The King of California

Who are the agribusiness giants with a lock on so much of California’s water? The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire is a history of the vast cotton empire in the dry bed of what used to be a large inland lake in the California central valley. The founders of the empire, Horatio Alger adventurers from Georgia, bought up land, had four rivers dammed, dried up the lake and used the water for irrigation.
The Georgia farm emperors brought elements of plantation culture with them; poor white, Mexican, and black laborers had rough lives, with the most opportunity available for whites, some opportunity for Mexican immigrants, and the least opportunity for black laborers, although racist violence and sharecropping oppression wasn’t as vicious as the south. There were attempts to organize, and grueling strikes; in the end unions lost their foothold.
The cotton empire was able to lock in its own water supply from the rivers that used to feed the lake, so they weren’t involved in the great state and federal water projects that send Sierra water south. They did participate in the strange alliance between Northern environmentalists and central valley agriculture to defeat the peripheral canal in the early 80s; the greens thought the proposal didn’t protect the environment enough, and the farmers thought that it might protect the environment too much. The cotton giants also played a role in the endless legal battles to work around the 160 acre limit for federally funded irrigation projects, a rule which was only obeyed in creative workarounds and exceptions. The book has interesting, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the seduction of politicians to support the exemptions.
The book touches on the environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture; the destruction of the native habitat, of course; the poisoning of water, fish, birds from toxic buildup in the water; the poisoning of workers from pesticides, and the hostility of the farmers to the scientists attempting to measure the impact of the poisons.
The authors are former LA Times journalists, and it shows in the style. The story is built, piece by piece, from interviews with the secretive main character, family members, executives, retired laborers, washington lobbyists, and from records of legislative sausage-making and legal battles. The strength of the style is journalistic narrative drama and attention to detail, in stories about family feuds, boardroom battles, and immigrant sagas; and a fine eye for tragedies that passed un-noticed in the wider world; the babies who died of hunger in strikes, a 16-year old black farm worker without a license who died when the truck he was driving overturned, the Native Americans who remembered the once lush lake territory. As journalists in the muckraking tradition, the authors have a keen sense for corruption at petty and grand scales. The book’s weakness is a lack of systematic perspective on the social, political, and environmental context. The authors are Californians and have a strong feel for the background stories. They have opinions that shape the stories, and they state their conclusions explicitly at the end; plantation agriculture is by its nature bad for democracy, and the balance between commerce and environment has been drawn much too far towards commerce. But the authors’ style or knowledge shies away from the big picture.
Conclusions for peterme: I strongly recommend this book. Excellent in sweep, drama and detail. I bought the book wanting to learn more about California’s agribusiness giants, and their role in politics, environment, society, and the book satisfied those goals.
The book also got me thinking more about cotton. I prefer to buy produce local and organic where possible, but hadn’t given too much thought about fabric. Given the environmental cost of cotton, perhaps I should go for organic cotton too. But where farmers market food is a good value in high season, and the quality is astoundingly great, organic cotton staples seem to be 4x the price of conventional, the selection is skimpy, and the quality, hard to say. Organic cotton seems to be at an earlier stage of market maturity than organic food, which was pricy and scrawny 20 years ago. Being an early adopter will help grow the market.

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