Austin Frerick on the Corruption of America’s Food Industry

Austin Frerick grew up in the state with arguably the most fertile soil in America – Iowa.

That soil is now being used to grow corn and soybeans to feed animals that have been taken off the land and put into giant sheds – confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The corn is also being used for corn syrup and its now number one use – ethanol.

Frerick says we need to reverse the process, take the animals out of the industrial sheds and put them back on the land. 


Repeal the corporate welfare portions of the farm bill.

He lays out his vision in Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry (Island Press, 2024).

Frerick is a Fellow of the Thurman Arnold Project at Yale University, an initiative that brings together faculty, students, and scholars to collaborate on research related to competition policy and antitrust enforcement. 

In the book, Frerick takes a deep dive into the monopolies and ubiquitous corruption that define American food. 

Frerick says that the food barons profiled in his book grew out of the deregulation of the American food industry, a phenomenon that has brought about the consolidation of wealth into the hands of few to the detriment of our neighborhoods, livelihoods, and democracy itself.

How did this book come about?

“I’ve been working on this book on and off for about five years,” Frerick told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “It started in a bar conversation in Des Moines. There was a highly contested Governor’s race in Iowa in 2018. Political operatives were telling me that this one donor gave $300,000 to the Governor. They said – he’s a hog farmer and his whole empire is in Iowa. Controlling the state government was really important to him.”

“He has his own private jet that he flies down to Naples, Florida in. This person told me that printed on the plane were the words – When Pigs Fly.”

“In my head, I said – that’s insane. That shows so much about this moment and what’s happened to Iowa.” 

“I wrote an article based on that – how one man came to own five million hogs. And then I realized that this is the story you are seeing throughout the food system.”

That was his introduction to Jeff Hansen and his wife Deb Hansen.

Had you heard of them before?

“No I had not. They are not consumer facing with their products. They sell hogs to Tysons and other slaughterhouses. They are just another rich couple in Des Moines.”

You open the book with the Hansens but then you proceed to five or six different segments in agribusiness – and it’s pretty much the same story. 

Give us a snapshot about how agriculture in Iowa was transformed.

“Certain words are thrown around. One is – efficiency. This is just a natural thing. But doing archival research, I saw there was a different story. This was an intentional transformation from the business community in Des Moines. They commissioned a report in the early 1990s from a Virginia based consultant that mapped out the future of the agricultural economy in Iowa.” 

“This is getting into the weeds. A century ago when we passed the Packers and Stockyard Act of 1921, we didn’t include chicken. And we didn’t include chicken because there were not really commercial chicken warehouses. People butchered chickens in their backyards.”

“They took the sharecropping model and applied it to chicken production. It is fully verticalized. If you are a chicken farmer, you don’t own the animal. It’s an incredibly abusive power dynamic.” 

“Other industries in the food system copied it, including hogs. This was first copied in North Carolina in the 1980s by a state senator who deregulated the hog industry. He did it with this highly toxic production model in a poor black area of North Carolina.”

“In North Carolina, they stuff a bunch of pigs in a metal shed. There is an incredible amount of manure and air pollution.” 

“The business community in Iowa – the seed sellers, the chemical people – didn’t want to lose their number one spot in agriculture. So that report was commissioned and basically it called for the death of the family farm.”

“Jeff Hansen was one of the first on board. He saw what was going on in North Carolina. He started building some of these industrial facilities and started getting into the business himself. He became one of the dominant figures with this new model. And what you saw happen throughout Iowa for the next ten to fifteen years was this epic statewide battle over this production model. It just destroys the quality of life. It pushed tens of thousands of family farmers into bankruptcy or out of farming.”

“President Biden’s Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is a prominent figure in this move. His campaign for Governor of Iowa in 2002 was largely centered on this issue. You had rooms in rural Iowa packed full of people fighting against these industrial farms. Vilsack was running against the lobbyists for the industry, running TV ads saying – we’ll do something. But then after Vilsack won, he didn’t. The way the Iowa government is structured, only the Governor can stop construction of these facilities.”

“After he was elected, Vilsack oversaw the largest expansion of hog CAFOs in Iowa history.”

He ran against it during the campaign and then facilitated it when he got in office?


