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The King of California’s Central Valley

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Aired 6/25/09

No journalist or investigator had ever penetrated the wall around J.G. Boswell, the most powerful man in California's central valley, until Mark Arax got him to talk. He unearthed a story of power, wealth, theft and even murder that made it into the book The King of California.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. What if there were a farming empire right smack dab in the middle of California owned by the biggest farmer in America and no one knew almost anything about him? Someone would probably write a book about it, and somebody did. The book, "The King of California," tells the story of the recently deceased J.G. Boswell, a secretive man whose family, over the past 80 years or so, gained control of more than 200,000 acres of farmland and more than a billion dollars in water rights and real estate in California's central valley. In writing this book, co-authors Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman not only uncover the little known story of the Boswell clan but also expose the kinds of shady deals and land grabs that have created big agriculture in California. Now joining me to talk about this book is co-author Mark Arax. He's author of three nonfiction books on California, former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and current legislative staffer for California Senate majority leader Dean Florez. And, Mark, welcome.

MARK ARAX (Author): It's a pleasure to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: We want to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Have you heard about the Boswell clan or do you – are you familiar with the huge farms of California's central valley? Give us a call with your questions or comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Mark, I'd like for you to share with us the story about the idea for how this book got started. I think it was during a conversation over some cold beer?

ARAX: Well, I grew up in Fresno, kind of the middle of that vast middle of California, the other California, and my – I've been kind of endlessly fascinated with this place because I think it's been geographically exiled from the rest of California. And because of that exile, it's – there's almost a psychological exile as well, and a lot of hidden, hidden stories here. And one day I got a phone call from a reader of the L.A. Times telling me that Tulare Lake had come back during a flood year. And I said, Tulare Lake, what's Tulare Lake? And they said, well, it's, you know, it's about 65, 70 miles south of Fresno. Take the road and you'll find it. So the next day I went down Highway 99 and then I cut west on Highway 43 and the asphalt roads turned into dirt roads and deep into this very, very flat—pancake flat—basin, I came up against this levee, this dike that was something out of the Mississippi delta or maybe, you know, the Everglades of Florida. And I walked up the dike and as I walked up the dike, I could hear this sound of water rushing. And the air even changed, the smell of it changed. And I got up on the dike and looked out and as far as I could see, it was just a vast inland sea. And I saw the whitecaps. The wind was whipping whitecaps past these telephone poles. And if you looked closely at the telephone poles, you could see the marks from previous floods where the lake had come back. And so here in the middle of cotton country, you looked out and you weren't sure if you were – you know, where you were. It might've been the New Jersey shore or something.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

ARAX: So Tulare Lake had come back. Well, it was just a remnant of the old lake. This lake was the most dominant feature on the California map. During Yoka Indian times, it stretched 800 square miles. And for those of your listeners who know the geography of the interior of California, back then, before the rivers were dammed, in the heavy snow melt years, there was a great inland marsh and you could take a boat from the town of Bakersfield and literally, by hopping rivers and these lakes, Tulare Lake, you could get, in three days, to the San Francisco Bay, and that's an incredible journey. So as I drove back that day I thought, my God, the story of this lake, I mean, that – that's a book in and of itself. And then the fact that that lake had flooded this cotton empire. Right outside the town of Corcoran, you saw the J.G. Boswell empire, and no one had really written about this empire.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ARAX: The family myth was – the family kind of motto was 'as long as the whale never surfaces, it is never harpooned.'

CAVANAUGH: Like this.

ARAX: So anyhow, so, you know, so this was what – so I got back and I thought, you know, I'm going to – this is a great book, a great second book. This…

CAVANAUGH: And that's where the cold beer comes in.

ARAX: Well, yeah, I started digging for about a year and I was moving along in a very plodding kind of manner and a friend of mine, Rick Wartzman, who, at the time, was working for the Wall Street Journal, he'd come to Fresno. We were in the backyard drinking a beer. He said, how's that second book going? I said, this thing's going to take me ten years. It's an epic story of how the plantation south came west and was grafted onto a piece of California. And he says, you need some help? I said, oh, yeah. And so we joined up and it was a perfect partnership.

CAVANAUGH: Now, J.G. Boswell II, the man you call the King of California just died this past April. He owned the biggest private farm in America. Can you give us an idea of his holdings? You told us it was cotton. What are the other things that he grew on the land?

