43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2003
I couldn't put this book down! Arax did it again. This is a grand sweeping history of the J G Boswell Company and the Tulare Lake bottom they farm. A few times the book described events and people I personally knew and they got it exactly right. This is a good balanced history and a story that really needed telling. For most people the San Joaquin Valley is almost a complete blank, for many who live here it is precisely where the plantation meets the rancho. Reading this epic book about JG Boswell will go a long way towards explaining why and whatever happened to the biggest lake west of the Mississippi.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2004
Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman have compiled and written a wonderfully comprehensive book on the struggle between man and nature as well as on man and the political machine. The story of J.G. Boswell and the taking of Tulare Lake is nothing short of an incredible tale of how a family of humble beginnings could become the largest farming operation in the United States. Arax and Wartzman are to be congratulated for their survival through years of research and writing of a book that will remain a classic of California history for years to come. Seen by many who are connected with the Boswell empire as a threat, the book lays out the details of how the company systematically gained thousands of acre feet of water rights in a drought-threatened San Joaquin Valley. It is a well rounded book telling a fantastic true story. The Boswell company should be proud of their success as should Mark and Rick in theirs. Booksellers in the San Joaquin Valley can't keep it in stock and have sold thousands of copies to local residents. It is a story that people want to know about.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2004
The book centers around three generations of Boswells as they migrated from Green County Georgia to Kings County California and became the largest producers of cotton in the world, without becoming a household name.
The book also tells of the natural, social, and political histories of the San Joaquin Valley from the days of indigenous peoples and the first Spanish invaders to the present day.
The epic is a fascinating study of twentieth century American history, society, economics, business, finance, management, politics, public policy, labor relations, mechanization, technology, modernization, and nature.
The more personal stories of family, romance, crime, and punishment read more like a good novel.
Some have found the authors liberally biased, but as a conservative, I found the authors well balanced in their presentations of all sides of the stories.
As others have said, the scope is huge and the research extensive. As someone who was born and raised in Kings County California, I found this heretofor unknown local history to be quite fascinating. Nevertheless, I believe this book will have broad appeal to many readers.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
This far-reaching book is quite an accomplishment in biography and investigative journalism. Arax and Wartzman cover the history of the immense Boswell farming company of California, and the two guys named J.G. (the founding uncle and the current chairman, his nephew) who built the company into the largest cotton operation on Earth. Through cutthroat competitive instincts and political wheeling-and-dealing, the Boswells amassed tens of thousands of acres in California's Central Valley, and were instrumental in eliminating what was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, as the former Tulare Lake was transformed into a festering network of levees, canals, and cesspools dedicated to the mass production of cotton. Thus, the Boswells built the area's environment, culture, and economics for their own profitability.
The book also serves as a great exploration of the business of factory farming, detailing the racism and poverty experienced by Black and Mexican workers, as well as the shifty agricultural and hydrological politics of Big Ag in California - as the Boswells and their competitors/allies buy politicians, stack laws and regulations in their favor, and claim flood control as a reason to alter the natural course of rivers and to completely drain the vast Tulare Lake. Best of all, we see how big business really works out West, with the hypocrisy of so-called rugged outdoorsmen (actually pampered CEO's) who incessantly rail against government interference while also taking in millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies that are meant to help the little guy. This book is immensely informative but does often get tied up in unnecessary details, such as descriptions of petty political shenanigans in the construction of a nearby dam. But the motto of the Boswell clan has been that a whale can't be harpooned if it doesn't come to the surface (a legacy of silence and obfuscation), but Arax and Wartzman have deftly cracked into the wall of secrecy surrounding the Boswells and their often ill-gotten empire, [~doomsdayer520~]
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2008
As a transplant to California, I picked this book up out of historical curiosity and, from that perspective, it does not disappoint. The story of the Boswell Company's growth and not-infrequent run-ins with regulators and legislators is an interesting, eminently readable history of California itself.
Water rights and agriculture policy are, rather dry subjects in and of themselves, but told as part of the story of this interesting family and company, they come to life.
