Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Georgia Cotton King of California

From the Los Angeles Times, "A land rich in lore, rich in cotton, poor in spirit: The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire; Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman," on 12 October 2003, by Malcolm Margolin -- After an abortive trip to the Central Valley, Ansel Adams wrote: "I have returned from 1,000 miles of haze, smog, [and] general dullness.... Might be rich, but it ain't attractive."

Although I have fought against this kind of smug dismissal for years, citing the rich if often hidden cultural and natural features of the valley, Adams' words came to haunt me on a recent drive through the Boswell cotton farms of Kings County at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. The most graceful things in sight were crop-dusters swooping and diving, puffing out clouds of sweet-smelling defoliant over acres of cotton. Previously sprayed cotton plants, their leaves chemically burned off, their brown stalks and white bolls withered and bare, awaited the behemoth mechanical harvesters being readied in corporation yards.

Large bodies of water, superficially inviting, turned out to be semi-toxic evaporation ponds into which chemically laced water is pumped. The centers of such towns as Corcoran and Alpaugh were deserted, shops vacant, many of the houses woefully dilapidated. A quarter of the population of Kings County lives below the poverty level; the official unemployment rate has hovered intractably at 16% for a decade; the incidence of teenage pregnancy surpasses that of such Third World countries as Namibia and Haiti. The sprawling Corcoran Prison -- housing Juan Corona, Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, along with 6,000 other tortured souls -- instead of being shocking seemed to fit right in.

Welcome to the richest farming land the world has ever seen.

The relationship between agricultural wealth and the degradation of culture and environment is a central theme in "The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire," a passionate, fair-minded, thought-provoking and groundbreaking book by Times reporter Mark Arax and The Times' business editor, Rick Wartzman. At its center is James "Jim" Boswell, the biggest farmer in America, owner of more than 200,000 acres of America's richest farmland. Boswell, the world's biggest cotton farmer, also grows more irrigated wheat, safflower and seed alfalfa than anyone else in the country. Among his investments was the conversion, in partnership with Del Webb, of a failing cattle ranch near Phoenix into the wildly successful Sun Valley retirement community.

Jim who? If the Boswell name doesn't ring a bell, this is no accident. The company has no public relations department -- this huge empire is run with only 300 salaried employees -- and secrecy is a family obsession. "As long as the whale never surfaces, it is never harpooned" is how one family member put it. And yet, the authors somehow managed to win the trust of Boswell, who grudgingly agreed to be interviewed.

Dressed in a plaid shirt and old chinos, driving a beat-up Dodge truck, Boswell, now 80, is presented as a man with boundless energy and limitless testosterone -- "an old cowboy," as he apparently sees himself. When he was on the board of General Electric, Chairman Reg Jones described him as a man out of "the Old West -- a shooter, a fisherman, a hiker of trails." Jack Welch, GE's former chief executive, characterized him as "a maverick sort of guy." His favorite reading is Range, a magazine devoted to Western cattle grazing. But images can be deceiving. Boswell is also a Stanford graduate and a member of both the Aspen Institute and the exclusive Bohemian Grove.

The book's story line, in other words, has all the makings of yet another cliched CEO celebrity biography: A colorful old character, secretive, tough as nails, full of zest and contradiction, makes hundreds of millions of dollars by being the worst bully in the neighborhood. Fortunately, "The King of California" goes far beyond that genre, quickly leaving the personality of Boswell behind to follow two rich streams to their headwaters and explore topics essential to our understanding of California.

One line of investigation takes us to Boswell's birthplace, Greene County, Ga., and his ancestors' cotton plantation with 33 slaves. In the 1920s one family member, Col. J.G. Boswell -- Jim's uncle, after whom he was named -- headed west, eventually buying land in Kings County, where he could grow cotton far from the boll weevil then devastating the South. Operating out of Los Angeles, the colonel later married Ruth Chandler, daughter of Times publisher Harry Chandler, thereby linking the most well-connected of Southern California families with the agricultural wealth (and water resources) of the Central Valley. When the colonel died in 1952, he left his company to his nephew Jim, who greatly increased the size of the enterprise.

One can hardly imagine a more technically advanced farming operation. A 12-inch satellite receiver sits atop each 18-row planter, taking signals on how to drop the seeds: one seed planted every inch, 30 inches between rows, 65,000 plants to an acre. Yet for all its robotic mechanization, one feels the residue of plantation-style life and morality, something feudal with more than a hint of racism. One also feels the shadow of cotton. The book's title refers not just to Boswell but also to King Cotton. Whether in the plantations of the South where it fostered a slave economy, in England where it triggered the Industrial Revolution or in the Central Valley of today, cotton has a long history of dominating the social as well as the physical landscape.