There is a growing recognition that both parties are corrupt to the core. And this is a good example of it.

“This is incredibly threatening to democracy. It is one thing when a politician does the bidding of business. But when you pretend to be on the side of people and people rally and do all of this door knocking and then you screw them? That’s so destructive. That just collapses public trust. I’m personally repulsed by it.”

Is every animal that we eat now being factory farmed?


Cattle also?

“You are starting to see them pop up in Iowa.”

“The farm bill is designed to make industrial animal feed really cheap. On the flip side is that makes pasture land really expensive. Southern Iowa is not good soil. It has always historically been cattle land. Now they are putting that into corn.”

“The story of the last few decades in the midwest is the expansion of the corn belt. It has pushed a lot of the animals off the land and into these sheds. And that’s because we are heavily subsidizing them, indirectly by subsidizing the feed also.” 

“It started with chickens. Then it went to hogs. Beef is the last one standing. The cattle ranchers are now upset about this.”

“But these days, if you want to be a farmer, you almost have to do that model. The system forces you to do it. The scary sad thing is a lot of them tend to go bankrupt. You are now seeing consolidation among the confinement owners.”

The soybean and corn fields are growing animal feed?

“The largest use for corn is actually ethanol. That just happened a few years ago where the largest use of corn became ethanol. It does nothing for the climate. At best, it’s a wash.” 

“Soybeans are animal feed. Soybean is the protein. Corn is the carbohydrate. Ethanol is number one for corn. Animal feed is right up there next to it.  Ears of corn for human consumption is marginal in terms of acreage.”

I heard a podcast you were on where you said your ideal was to get the animals back on the land and have communities start eating locally grown foods. 

Do you see that happening anywhere?

“There are some pockets here and there. People are trying to do it. Many want to give a false sense of hope right now. But that’s just not reality. Some people are doing it. Our goal should be to scale that.” 

“I love that phrase – putting animals back on the land – because it’s so simple. It’s a jobs program for rural America. You can have one man own five million hogs with low wage workers. Or you can have the return of the family farm.”

“A scary undercurrent right now is you are seeing Walmart making vertical moves into dairy and beef production. But on the flip side, my silver lining hope is ethanol is going to die. Cars are moving to electrical vehicles. No one is talking about that. My hope is we put ethanol out to pasture and put animals back on the pasture.”

If Congress were to do something about the problem you have outlined in your book, what would it do?

“Sunset the farm bill. The Cargill chapter of my book tells the history of the origin of the farm bill. It comes out of the Great Depression. There was a glutted oversupplied market. The land was being pushed too far and you got the dust bowl.” 

“So much of the modern farm bill comes out of this question – how do you make stable income for family farms but also how do you make sure you are not pushing the land too far so that you get environmental destruction?”

“So under the farm bill, in order to get a farm subsidy, you had to engage in conservation practices. The academic term was supply management.”

“Companies like Cargill did not like that. Cargill pushed back against it. Cargill wanted to move as much grain as possible and process as much grain as possible. Any public policy designed to limit grain production, Cargill did not like.” 

“The original farm bill was paid for by a tax on companies like Cargill.” 

“That was the original farm bill. But then you see over the years a slow systematic removal of guardrails and protections for family farmers over time. I call the 1996 farm bill the Wall Street farm bill. That was the bill where all of the guardrails came off. As a result, the system is now designed to overproduce as few things as possible.”

“But it’s selective. If you grow carrots, you don’t get that much. But if you grow corn, there are subsidies to grow as much corn as possible. Every year, we just grow more and more corn. At some point, there are only so many animals to feed and only so much corn syrup you can make. But with ethanol, we created this artificial demand for corn.”

“This policy pushes animals, fresh fruit and produce off the land because it’s much more profitable to grow corn and soybeans.”

You are describing the farm bill as a system of corporate welfare, shoveling taxpayer money to large monopolies. 

“Yes. And on top of that, it’s breaking down in front of us, which is incredible to watch. Democrats just want to pass a copy and paste farm bill with minor tweaks. But there is an internal revolt within the Republican party over just how much corporate welfare is enough. One focus is on crop insurance, which is a massive federal subsidy.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Austin Frerick, see 38 Corporate Crime Reporter 11(12), March 11, 2024, print edition only.]

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