New book details rise of “dystopian agricultural horror show”

By Sara June Jo-Saebo

Few books about America’s industrial agriculture system and food industry uncover the billionaires
behind its biggest corporations. But a new book by Austin Frerick, a former tax economist at the US
Treasury Department and current Fellow at Yale University’s Thurman Arnold Project, reveals the
amassed fortunes of Big Ag’s most powerful families. Barons: Money, Power, and Corruption of
America’s Food Industry exposes these ill-gotten gains and a cadre of complicit government players who
made it all possible.

With the recent release of the USDA’s dismal report Census of Agriculture (February
13, 2024), Frerick’s book is well-timed. The Ag Census disclosed that 141,733 farms shuttered between
2017 and 2022. Barons reveals that these losses happened at the same time that big food producers and
merchants garnered both stunning profits and government handouts.

Frerick is an expert in agriculture policy with an antitrust law focus. He served as a co-chair for the Biden
campaign’s Agriculture and Antitrust Policy Committee. In Barons, Frerick steers his experience and
scholarship into a pointed denunciation of Big Ag’s unbridled and monopolistic wealth. It’s an overdue
censure. In fact, many times during the book, I was surprised by a recurring sense of personal validation.
Being from rural Iowa and witnessing the 1980’s Farm Crisis take hold of my family and neighbors,
Barons made me feel like somebody was standing up for the farm community of my youth. It’s a painful
loss knowing that today’s industrial food system rises from the ashes of America’s family farms. And it is
no accident.

For folks who haven’t kept up with our recent history in food production, Barons will be a wake-up call
about the food in our grocery stores. Most Americans can agree that we want to see family farms with
pastured livestock and tidy croplands dotting the countryside. We want to think that most of our groceries
come from these wholesome places of our imagination. But Frerick shows us that this earlier model of
farming has been absent or in a state of decline for a generation. The meteoric rise of industrial-scale
farming in the last 50 years means that the food we buy today assuredly comes from warehouses packed
with living animals under a whir of exhaust fans or from cropland doused with Roundup.

While Frerick offers the details of this dystopian agriculture horror show, his focus is elsewhere. He
wants to expose the families and policymakers who’ve built this system. Resurrecting data about today’s
confinement farms, labor violations, and environmental pollution, Frerick presses beyond the emotional
draw of disgraceful industrial practices to take aim at the system’s big money. He unmasks the people
who build fortunes by garnering monopolistic shares in agriculture and food distribution consolidation –
obscene wealth; not earned.