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.