ARAX: It was roughly 200,000 acres and to give you an idea, the first day we drove on the land after we persuaded Boswell that it was in his best interest to talk to us, which it took more than a year to do, that day we drove eight hours and never left his land, okay.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

ARAX: It was the equivalent of maybe going from Baltimore to New York or Philadelphia to New York and never leaving one man's holdings. Flat as can be. I mean, he'd engineered the land so that as it moved, mile upon mile upon mile, it hardly rose or dropped an inch or two. So an engineered landscape like no other in America. And so they did. And that's how vast it was. And he grew cotton but he was also growing onions and tomatoes, and looking for a way to make the land flood proof because no matter how – no matter the contrivances he put up, the dams, the canals, the checkpoints, in those big flood years, the lake would come back. So he was trying to find a way to keep the lake permanently at bay and then he could plant permanent crops like almonds or pistachios.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk to you more about your meeting with Mr. Boswell but first I want to take a call on – Alice in Carlsbad is on the line. And good morning, Alice, welcome to These Days.

ALICE (Caller, Carlsbad): Hi. How you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Just great.

ALICE: I was just – when I heard about this story, I thought, well, this is really strange because about four or five years ago I read a book called – I think it was called "King Cotton" or "Cotton King" or something, and it was this same story, all about this Boswell guy and all the land and everything. I wonder if this guy knows about it?

ARAX: This is the book we wrote. You're talking about the book that we wrote.

ALICE: Oh.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

ALICE: Well, I thought she was – said and this just came out.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make that – I did – If I said that, I didn't mean to. I think that actually what I did say was that Mr. Boswell actually just died this past April.

ARAX: Just died. Yeah, he just – he just died. And you might be confused a little because I've just come out with a new book called "West of the West" and some of this story, some of the place, is told again in this book. So we've kind of freshened up things a bit.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Boswell – Thank you, by the way, Alice, for that, just to keep us honest here. Boswell was a very, very secretive man, as you said, about if the whale doesn't rise, nobody harpoons it. But you were able to interview him for this book. How – Why did he decide to talk with you?

ARAX: Well, I think it was, in part, sheer persistence. I mean, he kept hearing from all sorts of people that, you know, these two reporters are truly digging into this story. I mean, at first maybe he thought we would go away. Well, he found out that wasn't going to happen. And then I remember calling him up one evening. He lived most of the time in Ketchum, Idaho. And I remember calling him up and saying, you know, we heard some rumors about your father, you know, that he was kind of regarded as the town drunk in Corcoran. And I remember there was a pause and then he said, you know, my dad did have a drinking problem but if you portray him as the town drunk you'll be portraying him wrong in your book. You know, and then he started talking and trying to give us a more nuanced portrait of his father. And once he started doing that then I knew that, you know, he had a certain investment in telling the full story. And it was at that point that he invited us to take a drive with him on his land.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you're telling me that the King of California lived in Idaho.

ARAX: Yeah, no, well, this is – The King of California had several different homes although I have to say here that this man, you know, although his – the water rights of his company were worth in excess of a billion dollars, he did not live like a wealthy man, okay. Pretty simple. Although, you know, he did live in some nice places and, unlike some of these distant corporate farmers, he did have a connection to that land. He came back often to Corcoran, watched, you know, ran kind of the show and stuff like that. So he wasn't an absentee corporate kind of farmer in that way. He still had a little dirt under his fingernails.

CAVANAUGH: What was he like as a person?

ARAX: Boswell was – really operated, you know, from the gut, okay. If you – not a huge ego, at least not a discernible one. Dressed simply, liked hanging out with the guys. Saw himself as a man's man. I mean, this is a guy who, you know, hiked the John Muir Trail every few years. I mean, just – just an old-fashioned kind of – you know, a Stanford educated cowboy, if you will.

CAVANAUGH: And – But when you were speaking with him, when you did get that interview for the book "The King of California," he was testy with you from time to time.

ARAX: Oh, yeah, he would get testy. You know, he – when he was a younger man, he had lost his two middle fingers of his right hand in a cattle roping accident and so when we were driving around with him and we were testing him, asking him, you know, you know, is big the best way to be? I mean, and how many people do you employ? And does the size and wealth of this operation really trickle down to the people? And why is Corcoran and the valley so poor? You know, all these questions we'd ask him and every so often he would thrust up his right hand and you would see – you know, it would be this thrust sign. And it took us a while to understand that he was actually flipping us the bird by implication because the finger wasn't there. So, anyhow, yeah, he would get angry and you'd see it.

CAVANAUGH: My goodness. That would take me a while to understand, too. Now, Mark, all this week on KPBS, we've been running stories about water…

ARAX: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …its scarcity in Southern California, who controls it. And I want to talk with you a little bit about how the Boswell empire retained control over the water. How did it get control of the water it needed for this vast farming operation?

