The Meat Racket

Inside Dakota Ag

A new book takes you inside the rise of Tyson Foods and how it created the meat industry we have today.

Published on: February 24, 2014

The question of whether vertical integration in the poultry and swine industries, and packer concentration in the beef industry, is good or bad is a moot point. It’s how we do business today and it is here to stay.

But you might like the new book, “The Meat Racket,” by Christopher Leonard. It’s about how Tyson Foods was founded and how it grew.

What I like best about the book are the stories about the farmers — especially John Tyson, who founded the company. He sounds as if he was like a lot of other farmers and ranchers who have gone through tough times.

In 1930, John Tyson was 25 and a student at Kansas State University studying agriculture. He was planning to go back to his family’s farm outside of Kansas City and eventually inherit it from his father. The 1929 stock and commodity market collapse changed all that. Because his father could barely support himself on the farm, John was “exiled from the farm,” Leonard writes. John was given a working truck and a bale of hay he could sell for cash to get himself down to Ft. Smith, Ark., where they had heard there were jobs.

John’s money ran out before he got to Ft. Smith, though. He and his young wife found themselves marooned in the small town of Springdale, Ark. Eventually, he found work using his truck to haul fruit from the orchards to markets in Kansas City and St. Louis. When the Dirty 30s drought decimated the orchards, John began hauling live chickens– which Springdale farmers were raising as a sideline – to restaurants in the cities up north.

Tyson Foods grew from there and vertical integration that dominates the industry today evolved from John’s efforts and his son Don’s efforts to even out the price they received for chickens and the supply of chickens that were available to sell.

Had John been able go back to his family's farm, what kind of meat system would we have today?

“The system that [the Tysons] pioneered is now entrenched in the America economy and America way of life,” Leonard writes. “Tyson’s corporate culture became small town America’s corporate culture while no one was paying attention. There have been benefits to this, but also deep costs. If America’s consumers and farmers cannot rid themselves of the system that Tyson has imposed on them, they are at least entitled to under the company, and to see if from the inside.”

If you’d like to read the book, be the first to send me an email and I’ll send you my copy.

ltonneson@farmprogress.com