The only drawback of the book is that the authors can barely conceal their utter contempt for their subject. In numerous places, they abandon all journalistic detachment and express their opinion as fact, usually in a blistering condemnation of their target.
Consider this screed against former Los Angeles Times Publisher Harrison Gray Otis on page 83: "Otis was a fourth-rate publisher and first-rate bully who used the columns of his disgraceful newspaper to spill bile and venom at organized labor and an infinite list of enemies, real and imagined."-- Fact or Opinion?
The authors' inherent bias notwithstanding, they did a good job of research and crafted an engaging narrative.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2011
In this book, Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman illustrate the fascinating details behind a family that combined hard work, farming wisdom and political maneuvering to turn "lake-bottom land" into a farming empire, with help from government workers who may have ignored the Public interest and badly-written and ill-enforced government laws.
The book (subtitle: "JG Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire") traces the story of the Boswell family, which left Georgia's cotton lands for California. The Boswell began marketing cotton in Los Angeles and then moved into production, turning land, abundant water, and very sharp management into one of the largest farming operations in the US and world. I won't summarize the fascinating, well-written story, but here are some notes I took on the way:
* During a conflict over flows from the Kings river in the 1880s, Mr. Church raised his dam on the river, reducing water available to downriver farmers. This action -- more akin to "possession is ownership" than riparian rights or prior appropriation -- invoked a similar response: the farmers downstream blew up the dam and got "their" water. See this post on irrigation in the West 100 years ago, including how the government has to subsidize projects too risky and unprofitable for private companies.
* Huge land grants from the Spanish and Mexican eras were mostly along the coast of California, not in the Central Valley. The Mexicans allocated huge tracts in the Valley just before California was annexed by the US in 1850. These tracts were reaffirmed by the US Land Commission for California. In 1871, 516 men owned 9 million acres of California land. Those who later abused the Reclamation Act of 1902 -- including Southern Pacific -- had lots of practice.
* Miller & Lux, two German migrants based in San Francisco, owned 1.3 million acres in the Central and Santa Clara Valleys. Some of their land was irrigated by the San Joaquin River, but farmers upstream were taking enough water by prior appropriation ("first in time, first in right") to reduce flows next to M&L properties with riparian rights ("take what you want as long as you do not damage your neighbors"). In resulting disputes, California "found a way to blend both riparian and prior appropriation rights under a formula of `beneficial and reasonable' uses. What this meant on the ground was that the water generally went to those with the most creative lawyers and engineers." [p. 80]
* The abuses of the Federal laws took place when individuals/families/corporations acquired multiple 80- or 160-acre parcels from programs dedicated to assisting small farmers and assembled them into illegally-large parcels. Abuses of water-related programs occurred when farmers with large farms took water that was supposed to go to small farms or paid subsidized prices for that water. Subsidies were (and still are) huge: Farmers only paid a portion of the cost of delivering water, without paying the capital costs of the projects that constructed them, the interest on those costs, and so on.
The worst part of these abuses was not that the Federal Agencies (Bureau of Reclamation or US Army Corps of Engineers) willingly helped big farmers abuse and avoid the rules. It wasn't that politicians exempted abuses via special amendments in unrelated laws. It was that these very talented and rich farmers took the subsidized land and water instead of paying the market rate. That's like Bill Gates paying $0.85 for his $2.00 Big Mac.
Of course, this kind of corruption, of the rich and powerful working with government to become more rich and powerful, has a long and infamous role in US policies, including the recent financial crisis that bailed out Wall Street and left taxpayers with the tab.
So these were crony capitalists, not free marketeers. (There's one point in the book where Boswell says he "sent back" his cotton subsidy check. Yes, he did that once, but cashed the other ones.)
