Down to Earth

Austin Frerick grew up in Iowa, which in his youth had a robust regional food system that offered abundant produce and meat from family farms. But because of one “baron”––that’s the name Frerick calls the men whose monopolistic corporations profoundly reshape markets and communities––rural areas were hollowed out, farmers were driven off their farms and into factories or other professions, and the quality of life declined precipitously, from toxic pollution to low wages, to unhealthy food.

Frerick’s wonderfully readable new book, Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry, published by Island Press, uncovers the havoc wrought by these barons in the sectors of hogs, grain, coffee, dairy, berries, animal slaughter, and groceries––some of whom are well known, while others are purposefully secretive. Their power is vast, and they stand in the way of a truly competitive, farmer-centric regenerative food system. And yet Frerick offers solutions and hope, and ways that each of us can participate.

plate photo credit: Marco Verch

1’49 book title refers to robber barons of the 19th and 20th centuries
2’47 Frerick is from Iowa and has seen the animals disappear from the land in a few decades
3’39 Iowa – and every state – once had a robust regional food system
4’25 rural communities hollowed out because of a hog baron monopolizing the industry
5’28 chicken was left out when other meats got regulated, and as a result a sharecropping model took hold in chicken farming. Then the same thing happened in hog farming.
7’06 this model was very destructive for animal welfare and for pollution. The beaches are now mostly closed because of hog manure pollution.
8’18 taxpayers, not the polluter, pay to deal with the pollution
8’57 factory meat doesn’t taste as good as meat from non-factory animals
10’03 loss of local control is a central problem––now nobody can stop the construction of animal factories except the governor
11’30 Tom Vilsack sided with factory farming as governor of Iowa and as USDA secretary
13’29 Driscoll’s outsources risk and regulations in berry production
14’15 reframing our language for economics: free markets and monopoly capitalism are opposed to each other
15’14 the goal of every corporate CEO is monopoly; they don’t want competitive markets
16’50 what is a monopoly
17’48 standardization is not compatible with ecosystems––animals as products, people as economic units
19’37 regional differences lost, everyone and everything becomes a widget
21’42 the hazards of putting a simple mechanistic model on a complex system
22’49 private equity is asset stripping instead of building businesses
24’50 the Wall Street farm bill model of agriculture – how did it get that way
25’39 what balanced agricultural policy has looked like in the past or could look like
26’57 farm policy has created a situation where human health, including obesity, is a structural economic issue as much as an individual personal issue
28’19 the truth about Walmart: they’re the biggest grocery store in the country, and they pay terrible wages and benefits, and are therefore a burden to taxpayers
30’47 how poorly Walmart treats its vendors, which makes for offshoring of labor and poor quality––a race to the bottom
32’36 solution: a robust anti-trust movement
33’50 solution: strip anti-trust authority from USDA and put it in the FTC
34’13 these policy conversations are bipartisan
36’28 solution: a farm bill that rewards stewardship
37’28 solution: putting animals back on the land and phasing out factory farming; the land that’s now being used for ethanol production could be used to graze livestock as electric vehicles become dominant
38’52 solution: you should farm your own land in order to get federal money
39’39 there’s no free market in the food system, everything is subsidized to some degree
39’56 solution: engaging institutions like schools for healthy food procurement
40’56 local food has good impact on physical and mental health
42’10 Frerick’s wedding served only pasture-grown Iowa food (and it was really good)
42’37 the current system is radical, while the solutions are traditional
43’17 some of the industrial dairy operations are a lot like feudalism with lords and serfs
44’48 the importance of spreading assets around; this opposite of monoculture factories
46’17 those who are willing to abuse labor the most win
46’50 older women in rural communities are the ones speaking truth to power
47’07 solution: talk to a journalist if you see something that seems off
48’33 private equity has stripped journalism for parts
49’20 Des Moines Register had the best agriculture reporting in the country
50’07 the barons have hollowed out their voter base
50’26 solution: call your state Attorney General office and get them to hire more anti-trust staff
50’57 solution: use The Plum Book to get people appointed to state-level USDA programs
53’09 meat packing monopolies like JBS as ruthless criminal organizations
55’02 solution: bright line rules, like a packer ban, you can’t slaughter the animals you own
55’46 solution: limiting producers over a certain size to only one kind of protein
59’36 the political piece in terms of who votes for what
1:01’41 American democracy is set up to avoid concentrations of power, and that is the big problems now with monopolistic industries being so powerful