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Water, Land and Cotton

Unmasking a Secret American Empire

by AL KREBS

As a native Californian I often remind outsiders that unless they understand the politics of land and water, they don’t understand the history and politics of the state.

For those who fear I exaggerate I enthusiastically recommend a reading of Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman’s excellent new The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire (Public Affairs, New York: 2003).

This 558-page book is more than the story of a family of titans who owned and controlled more agricultural acreage and more river water than any other agribusiness land barons in the West.

It is also the ever unfolding story, minus the colorful facade of history usually associated with the Golden State, of how California earned the title — in the words of author Joan Didion — the nation’s heaviest subsidized state.

Dating from the fraudulent Mexican land grants to the building of the railroads, from the harnessing of the state’s abundant rivers to the providing of slave laborers for harvesting its plentiful crops, California has continued to enjoy the federal government’s never ending largess.

Synonymous with such subsidies has been the J.G. Boswell family and their making of a secret American empire.

Others, notably long-time San Joaquin Valley activist George Ballis and his National Land for People colleagues, have in the past given us rare glimpses of the Boswell’s machinations and water schemes. But Arax and Wartzman have now provided us in their publisher’s words a "sweeping lyrical narrative" of how the Boswell’s, a Georgia slave-owning family, migrated to California in the early 1920′s, drained one of the nation’s largest lakes — once 800 square miles — and became the richest cotton producer in the world.

"For five years," they write, "we had kept a grand ledger book in our minds to try and reckon the Boswell empire — and by extension Big Ag — in a way that broke free of the dogmatic screeds of the 1930′s and 1940′s. What were the pluses? What were the minuses?

"We had studied the works of Carey McWilliams and Paul Taylor and read one of the masters of historical scholarship, the Frenchman Ferdnand Braudel, who had looked at the development of the Mediterranean world and concluded that valleys almost always led to a plantation-like system that produced slaves and oligarchies.

"To conquer the plains had been a dream of man since the dawn of history, but the dream required more than man himself. The reclamation of the flatlands, draining swamps and controlling rivers, relied on large-scale government investment. And that investment rarely, if ever, worked its way down to the working class. Land that was flat and endless became the easy domain of the machine. In such a place, the rich became very rich and the poor became very poor."

In several places throughout this book a reader senses that the authors are preparing to present a Boswell apologia, ready to accept agriculture’s "conventional wisdom" that bigger is better and more "efficient" only to find in the next sentence or paragraph a skillfully worded rejoinder.

The two Los Angeles Times reporters, for example, reflect after their first meeting with Jim Boswell, the reigning patriarch of the empire:

"Now we had before us the biggest grower in America; and if he was no ribboned duke, he did have a difficult time coming clean on the downside of his empire. The scale of his farming was truly stunning, but at what cost to the environment and at what benefit and cost to his community? Perhaps Boswell was one of those builders who couldn’t afford the impulse to stop and consider the questions. If such an impulse did exist, he might never have built it."

The questions, the paradox, the pro and con arguments, the naked greed for land and water that face agriculture today both on a national and international scale are all confronted in some manner or form in this book written in a journalistic style sorely absent from today’s reporting and commentary on farm and fiber issues.

Admittedly, for personal reasons, I was not prepared to like this book since first being approached by one of the authors over three years ago as I was led to believe at that time their project was destined to be just another flailing by the media of agriculture’s favorite whipping boy — subsidies.

But I was wrong !

It is perhaps the best treatment of the history and influence of corporate agribusiness on water and labor issues, the environment and how these issues have historically impacted on the western political landscape since McWilliams Factories in the Field.

Yet, it is also a book that captures those elements that have inspired naturalists, poets, writers and artists to extol California’s natural beauty and splendor in their creative works.

"It was easy to misgauge the [San Joaquin] valley," Arax and Wartzman reflect. "Many surveyors had come during drought or at the tail end of summer, when the rivers ran low and the soil had baked dry. Behold that same ground in spring, a mountain-to-mountain meadow of every color of wildflower, and it held all the virtues of loam.

"John Muir, the naturalist who immigrated to California from his native Wisconsin to `study the inventions of God,’ stood frozen in stupefaction the first time he laid eyes on the valley, a sweet bee garden in the flutter of spring. It was `one smooth, continuous bed of honey bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step.’

"For [James Henry] Carson," they continue, "turning these fleeting fields of purple, gold and blue into another Italy or France was a simple matter of alchemy, requiring little more than the bending of water. The spoils, as Carson saw it, went to those who controlled the movement of rivers. Whether India, Egypt, China or ancient Mesopotamia, it was water that turned dust in to civilization. Stand in the middle of the valley and gaze east and see the towering peaks and bottomless canyons of the Sierra Nevada. These mountains weren’t blue for nothing They happened to hold the greatest water fields of the west."

Any serious student studying the history of California, the evolution of agricultural policy as it has affected the nation’s number one state in food and fiber production who neglects a careful reading of The King of California does so at their own peril.

AL KREBS is the editor of the Agribusiness Examiner, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters. He can be reached at: avkrebs@earthlink.net