* Harry Chandler (1864-1944) ran the Los Angeles Times for "what is good for real estate" [p. 214]. That's because he owned large tracts in the San Fernando Valley (his maneuvers to add water to them are portrayed in the movie Chinatown), Tejon Ranch, and other places. He was perhaps a central character in the story that I traced in my dissertation, and more directly in "The end of abundance: How water bureaucrats created and destroyed the southern California oasis"
* In the late 1970s, the government looked set to break up Boswell's empire, based on its use of water reserved for 160 acre holdings. Boswell and Salyer (another big land holder) spent big money to "get access" to politicians and staffers, to present their views. In the end, they won an exemption from the limit, based on the idea that their private water rights were not affected by laws dictating that access to infrastructure and water was reserved for smallholders. Boswell et al. stayed in the business of collecting subsidies. (The weirdest case [p. 379] was when they got money for flood damage on land that they claimed was going to be used for wheat but were paid (in-kind) to not plant in wheat. When the government ran out of wheat for "payment in kind" for fallowed land, it bought wheat from Boswell's other operations, to give it to Boswell, who sold it again. Without any of these programs, the land would have been flooded. With them, Boswell's triple was worth millions of dollars.)
* We know that big farms are good for individual farmers who can make more money from their management expertise. But small farms allow more people to make a living off of farming. Is that more productive? Maybe. Is it more profitable? Maybe (especially if subsidies are removed; they tend to go to bigger farms*).
But are small farms better than big farms for the community? In a 1946 study that compared the company town of Arvin (dominated by the DiGiorgo family) to Dinuba, a similar-sized town in the area with many small farms, social scientist Walter Goldschmidt found Dinuba to be better in every way.** This result indicated that the logic behind the Reclamation Act was sound, even as it pointed out how Reclamation (and most other subsidy programs for farmers) had undermined the existence of towns like Dinuba.
I'm not worried so much about reducing the number of people working in farming (currently less than one percent of workers) as much as the jobs those people have: 85 percent of them are hourly laborers making $8/hour. Why does that bother me? Because it's the result of government subsidies, not free market dynamics.
* Arax and Wartzman ask an important question near the end of their book: big farmers like Boswell used federal subsidies to build huge farms on the bottom of a lake. They got rich and their crops were part of a vast system chasing yield. What were the costs? The Tulare Lake -- the largest lake west of the Mississippi -- was turned into farm land with troublesome runoff and little environmental value. Taxpayers sent huge checks to "welfare farmers." Their workers were more like wage slaves than farmers. Communities (as Lloyd Carter has documented) were weak and troubled.
I will soon post more on government failure in agricultural policy (Westlands).
Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS as a fascinating history of a family that was good at farming and even better at working with bureaucrats and politicians to destroy the environment, local communities and small farmers for the sake of more subsidies, cheaper land, and free water.
* According to the USDA [pdf], production and subsidies are shifting to larger farms that are run by wealthier people -- and that's only between 1989 and 2003!
** There is some debate over whether Goldschmidt was right to conclude that "similar" areas ended up having such big differences in farm size and quality of life. Hayes and Olmstead review them in this paper [pdf] with useful notes on the size of oil revenues and cost of water pumping on farm size and crop mix. They claim that small farms would pay almost double the cost of water in Arvin without considering shared pumping facilities. But even without such quibbled, they also agree that the larger farms -- however they got there -- were not contributing to community life. (In other words, Las Vegas differs from San Francisco for many reasons, but do you want government programs to encourage more cities like Las Vegas?)
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2008
This particular chapter details the rise of a farming empire in California's Central Valley. Coming from Greene County Georgia, the Boswell family built this empire largely on the backs of migrant labor and water--lots and lots of water. One other point: on the way to becoming one of the largest landowners in California, the Boswell's forever reshaped the landscape and drained Tulare Lake.
Prior to settlement, the Central Valley's river floodplain system nourished some 1.4 million acres of tule marshes and wooded wetlands. The draining of vast sweeps of wetlands along with the damming and channeling of four major rivers has altered the landscape in both a manner and at a scale that is, quite literally, unprecedented. If you wanted to focus on a single family/farming empire that played the biggest role in this alternation, then you could do no better than The King of California.