ARAX: Well, to give you a sense of their water holdings, the Boswells own, if you can own a river, they own 15% of the Kings River, which is in the middle of California, coming down the Sierra and emptying in what was Tulare Lake. The Kings River irrigates more farmland than any river in the world except for the Nile and the Indus. It's more than a million acres of farmland. So 15% of that flow is a vast amount of water. And they controlled it two ways. One, they bought land along the river so they got riparian rights, which are kind of a first right, a prime right, to get the water and draw – put your straw directly in the river and draw it out onto the land. And secondly, Colonel Boswell, J.G.'s uncle, the one who left Georgia, was kind of pushed west by the boll weevil eating the cotton fields of Georgia, he comes west in 1920, he comes to Tulare Lake, starts draining that lake and these early canal companies, he started buying, you know, shares in these early canal companies which had a right to draw the water as well. So by cobbling together riparian rights and canal water rights, they controlled 15% of the Kings River.

CAVANAUGH: And didn't he also drain one of the nation's largest lakes?

ARAX: Well, he drained Tulare Lake.

CAVANAUGH: Tulare Lake, right.

ARAX: Tulare Lake, you know, that lake in Indian times, which was 800 square miles, was even as late as, you know, 1910, 1930, it was the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi, in those years when there was a heavy snow melt and the water would come rushing down the Sierra.

CAVANAUGH: Mark Arax, are you on the line with us?

ARAX: Yes. Yes, I am.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I'm sorry. I thought we lost you.

ARAX: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Were you in the middle of talking to us about the Tulare Lake?

ARAX: Yes. I don't know what you caught there. I was talking about the lake being the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

ARAX: …at that time. And then slowly, you know – The rivers, those four rivers that fed into the lake, when you see them as they work their way down the Sierra into the valley, you look and they don't even look like rivers anymore. They've been engineered, turned almost into strait jackets and they're very precise bands of water that look almost like canals, giant canals.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Mark, one of the things that you do in your book is not only tell the story of the Boswell empire but also in telling that story, you touch on the growth of big agriculture in California. We do have to take a short break but when we return, I want to talk about this aspect of your book and whether or not you think big agriculture has been good for the state. And I am speaking with Mark Arax. He is co-author of the book "The King of California." You're listening to These Days. We will return in just a moment.

[break]

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. I'm speaking with Mark Arax, who is co-author of the book "King of California" (sic). It tells the story of J.G. Boswell, who, with his family, gained control of more than 200,000 acres of farmland in California's central valley. And, Mark, as I said before the break, I want to talk about big agriculture. When I was reading your book, and I read about the story of the Boswells and how they acquired this huge amount of land and all of this power in the central valley, it seemed to me that this is something nobody could do today, or could they?

ARAX: No, it's being done today. We'll talk about Stuart Resnick, who is featured in my new book "West of the West," but let's go back to early California.

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

ARAX: Railroads controlled much of the big land and then it got chopped up into some – the idea was to chop it up into smaller pieces by offering the land, really, for, you know, a buck, a fire sale, basically, okay. And you had – The idea was to bring in all these homesteaders to come in and turn these lands into small agricultural kinds of colonies. Well, what happened was, the big San Francisco industrialists manipulated some of those early laws to encourage people to buy and they bought huge tracts of land so the agriculture started off big here. So there were always two kinds of agriculture in the middle of the state: the big, big guys and the smaller guys. The smaller guys farmed in places like Dinuba and Reedley, and these communities were thriving. Smaller farms seemed to spread the wealth a lot better. On the west side of the valley, in general, there were bigger farms, cotton farms, big wheat farms, big acreage, great farms. And so you always had these two competing kinds of things, and the big farms slowly have won out for a variety of reasons. One, economies of scale. You know, you could be a small grower of peaches and plums on the east side of the valley and you could be selling your box of plums today for the same price that your father sold his box of plums in 1981, so it's not penciling out for the small guy. In fact, right now, in the middle of the state, 25 to 30,000 acres of tree fruit are being pulled out. So we're seeing a concentration of movement back, you know, to fewer smaller – fewer farmers, bigger holdings. Now let me give you the story of Stuart Resnick, different than Boswell, but Resnick might be considered the new king of California. He's a Jewish kid from Highland Park, New Jersey. He comes west in the 1950s to go to UCLA law school. By his third year at UCLA law school, he is a millionaire because he's built this business cleaning up buildings. He decides then to not only clean the buildings but to put security alarms and security guards in the buildings, and ten years out of UCLA he's worth $300 million. Then he marries and he and his wife buy the Franklin Mint, you know, that…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yes.

