Meet the uber-wealthy families who control much of the food system in the US and Australia

A pink pig, backlit, looks straight on at the camera, which is zoomed in on its face.
From pig farming to grain transportation, Austin Frerick has been examining the intersection of food production and monopolies. ()

Austin Frerick’s interest in mega-rich farmers began in 2018, while he was perched on a stool in a hipster dive bar in Iowa during a competitive local political campaign.

The author got chatting to someone in the bar who told him the biggest campaign contributors were a couple of Iowa hog farmers named Jeff and Deb Hansen.

Frerick was struck by this and what these farmers symbolized.

“The most politically powerful person right now in the state is a hog farmer,” Frerick tells ABC RN’s Late Night Live.

And he wondered how one farmer could come to amass and sell more than 5 million pigs each year.

Frerick is a fellow of Yale’s Thurman Arnold Project, which researches competition policy and antitrust enforcement. Recently he published Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry.

After that conversation at the bar, Frerick realised that what was happening in the pork industry — this huge consolidation of power and wealth — was happening throughout the US food system.

When he started investigating, he found that a handful of US families controlled most of the US’s food production and distribution system, including meat, dairy, grains, fruit and groceries.

While some have recognisable names, most are private individuals running private companies. All are worth billions of dollars.

And while their influence is evident in the US, it stretches around the world — and that includes Australia.

How did these farmers become so powerful?

The history of American agriculture is rooted in slavery and genocide but it was in the 1980s that the pro-corporate framework really took hold , Frerick says.

Young white man wearing blue collared shirt

Austin Frerick is an expert on agricultural and antitrust policy who’s encouraging Americans to take back the power from food barons.(Supplied: Austin Frerick)

With the election of Republican president Ronald Reagan, Frerick says that “the guardrails came off and you see this massive consolidation of power in the hands of a few people”.

In the 1950s, then-president Dwight D Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture urged farmers to “get big or get out”, and succeeded in passing a bill that watered down laws protecting small family-run farms.

Reagan continued to water down this legislation.

Frerick says this meant his home state of Iowa, which had some of the best soil in North America, was transformed into an industrial wasteland.

“It’s empty, it’s dead, it’s barren — you don’t see animals, you smell them,” he says.

For example, in Iowa, pigs currently outnumber people seven to one.

“We basically shove most animals into these massive sheds called confinements, where they never see a blade of grass.”

He says where Iowa used to be made up of independent, middle-class family farms, it is now mostly families of low-wage workers employed by the mega-rich and often out-of-town agricultural barons.

And Frerick believes these mega-rich baron families have one thing in common which led to their success.

“They were willing to cross ethical lines others weren’t willing to cross. [For instance] most hog farmers weren’t willing to pack thousands of their animals into a windless metal shed,” he says.

So who exactly are the families that own so much of the agricultural industry?

The hog barons: Jeff and Deb Hansen

Via their Iowa Select Farms pork production company, the Hansens own 800 farms in 50 counties in Iowa. That makes them the fourth largest pork producer in the US. Iowa Select Farms’ revenue from 2022 was $91 million.

Frerick learnt that the Hansens live between their home in the only gated community in Iowa and a home in Naples, Florida.

“[And] they have their own private jet that they fly back and forth between the two and allegedly on this jet are the words ‘When pigs fly’, ” Frerick says.

The grain barons: The Cargill-MacMillan family

Frerick says he grew up aware of the company owned by the Cargill-MacMillan family.

“I played soccer next to a Cargill plant, I went to church by a Cargill plant, but [the family is] not consumer-facing, they don’t put their name on anything,” he says.

So, he never realised the scale of the operation.

The family owns equity in the food company Cargill Inc, one of the largest privately owned corporations in the US, with branches around the world, including Australia.

According to Forbes, 21 of the Cargill-MacMillian family members are billionaires.

Yet despite their reach, Frerick says the family aims to keep a low profile.

“[For example] they’re still in Russia, they don’t care about Putin because you don’t know who they are and so you can’t boycott [them],” he says.

A wheat crop

Cargill is in the business of transporting grain, and is likely one of the biggest privately owned companies you’ve never heard of.(ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton)

“They want to be in every grain production region in the world and they want to shape those markets to their personal benefit.”

