New: Book Report: The King of California

This book by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman ranks up with Cadillac Desert and City of Quartz as great books about the intersection of geography and history in the Western USA. It's about the history of the huge farms of the San Joaquin valley, especially those of the Boswell clan.

These farms used to flood plenty. There were some large government-built dams up in the mountains, but the dams didn't work so well, and farms got flooded. This tended to wash out smaller farmers: if you owned more land, you had a better chance of not being 100% flooded, and you could harvest a crop. If you only had a small farm, maybe this year it was all underwater and you were out of luck. If you were a small farmer, chances are one year you'd get flooded and sell out--to a larger farmer. The big farms got bigger. The descriptions of the size of Boswell's holdings wash over you. You can't take them in.

When the floods come, will one farmer build levees to divert onrushing waters away from his farm and onto his neighbor's land? Of course.

As of 1925, farmers in the San Joaquin valley were only allowed to grow one variety of cotton: alcala. So if you encourage cotton farmers around there to try some biodiversity, you're inciting them to break the law.

Before there was a United Farm Workers, there were striking farmers in the San Joaquin valley. If I steal your watch and give you a dollar, that is not sale, that is theft. If I point a gun at you and tell you to work for a low wage, that was SOP at old California cotton farms. And so there were strikes, and farmers turned to corrupt government officials to keep the workers working. My grandfather died a few months back, and at the memorial service it came out that he'd done some things help farm workers back in the day. What, the United Farm Workers? No, before that. Reading this book, I found out that the farm workers of the San Joaquin valley were a popular cause in their day. People would send trucks full of food to help striking workers--and local law enforcement would hijack the trucks to help starve the workers into submission.

Before the Boswells and the other big farmers came along, the valley Tulare Lake, a huge disease-infested reed-filled body of water. A lot of people got sick there. Maybe it's not the fault of factory farming that the valley has gone to hell. Maybe it was always hell.

Plenty of transplanted Southerners, white and black, ended up in Southern California after the civil war. They brought cotton farming with them. Racism in the valley was not as bad as that in the American South--but there were echoes there, incidents which any Southerner would have recognized.

Fans of Cadillac Desert: how do these huge farms, growing crops for which the USA runs a surplus, get cheap water from government-built dams? The history is fascinating, if infuriating.

James Boswell, head of the company as of the time the book was written, is a huge donor to the Nature Conservancy. He's big on Ducks Unlimited. When someone at his company killed millions of fish and birds by dumping poison into a waterway, the company tried to cover it up, and escaped punishment. So maybe Boswell likes nature but doesn't let that get in the way of sloppy farming techniques?

In short, this book touches on many topics. I recommend it to Californians everywhere.

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Posted 2005-11-21