ARAX: You know, the maker of those kitsch kinds of dolls and…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

ARAX: …and plates, you know, souvenir plates. And they take that business and now, you know, five, six years after that they're worth $700 million. Stuart Resnick decides to hedge against inflation, from his palace in Beverly Hills, he's going to buy some farmland in the San Joaquin Valley. He buys 20 30,000 acre chunks from these oil companies in Kern County. Today, 20 years after that hedge against inflation, he owns a 140,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley. He is the world's biggest grower of pistachios, almonds and pomegranates, and the biggest grower of citrus in America. Fascinating story on the pomegranates. He had a small, small acreage on one of these places he bought and was going to pull it out but he decides to keep the pomegranates and he decides to juice them. And his wife comes up with this idea of having this bottle where it looks like one pomegranate on top of the other.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ARAX: They call it POM Wonderful.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ARAX: They start selling it, you know, in L.A. They start putting it in the bags of the stars at the Oscars, and pretty soon this becomes, you know, the chi-chi drink of the west.

CAVANAUGH: The super food.

ARAX: Yes, the super antioxidant and, you know, we have now POMtinis. So there's Stuart Resnick and, like Boswell, he controls a great deal of water through the Kern Water Bank. So he's operating this empire from Beverly Hills.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Mark, let me ask you, though, you said that it doesn't pencil out for the small farmer so that's why there is this huge holding that Stuart Resnick can buy and the Boswell family's huge holding. But is it really good for agriculture in California? I mean, is it good for the environment, for farm workers, for the towns in that area?

ARAX: Well, as I said before, if you look at the towns on the east side where the farms are smaller, they're more vibrant, real communities. The towns on the west side tend to be glorified labor camps, okay. So on that measure, small farm is better. There may – there is some movement. Some of these smaller guys have gone organic. They can charge a little higher for their, you know, their fruits and vegetables, and I think that is a good trend. Farm workers, I think the equation is the same whether you're working on a small farm or a large farm. In fact, the argument can be made that a large operation like Boswell might be able to provide better benefits to the farm worker and actually a higher wage. So it's not so simple, it's very complex. I think when you look at it as a whole for society, it would be wonderful if this was a valley. You know, this is the greatest agricultural machine, this valley, that the world has ever known. It would be great if it was comprised of smaller farms but it's simply – you know, the economics and the competition from abroad is such that it's very, very tough to pencil out.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, did you and Rick Wartzman get any flack when the book "King of California" was first published, from Boswell or his families or other valley growers?

ARAX: Boswell, I went – I made a promise to Boswell that I'd let him see the manuscript before we turned it in to the publisher. It's always a dangerous thing to do but I told him, listen, I'm not obligated to make any changes but if you find some factual errors, we'll make those changes. So he called me three days later, after I had given him the manuscript—it might've been two days later—and said I've read it three times, come on over. So I went to Corcoran in this Boswell cabana back there and I walked in and I saw the manuscript on the table and there must've been 250 yellow Post-Its…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, no.

ARAX: …all throughout and I thought, oh, my gosh, we're going to have a very long day. Well, there were a few date changes but he had some things that he wanted eliminated and I said we can't do that. And finally it came to the title, "The King of California," and this troubled him greatly. He said, if this title sticks, I'll never talk to you again. And I said, well, can you come up with a better title? He said, how about 'a' king of California? And I said, well, who's going to buy a book called A King of California? Nah, I don't think so. And he farmed in Kings County so he said, well, how about The King of Kings? And I thought for a moment, I started chuckling and I said, I think the King of Kings has been taken already, Jim. So anyhow, he never talked to us again after the book came out. I was on book tour recently for "West of the West" when he died. I couldn't go to his memorial service but it was an incredible scene. In the town of Corcoran, in the football stadium he built, 6,000 people came and filled those seats to say goodbye to J.G. Boswell.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what's going to happen to his holdings now, do you know?

ARAX: His son is now running the Boswell Company. There's been a coup of sorts because his son was actually on the outs when J.G. was alive although I think they got along a lot better after the book came out and before he died, so there was a reconciliation. But the son is running it and I think there's going to be a big decision: Do we continue to grow cotton? Do we grow other crops? Or do we simply sell that water to L.A. so that it can, you know, continue to sprawl all the way out to the desert.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mark, as you say, you have a new book out called "West of the West." What is this book about?