The other stream this wide-ranging book traces is the history of Kings County. The Boswell farming empire is on the bed of Tulare Lake, once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. Its 800 square miles, fed by the Kings, Kern, Kaweah and Tule rivers, were once rimmed by an extensive jungle of 10-foot tule reeds and the villages of Yokuts Indians. It was home also to tens of thousands of geese, ducks, swans, cranes, pelicans and other birds. Using crude nets, 19th century fishermen could scoop up 3,000 pounds of fish in a single haul, and San Francisco restaurants served Tulare Lake turtles by the hundreds.

In a manner richly anecdotal, hugely sympathetic and always engaging, the authors plunge headlong into the history of how Tulare Lake was drained and converted to farmland. Vividly rendered are events that transformed the valley, including the formation of the Mariposa Battalion to support miners in their battles with Indians, a deadly dispute over railroad land at Mussel Slough and the Cotton Strike of 1933. The past comes alive as the authors reconstruct the entertainment of previous eras: the jackrabbit drives, the dog and badger fights, the performance in 1929 of a Georgia minstrel show. A visit to a black community church, where people -- drawn to Tulare Lake by visions of a better rural life -- had been left behind by technology to live in utter poverty, is especially poignant, as is the portrait of a Mexican woman waking up at 4:30 a.m. to make tortillas for her farm-working family. Here one feels the book's pulse, a deep, passionate, big-souled immersion into the rhythms, tonalities, sadness and perseverance of something that one senses as truly Central Valley.

The major feature of this history is, of course, the damming of the rivers that flowed into Tulare Lake and the control of its waters. The stakes were enormous: the Kings River alone irrigates more land than any other river in the world except the Nile and the Indus. One of the great gifts of this book is an intelligent, nuanced, lucid discussion of how this water came to be seized by such large farmers as Boswell. Although California's water wars have been covered elsewhere, I do not know of any writers who have done so with more capaciousness, thoughtfulness, originality or integrity than Arax and Wartzman.
Photo of four men conversing.

The history of water control can be described as a clash of ideas. From the East came the idea of the small family farm embodying Jeffersonian ideals of civic and moral virtue, as encapsulated in the gospel of the 160-acre limit, the acreage allotted in the Homestead Act and later encoded into water reclamation law.

But small family farms had never been a major part of California history. The earliest European settlers were not independent yeomen but Franciscan monks who established huge ranches and farms around the missions. The Spanish and Mexican governments gave spacious land grants to its retired soldiers and others -- 8 million acres to only 800 people -- so that when the U.S. took over in 1848, parts of the state were already divided into mammoth holdings. In the Central Valley, cattle ranchers Henry Miller and his partner Charles Lux bought distressed land from the Spanish and Mexican land grantees, eventually accumulating 1.3 million acres. Other immense holdings went to the railroads, so that by 1871 more than 9 million fertile acres were owned by 516 men.

Added to this history are matters of farming economics and technology. Are small family farms viable on the flat, irrigated acres of an old lakebed? If cotton is indeed a good crop for the area, it is difficult for a farmer to survive on small acreage when the margins are so tight and the needs for equipment investment so huge. Also, in an area still subject to periodic flooding, a large landowner can construct levees and shunt some of the water to certain parts of a property, leaving other areas arable. A small farmer would have no such flexibility and would likely lose everything in years of flood.

Although arguments for and against the 160-acre limit have raged for decades, agricultural empires were not built on intellectual niceties. The dynamiting of levees; the terrorism of corporate farmers against union organizing, intimidation and outright murder; the near-total contempt for health and environment; the cynical manipulation of legislative and legal bodies; and a wiliness in capturing government subsidies were among the tools that built the farming empires of the Central Valley.

As for the centerpiece of the story, Boswell hardly seems likable. But neither is he an embodiment of evil. Arax and Wartzman acknowledge his work on behalf of the Nature Conservancy, his insistence on paying his salaried employees relatively well, his other charitable deeds. Yet while the authors make heroic efforts to be impartial, one cannot help but feel moral outrage seeping through the paragraphs -- outrage at people's dreams turned putrid and a landscape poisoned in the midst of such stunning agricultural wealth.

"The King of California" is a thoroughly moving, deeply rendered and utterly trustworthy book. Perhaps because of the authors' backgrounds as reporters, one feels that this multilayered account is rooted not in ideology or advocacy but in anecdote, history and a sense of dispassionate investigative reporting. Its implied conclusion is thus all the more powerful: that however arguable the case for bigness, its consequences have been and continue to be hugely and reprehensively destructive.  (source: Los Angeles Times)


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