Frerick says the other advantage of the family’s anonymity is that “it’s actually really, really hard to find out what they own, how much they own, where they operate”.

And how they operate.

In 2022, the president of the New South Wales Farmers Association, Xavier Martin was critical of the way “multinational middleman” like Cargill treat NSW grain growers.

“There’s a heck of a lot of farmers who’ve had an absolute belting and then find they’ve got a hundred-tonne gorilla … completely mugging them at the market,” Mr Martin said.

The dairy barons: Mike and Sue McCloskey

Select Milk Producers, the sixth largest milk co-operative in America, is owned by Mike and Sue McCloskey.

The couple started their own dairy in California with just 250 cows, but they’ve since moved their operation to New Mexico and Indiana. And now their co-operative is an operation with 35,000 cows.

Beyond dairy farming, Frerick says the pair are also involved in American politics.

“The dairy [barons] were very early supporters of [Trump]; they gave him a massive amount of money,” the author says.

In 2016, following the election of Donald Trump, Mike McCloskey was considered for the role of US secretary of agriculture, but was not appointed to the role.

While their farming operation is based in north-west Indiana, the McCloskeys claim residency at the Ritz-Carlton in Puerto Rico, Frerick says.

The grocery barons: The Waltons family

“They’re the largest company we’ve ever seen in the food system in the history of mankind,” Frerick says.

The Waltons, the owners of Walmart, are unsurprisingly America’s richest family, and Frerick describes them as the “king of kings”.

Frerick says a Walmart supplier once described their relationship to the grocery monolith as “it’s supply and command … they dictate you”.

The berry barons: The Driscolls

It’s easy to find berry brand Driscoll in Australian supermarkets, but the company is headquartered in California.

Brothers J Miles and Garland Reiter founded the company in the late 1800s, and the company now sells one in three berries in the world.

Yet Frerik says: “They don’t grow a single berry.”

He says companies like Driscoll often contract out their production to people in other countries who can engage in labour practices that would not generally be accepted in developed countries.

A 2022 Guardian investigation found that berry farm workers in Portugal appear to have been working illegally long hours picking berries for less than minimum wage.

Some of the berry farms identified in the investigation supply berries to European supermarkets through Driscolls.

Frerick explains the creation of the supermarket baron Walmart led to the offshoot of “parent” barons.

He adds: “That’s how Driscolls became a baron … they realise one company wants four berries for 4,000 stores year round,” he says.

“And so what you see is massive consolidation in the food system.”

The beef barons: The Batista family

The billionaire Brazilian Batista brothers, Joesley and Wesley, own JBS Foods, one of the world’s largest meat processing companies.

This company has been heavily involved in political influence.

In 2020, top executives of the company pleaded guilty to bribing more than 1,900 Brazilian politicians to advance their business interests.

The company was fined yet, as Frerick explains, the brothers “kept their monopoly”.

A truck with the name 'JBS Carriers' on it, drives on a road in a regional area.

Joesley Batista has mainly orchestrated JBS’s global acquisition spree, buying up competitors while expanding its supply chain.(ABC: Four Corners/Ryan Sheridan)

In Australia, JBS is the country’s largest meat and food processing company, employing more than 14,000 workers across 50 sites.

You might not know the name JBS. But if you buy Primo ham, McDonald’s burgers or meat from Coles, Woolworths or Aldi, you’re likely eating JBS products.

Recently, JBS expanded into fish farming in Tasmania, acquiring Huon Aquaculture, a major salmon producer sold around Australian and exported globally.

Where to from here?

Frerick would like to see the US return to sustainable, independent farming practices because he believes the current food system in America is “truly radical” given the size and scale of these current farming enterprises.

“Honestly, the simplest thing is to put animals back on the land,” he says.

“We have to end this industrial model; it’s better for rural communities, better for the environment [and] it makes better tasting food.”

Agriculture is a major contributor of emissions and as the world deals with a deepening climate crisis, Frerick says the American food system needs to change.

“You have industrial dairy occurring in the West and aquifers that cannot sustain them, that are just awful for the cows and awful for the workers.”

Frerick says it all comes down to political will.

“You just have to break [these companies] up. This isn’t hard,  it’s more about the question of political courage.”