Apr 4, 2024 - News

Iowa's food scene has "next Italy" potential

Illustration of a steer in a pile of money with money in it's mouth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Iowa's food scene could be like Italy's if more small and mid-sized farmers could get support, author Austin Frerick argues in a new book.

Why it matters: "Rural Iowa ... is producing the most wealth it's ever produced, but none of that money is staying there," Frerick, a Yale University antitrust expert and Cedar Rapids native, tells Axios.

Driving the news: In his new book, "Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America's Food Industry," Frerick examines how companies like JBS, Walmart and Driscoll's have monopolized the country's food industry and pushed smaller farmers out.

By the numbers: An Iowa State report shows large-scale commercial farms in the state have doubled in size between 2011-21, while small farms decreased by 27% over that same period.

State of play: To help decentralize Iowa farms, Frerick advocates for federal intervention to break up "meat monopolies," he says.

  • He also supports scrapping the farm bill, which incentivizes the overproduction of corn and soybeans, he says.

Zoom in: Instead, Frerick argues Iowa's rural towns could encourage agro-tourism, especially as more people travel for good, locally-sourced food.

  • Hogs in confinement should return to the countryside, he says. That would reduce pollution and improve their meat quality.
  • Local entities should also focus on local procurement — schools and colleges could source milk from Iowa dairy farms and provide a stable source of income.

The intrigue: Decentralizing farms may seem like a big step, but it's actually towards something "very traditional," Frerick says.

  • "What we have now is radical."

The other side: Meatpackers, including the CEO's of Tyson and JBS, testified before Congress in 2022 and denied any anti-competitive practices.

  • Some Republican lawmakers at the time also defended them, noting they provide "invaluable service and do so with incredible efficiency," according to Politico.

What's next: Frerick is speaking at Ames Public Library on Saturday at 10:30am.

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