ARAX: "West of the West," the subtitle is "Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers In the Golden State." And it's a story – it's 12 stories kind of woven together by my own narrative, my own family's narrative. And basically the premise is pretty simple, that each landscape of California, by virtue of its own geography, psychology, history, kind of produces its own drama. So I travel up and down California for four years telling these dramas on the land. So I'm up in Humboldt with the biggest marijuana growers in the world, and then I'm in the San Joaquin Valley with a – in the aftermath of the death of a farm worker named Hilario Guzman and I follow his family for one year, from raisin harvest to raisin harvest. Then I’m in L.A. telling the story of Zankou Chicken and a murder-suicide inside the family that built this chain of rotisserie chicken restaurants. And then I’m in Berkeley with the dropouts from the summer of love and so it's just moving around, telling these dramas. And the book ends with an epilogue to my first book, which was called "In My Father's Name," which was my story of my father's murder in Fresno, unsolved, when I was fifteen. I went back to write that book and after that book came out, "In My Father's Name," the murder was solved. And so in this new book, "West of the West," I tell the story of the solving of that murder and the trial. So there is, in all three books, there are these overlapping themes and my own narrative kind of gets told in all three books. And I'm kind of working from the center out, the center of California, Fresno, out to the extremes, and then the center of my family's narrative out to other narratives and other immigrants, so that's kind of "West of the West." It – The book ends with my father's story, it begins with my grandfather surviving the Armenian genocide and coming west to California in 1920 and becoming a fruit tramp, traveling up and down the state as a migrant farm worker.

CAVANAUGH: Mark, you know, you – Anyone can tell by listening to you that you have this lyrical, sweeping look, very much a writer's look, of California and stories, and I'm wondering though, it's really interesting to me that now you are in politics. You're – You've taken the position…

ARAX: Oh, no.

CAVANAUGH: …of senior policy advisor for California Senate Majority leader Dean Florez, and I'm wondering do you…

ARAX: Have I joined the dark side?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, well…

ARAX: Is that what you're asking?

CAVANAUGH: …I wonder if there's any disconnect there.

ARAX: Well, here's what happened. I left the L.A. Times and, you know, your listeners can go online and see why. It was a complicated story that involved, you know, the Armenian genocide, strange as it sounds. I left and I finished up this book "West of the West" and I looked up and I said, you know – and I was teaching at Claremont McKenna, a literature class in kind of creative nonfiction. But it was a part time job. I looked up, I said, geez, I got to get a full time job here. So Dean Florez, who I had once, you know, kind of lacerated in a story, we had developed this respect and – for each other and a kind of a friendship, said, listen, do you want to keep digging into California in issues of food safety, air, water, and then, you know, just write up reports to these committees and we'll either hold hearings or we'll make laws. I said, this is great. This is, in fact, what Carey McWilliams, the great writer of California, did early in his career, which led him to write, you know, "Factories In the Fields" (sic). Working for government, doing the kind of things that a journalist does, and I'm not alone. There are four or five other journalists working for the Senate majority. And, you know, we're seeing, sadly, the diminishing of our newspapers…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

ARAX: …and so those skills can be translated to other places and that's what I decided to do.

CAVANAUGH: That's really fascinating. It sounds almost like a dream job for you.

ARAX: It's a great job. It's a little different. I'm not going to say it is like the newsroom itself because when you turn in your reports, a whole other calculation happens. You know, it used to be, is this story good enough for our readers? Well, now the question becomes, you know, how can this be used politically and things like that. So the calculation is different. From my end, it's similar. So I don't see it as joining the dark side. And I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dean Florez, who's running for Lieutenant Governor so…

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me ask you quickly, Mark, because we're running…

ARAX: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …out of time. I just – I wondered, you know, you spend so much time writing about the central valley and so forth, what about San Diego County? Are we just too coastal for you?

ARAX: You know, I love San Diego. I came to Warwick's and did one of my readings from "West of the West." I don't – I venture that far when I'm telling the story of the border.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh, yeah.

ARAX: I think that's fascinating. But, you know, it's – I'm still trying to puzzle out these parts of California that I should know by now.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ARAX: It's a confounding place and so, you know, I may spend the rest of my life just going over the same terrain and just finding new wrinkles to it. I don't know. But I sure like going there for a break, I'll tell you that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate your talking with us this morning.

ARAX: It's a pleasure being with you guys. Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Speaking with Mark Arax. He is a co- – a co-writer, that is, of "The King of California." You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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