Barons Update: Hog Barons Respond

Hey, it’s Austin.

I got a response from one of the barons. Jeff and Deb Hansen – my Hog Barons – just wrote an editorial in the Des Moines Register in response to my book. Believe it or not, they argued that the excessive amounts of hog manure produced by their industrial facilities has “societal benefits” like “protecting our water supply.” As I document in my book, I don’t agree.

I would love to talk it over further with the Hansens. Fortunately, I’m scheduled to give a book talk this Thursday at 6 pm at Robert W. Barlow Memorial Library in Iowa Falls, their hometown. I asked the Hansens to join us, though I’m not holding my breath. Regardless, we’ve had incredible attendance at our book events so far, and I would love for that to continue this Thursday in Iowa Falls so that we can have an honest conversation about what their hog empire really means for a community. 

Otherwise, I’ve continued to get great responses to the book. I published two new excerpts (one in the Des Moines Register and one in the Minnesota Reformer), was profiled in Axios, and even was mentioned on NPR’s popular 1A show. I’m honored by the amount of attention this book has gotten, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who helped me get here.

There are two people in particular I wanted to call out. I still can’t believe Eric Schlosser agreed to write the forward to Barons. His book Fast Food Nation is a true classic and one of the greatest books ever written about the food system. I distinctly remember reading it during breaks from a high school job at a fast food sub shop called – no joke – the Hungry Hobo. Eric shaped my thinking about the food system, and I’m truly honored that he was willing to provide me with so much guidance and support throughout this process.

I also want to thank Christopher Leonard, another writer who has published some of my favorite books (make sure you check them out!). Chris was incredibly gracious in helping me understand the process around writing, launching, and publicizing a book. With so much consolidation in the industry, authors are not given a lot of help these days. Chris has been through this rodeo before, and I really appreciate him sharing his insight. 

I summarized some of the press I’ve gotten since my last e-mail below. I hope you’re enjoying Barons and would love to hear your thoughts on it!



Profiled in “Taking Power from the People: A Big Ag Playbook” by Sana Khan

Key Quote: “Frerick takes apart [the barons’] strategies patiently and methodically, almost as though he is turning an engine upside down to figure out its workings… Though his writing style is restrained, it simmers with damning facts and figures.”


Reviewed by Kate Conlow

Key Quote: “Engaging and richly researched storytelling… Frerick deftly illuminates how decades of big-business-friendly government officials have worked to undermine and reverse labor, environmental, and other laws.”



Profiled by “1 Big Thing: Fighting the Food Barons” by Linh Ta

Key Quote: Putting animals back on the land “may seem like a big step, but it’s actually towards something “very traditional,” Frerick says. “What we have now is radical.”


Interviewed in “Q&A with Author Austin Frerick on Farm Policy, Cargill and Food Industry ‘Barons’” by Madison McVan

Key Quote: “Cargill is the closest example to a modern-day Standard Oil. Cargill is not consumer-facing, but they own the middle — they own the grain from when it’s harvested to when it’s put on the grocery shelf.”


Interviewed on “Iowa Authors Discusses Ag ‘Barons’ in New Book” by Sharon Wren

Key Quote: “You become a baron because you’re willing to cross ethical lines other people aren’t willing to cross,” [Frerick] said. “Most farmers weren’t willing to stuff their animals into a metal shed. Most corporate businesspeople weren’t willing to bribe politicians.”



Referenced on “What’s on the Horizon in Hollywood?” by John Horn

Key Quote: “Food, Inc. 2 mirrors a new book that I can highly recommend — it is called Barons.”


Interviewed on “Are Monopolies Breaking Our Food System?” by Bertie Harrison-Broninski

Key Quote: “The hope of this book is what the [American food] system could be. There also hasn’t been a positive vision articulated for rural America so that’s the void I’m hoping to fill here.”


Interviewed on “Money, Power, and Corruption in the Food Industry with Austin Frerick” by Cassandra Quave

Key Quote: “The conversation over ethanol is over. Scientists not on the payroll of corn say at best it’s a wash. The Museum of Failure even put it in as an exhibit item.”


Interviewed on “Modern Day Robber Barons Rule Our Food” by Linley Dixon

Key Quote: ” The key thing with increased transparency in the marketplace is that it has to be coupled with structural reform… personal consumption will not drive structural reform.”



‘Barons’ Examines US Food System, Including Pork Production” (this is an excerpt from my Hog Barons chapter in Barons)

Iowa has long been known for hog farming and was once dotted with idyllic barns to house the animals. But today, most of the state’s hogs spend their lives in massive metal sheds known as “confinements”: warehouses that allow operators to breed thousands of pigs in one building. The sheds are long and thin, with huge exhaust fans on either end, and each group of buildings includes several silos for storing feed, as well as a dumpster to dispose of the roughly 10% of hogs that don’t survive until slaughtering time. After being weaned in these industrial facilities, the pigs are transferred to a finishing operation to fatten up and then to the slaughterhouse. These two trips in a packed semitrailer are the only times the pigs will see daylight.

Jeff Hansen and his wife, Deb, built an empire out of these confinement sheds. The Hansens’ company, Iowa Select Farms, employs more than 7,400 people, including contractors, and brings about 5 million pigs to market annually. As the owners of Iowa’s largest hog operation, the Hansens have constructed hundreds of confinement sheds in more than 50 of Iowa’s 99 counties.

The sheds have provoked controversy in Iowa ever since operators such as the Hansens began to build them during the 1990s. Many rural communities, including people such as Julie Duhn, have campaigned fiercely against them, citing damage to health, livelihoods, property values, the environment, and the farm economy. Although their efforts have yielded small victories, they have lost the war.


Book Excerpt: ‘Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry’” (An excerpt from my Grain Barons chapter in Barons)

The primary architect of this transformation was John MacMillan Jr., a grandson of William Wallace Cargill. Although John Jr. did not formally become president of the company until 1936, he assumed control long before then because of his father’s poor health. John Jr. espoused a vision of an “endless belt,” which Cargill’s official history described as “control of the movement of grain from the time it left the farmer until it reached the final buyer.” He pushed for the company to control not just the physical handling and storage of grain but also transportation, insurance, and a variety of other key cogs in the grain trade.

The crisis facing the industry gave John Jr. an opening to put this vision into action. With distress spreading throughout agricultural markets, he understood that assets could be purchased “on an astonishingly cheap basis.” Cargill seemingly took advantage of the situation to build, buy, and lease grain terminals in new regions. Because of these efforts, the company more than quadrupled its grain storage capacity in just a decade. Cargill also expanded in new directions. The company entered the shipping business by buying its first boat in 1935. Not long thereafter, Cargill started building its own boats. As the company brags on its website, “Not only had Cargill moved with the flow of grain down the Mississippi, the company had invested in all aspects of transporting grain along the river.” Eventually, the company expanded from rivers to oceans. It even built boats for the United States Navy during World War II.

Cargill’s rapid growth allowed it to consolidate power within the industry, and it began to display a certain ruthlessness in extracting profits. 

Best as always,