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What Are ‘Food Barons’ And Why Should You Care?

Above photo: A new book, Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry, provides a portrait of our food system through stories of its oligarchs. Austin Frerick.

The rise of the baron illustrates the failures of our approach to food policy better than a dry description of policies ever could.

For example, the story of the Grain Barons tells the history of the Farm Bill and how it has corrupted the food system

I’ve known Austin Frerick since 2019, when he was a researcher at the Open Markets Institute. After he became a fellow at Yale’s Thurmond Arnold Project, another anti-monopoly thinktank, we collaborated to report a feature for Vox on “The Hog Barons.” He’s gone on to expand this idea to a full book, titled Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry, that provides a portrait of our food system through stories of its oligarchs. Austin enlisted me for some editorial consultation while the book was under contract, and today I asked him a few questions about the book and how it helps us understand American food system.

CHD: The first “draft” of this book started when you and I collaborated on a piece called “The Hog Barons” for Vox/New York Magazine, with the help of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. I remember the “baron” phrasing was your idea (in fact, the whole concept was your idea!). First, what gave you the inspiration for this piece? And secondly: did you have your eye on a longer project at that time?

AF: I got the hog baron idea back in the spring of 2018. Over Busch Lights in a dive bar in Des Moines, an Iowa political operative told me about a couple who had recently donated $300,000 to Kim Reynolds, the state’s Republican governor, in support of her campaign for reelection in a hotly contested race. According to the operative, the donors were hog farmers who owned a private jet emblazoned with the phrase “When Pigs Fly.”

I just found this image to be such a powerful example of what happened to my home state over my life. The power of robber barons in the food system has overrun the state’s government to the detriment of its environment and its communities. My curiosity led me to reach out to you to work together to tell this story, which ultimately led to our article in Vox.

At the time, I had been mulling a book that would tap into the growing antitrust movement through a food lens, but I could never figure out the right story to talk about these issues. As we wrote our article about the Hog Barons, I realized that Jeff and Deb are part of a bigger trend that has transformed the food system in places across the country and beyond. I wrote this book as an attempt to grapple with how that happened, using the barons as a narrative framework.

CHD: Besides making for great characters, why is it clarifying or important to examine our food system by looking at its barons? The rise of the baron illustrates the failures of our approach to food policy better than a dry description of policies ever could.

AF: Each chapter is built around both a baron and a key concept. I first figured out the key ideas I wanted to touch on in the book and then worked backwards to figure out which baron best encapsulates each idea. I found this framework to be a compelling narrative vehicle to tell these bigger structural stories. In each case, the rise of the baron illustrates the failures of our approach to food policy better than a dry description of policies ever could. For example, I used the story of the Grain Barons to tell the history of the Farm Bill and how it has corrupted the food system.

The more concentrated a market is, the easier it is to gouge shoppers.

CHD: Food issues are always important, for obvious reasons. But in a period when food prices are incredibly high and still increasing in the US faster than consumer products as a whole, why is the “barons” approach to thinking about the food system urgent and relevant to headlines out there right now?

AF: The more concentrated a market is, the easier it is to gouge shoppers. I’d argue that there is no industry more concentrated than America’s food markets. There’s no better illustration of this than the illusion of choice we see when we go to the grocery store. Take peanut butter, for example. You can look at a shelf of peanut butter and think you’re seeing a competitive market, with a range of options like Jif, Smucker’s, Adams, Laura Scudder’s, and Santa Cruz Organic, but all of these brands are owned by the J.M. Smucker Company, which now sells nearly half of all peanut butter. They use these different brands to target different demographics and price points.

Once you realize that there’s no real competitive market, increasing prices seem less like a product of broader forces and more like the product of intentional decision-making. These titans of industry are manipulating markets at our collective expense.

CHD: Some of these barons don’t so much fill an existing market demand as they create their own, like the McCloskey’s invention of the hugely successful Fairlife milk product, or the Driscoll’s family making berries available for four seasons in the U.S. What does it mean for a baron to come to power on the strength of their own product?

AF: Part of the point of this book is that these new products didn’t arise in a vacuum; the idea that these barons invented new products out of thin air is a farce. Driscoll’s, for example, established its dominance by drafting off of breeding and genetic research that was being done for the public by a lab at UC Berkeley. The McCloskeys benefitted – and continue to benefit – from manipulating the dairy Checkoff and other policy failures. In fact, Fairlife recently received $21 million in tax credits and up to $20 million in additional capital grants from New York State as an incentive to build a facility that would create only 250 new jobs.

CHD: The barons you profile in this book spend a lot of time worrying over their reputations. How do you see the role of public relations—whether strict secrecy and/or brand management—in maintaining the status quo in our food system?

AF: To my knowledge, there is now only one reporter in the state of Iowa whose sole focus is on agriculture. I really think that reflects the dire current state of American media, especially in rural communities. The lack of funding for truly independent media often means that the news that does exist is funded by industry. As a result, there’s just tons of corporate abuses and other shenanigans going on that we simply don’t know about. We were able to write about the regulatory capture of Iowa by the Hog Barons because of the incredible reporting about agriculture that thee Des Moines Register used to do. Heck, there was a whole daily section on agriculture in the paper back then! But that’s gone. And what has filled the void are a ton of corporate industry-backed publications that just copy and paste press releases that people like the Hog Barons put out.

CHD: You grew up and went to college in Iowa, stayed in the Midwest for grad school, then started a career on the East Coast. In DC and New York, what attitudes about food and agriculture did you encounter, and did these conversations play a role in encouraging you to write about these issues for a wide audience?

AF: Funny you ask, because I just had an interview with a famous food podcast host and the undercurrent of the discussion centered on who is to blame for the sorry state of the American food system. He put most of the blame on poor people for their diets, which I really, really rejected.

Many people see the brokenness of our food system but they blame it on the individual and think that consumer choice can drive change.

His attitude, to me, is reflective of a broader perspective on the coasts. Many people see the brokenness of our food system but they blame it on the individual and think that consumer choice can drive change. I find it funny that even criticisms of our food system are a product of a neoliberal worldview that focuses entirely on the actions of the individual. The idea that we can change the food system with our fork is clearly a failed theory of change by this point. I firmly believe that you change systems by changing structures, and that usually comes from confronting power head on.

I say all of this because I really think that in certain elite pockets of America there is a disdain for other parts of the country and a truly comical degree of naiveness about how the rest of the country lives. That’s largely why, for example, Walmart’s complete economic dominance has flown under the radar in recent years. These folks have no clue what’s going on because they travel to other elite cities domestically and abroad. They don’t hang out in the Dubuques of America.

CHD: What are you excited for readers to experience in your book, and what do you hope they walk away with after reading it? I want readers to walk away thinking that it doesn’t have to be this way.

AF: Well, first I’m excited for readers to tell me which barons they find to be the most interesting. Second, I want readers to walk away thinking that it doesn’t have to be this way. I believe that healthy markets are not a natural phenomenon; competitive markets are like a garden–they have to be cultivated and maintained. I’m optimistic because we’ve been here before- in the past, we’ve dealt effectively with robber barons. We chose to let these food barons come to power, which is depressing, but it’s also empowering because it means that we can also choose to do things differently.

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