Tulare Lake lies near the southern end of California's Central Valley. The proximity of such a huge, seasonal lake to a large farming operation was a mixed blessing. During dry years, as the shoreline contracted, the land could be transformed to grow grain or row crops. In wet years, however, as the Sierra Nevada snow pack melted, the runoff of the Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and Kern Rivers filled this basin. The big runoff produced high flows into July and August, resulting in a vast and expanding lake shore. The flooded farmland resulted in less crops, less money... J.G. Boswell was determined to rein these waters in and convinced the Federal Government to help.
In an errant attempt to encourage small family farms, loopholes in the reclamation laws brought most of the land in the Central Valley under the control of a handful of private landowners. The Californian land barons went by the names of Henry Miller, J. G. Boswell, and "Cockeye" Salyer. The land around Tulare Lake eventually got folded into Boswell farming empire. In the final analysis, the Boswell's got the land, the water rights, and handed the tax-payers the bill for the construction of Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River.
I feel a bit of guilt when I throw on a mass produced cotton T-shirt (e.g., I can buy a three-pack for under ten dollars). Because this cheap cotton underwear really isn't that cheap. Mass produced cotton uses a lot of water. In fact, to grow a single T-shirt takes 257 gallons of water. If you own a piece of cotton underwear, chances are pretty good it's fibers came from land in California's Central Valley. And by default, you can be sure the Boswell family grew it. The King of California tells the interesting story of how the Boswells became the single largest grower of cotton in the United States.
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2004
I read this book to learn more about the history of water brokerage in California. Though I am a conservationist with a strongly liberal bent, the blatantly liberal bias of these authors tainted the credibility of an otherwise incredible book. Despite the obvious efforts to cast the Boswells in a negative light, the strengths and achievements of the family rise above the bias to make a stronger case for themselves than would be if the book were penned on neutral ground.
The Boswell story is worthy of an Ayn Rand novel. The environmental, agricultural, political, and social impacts of this family boggle the imagination. The hubris is 100% American born and bred. To say this book is about cotton farming is to say Moby Dick is a book about whaling. It is a read of tremendous scope.
Parts of the book are undeniably ponderous and written in a stop and start fashion. Details are thick and mundane in some places while sketchy and needing in others. Regardless, it is a fascinating and well-researched work. The King of California is a book worth reading and worthy of being studied by every student of California history and culture. Highly recommended.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2006
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in politics, agriculture, or water rights. It is a well-written and very readable.
It follows four generations of the Boswell family to trace how they assembled the largest industrial farm in the world. Along the way, the authors explore the history of the San Joaquin valley and those who came there to farm it, those who left and those who got left behind. For every group that made a fortune, there were many others who were disappointed. There are plenty of interesting stories of Washington and Sacramento politics, and stories of common people following dreams.
The book examines the effect of large scale farming on farm owners, on those who work the farms now and those who worked them in the past. It provides some good background on the politics of water rights and government involvement in farming, and on the involvement of agriculture in local, state and federal politics.
If you are interested in the politics and history of water in the western states, Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner is one of the best books I have read on any subject.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2005
I grew up in Fresno, in the shadow of agribusiness. The story behind "King of California" is a fascinating and important one but I'm not sure this "biography" does it justice. I disliked the awkward mixture of history and journalism. Is this an expose, a biography or history? Its never really clear and the way the book is organized, around the four seasons, is particularly opaque. What does it mean to call a section, "winter?" when it is covering history spanning decades and contains interviews with living people? That said, the material is fascinating. From the role the Boswell's played in taming Tulare Lake, to the development of modern cotton farming, the politics of agriculture and the way big business in general got access and results in subsidies and favorable policy. Early on, Tulare Lake and by extension, the San Joaquin Valley in its pre-U.S. days is described with a vividness I've rarely read elsewhere. However, the description of the Boswell's roots in racism and its legacy in the Central Valley is definitely worth telling but I think it gets too little space here and competes with so many other subjects. Frankly, I'm surprised that this book has gotten the acclaim that it has. While its clearly well researched, the writing is spotty lucid in some places and sensationalized elsewhere. I think the book tries to cover far too many topics; Water politics, cotton farming, racism in California, family history, corporate intrigue, labor issues, flood control and company towns. Had it narrowed it focus to just water, cotton and corporate intrigue, I think it would have been a far more powerful book.