’s as if union dues paid by workers went toward their employers’ efforts to bargain down wages, strip benefits, and fire employees.”

The Berry Barons: J. Miles and Garland Reiter, Driscoll’s, Watsonville, California. The Reiters control about one third of the nation’s $6 billion berry market, with an emphasis on strawberries, but they don’t grow a single berry. A key to their success was finding ways to market strawberries year-round. They follow what is called “the Nike model”—contacting with 750 growers around the world to grow Driscoll’s berries in compliance with a Driscoll genetic “blueprint.”

Benefits to such an approach include evading the labor problems or coping with the water shortages that plague almost all of the food industries in BARONS. Frerick says the Reiters are “vocal supporters” of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which allows businesses to import law-wage and temporary labor under an H-2A visa program. The Southern Poverty Law Center damns the H-2A system as “indentured servitude.”

The Slaughter Barons: Joseley and Wesley Batista, JBS. JBS USA Holdings, Inc. with headquarters in Greeley, Colorado, is a meat processing company and a wholly owned subsidiary of the Brazilian multinational JBS S.A. Frerick says that in 2023, they listed 43 different meat brands sold in the U.S.

In recent years, JBS-related enterprises have been hit by more than $183 million in U.S. fines. This March it agreed to pay $55 million in settlement of a class-action lawsuit alleging  it conspired with at least a dozen other companies—including Cargill—to keep wages low. (News reports say Tyson will pay $72.25 million in its settlement.)

In 2020, Reuters reported that the parent company of JBS SA “pleaded guilty to U.S. foreign bribery charges and agreed to pay $128.25 million in criminal fines.”

The Grocery Baron: Walton Family, Walmart, Inc. Bentonville, Arkansas. In deference to Walmart, I deleted the plural “s” from Frerick’s Barons when it comes to grocery stores. He acknowledges, “When I sat out to write this book, I had no plans to include a chapter about Walmart.” But how can one ignore Walmart with its impacts on downtown and small-town America? And if you’re writing about the food industry, how can you ignore Amazon and Walmart as they compete for larger shares of dollars from the federal food assistance program known as SNAP?

So here we are at 33 pages, by far the longest chapter in the book. A good part of it deals with what Frerick characterizes as Godzilla v. Mothra (Walmart v. Amazon) as Walmart seeks to increase its digital powers and Amazon its storefront outreach. He sees Walmart in the lead.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Some may herald BARONS as an overdue update of The Jungle, the 1906 book by Upton Sinclair. The Jungle still is hailed as “The most famous, influential, and enduring of all muckraking novels” because of how it led to reforms in the meat packing industry a century ago.

The reform aspect may be a bit much to hope for, given how legislatures and Congress ignore serious issues as “intractable.”

But Frerick points out that none of the food-industry problems—which cut across all aspects of our lives—were forces of nature. Rather, all are created by what we’ve done through public policy. His logic: If governance created and sustains many of the problems, is it asking too much that governance might solve a few?  

The Iowa air would appreciate it.  

Editor’s note: Austin Frerick will discuss BARONS at the following events:

Tuesday, March 26th | Des Moines, IA

in conversation with Randy Evans

Des Moines Franklin Ave Library

Time: 6pm

Hosted by: Beaverdale Books, Iowa CCI, and Iowa Farmers Union

Wednesday, March 27th | Iowa City, IA

in conversation with Erin Jordan

Prairie Lights Books

Time: 7pm

Cosponsored by: Iowa CCI

Thursday, March 28th | Cedar Rapids/Hiawatha, IA

in conversation with Elijah Decious

Prairiewoods Center

Time: 630pm

Hosted by: Swamp Fox Bookstore, Iowa CCI, and Iowa Farmers Union

Monday, April 1st | Dubuque, IA

River Lights Bookstore

Time: 6pm

Cosponsored by: Iowa CCI

Tuesday, April 2nd | Madison, WI

Leopold’s Books Bar Caffè

Time: 6pm

Cosponsored by: Wisconsin Farmers Union

Wednesday, April 3rd | Minneapolis, MN

in conversation with Justin Stofferahn

Moon Palace Books

Time: 6pm

Cosponsored by: Minnesota Farmers Union

Thursday, April 4th | Grinnell, IA

in conversation with Laura Belin

Rosenfield Center, Room 101

Time: 7pm

Hosted by: Grinnell College

Saturday, April 6th | Ames, IA

Ames Public Library

Time: 10:30am

Hosted by: Iowa CCI

Sunday, April 7th | Sioux City, IA

in conversation with Rep. JD Scholten

Downtown Public Library

Time: 130pm

Hosted by: Iowa CCI

Tuesday, April 9th | Mason City, IA

North Iowa Area Community College (Room AC 101)

Time: 630pm

Hosted by: Iowa CCI

Wednesday, April 10th | Greenfield, IA

Warren Cultural Center

Time: 7pm

Hosted by: Warren Cultural Center’s Successful Communities Speaker Series

Thursday, April 11th | Iowa Falls, IA

in conversation with Bob Leonard

Barlow Memorial Public Library

Time: 6pm

Hosted by: Iowa CCI

About the Author(s)

Herb Strentz

  • thanks for this, hope people will be more supportive of his book

    then they were of his electoral campaign, if Iowa is to have a future that we would want to be part of we have to do better in helping our young people like Austin to have a future here instead of on one of the coasts, if you’re doing the public gathering thing please do go see him.

  • Per the hog barons who have gotten "no fines or other penalties" for their "legal operations"...

    …it’s unsurprisingly easy to be “legal” when your industry controls the state system that creates the laws (or lack of laws), and when your industry also controls how laws are turned into administrative rules, how those rules are enforced, and how much state funding and staffing are available for the enforcement. Not to mention whether local governments are allowed to have any control whatsoever over how the Iowa hog industry operates in their local areas.

    Just ask those of us in Iowa who have collectively endured innumerable meetings and hearings, state and local, dealing with local hoglots and the Iowa hog industry in general. We have many tales to tell.

  • "legal operations'

    Thanks. It would have not have hurt to have had legal or legal operations in quotes. Also, Frerick’s point about undoing what government has done ties in with no longer allowing such “legal operations.”
    Herb Strentz

  • putting them in quotes would suggest that they

    aren’t really legal which would generally be misleading, people need to face the limits of the law and the actual power relations between corporate interests and state (and federal) governance. Mike Podhorzer has wisely suggested that when news orgs poll voters on how they feel about issues that they also include what to the major corporate/financial players involved think about it since they get their way more then voters do…
    Todd Dorman gets this at the local level:

  • Herb Strentz, your review is great and appreciated...

    …and a friend just told me that BARONS is being talked about online by people interested in sustainable ag. I agree with dirk that your punctuation is fine as is. Your spreading the word about the book, and the book itself, will be much more useful in the general battle than rants like mine:-). Thank you.

  • just to note I agree with PF

    about how terrible the situation and for the need to hear from people in the line of fire, just wanted to highlight that this kind of governance on behalf of the rich and powerful is the norm and not a historical deviation or a corruption of the system as designed, we need radical reforms if we are going to get to something like a democracy that represents the rest of us, here is an interview on the book: