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A land rich in lore, rich in cotton, poor in spirit

The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire; Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman; PublicAffairs: 560 pp., $30

October 12, 2003|Malcolm Margolin | Malcolm Margolin is the publisher of Berkeley-based Heyday Books, which specializes in works on California. Recent books include "At Work: The Art of California Labor," "California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present" and "Under the Fifth Sun: Latino Literature from California."

After an abortive trip to the Central Valley, Ansel Adams wrote: "I have returned from 1,000 miles of haze, smog, [and] general dullness.... Might be rich, but it ain't attractive."

Although I have fought against this kind of smug dismissal for years, citing the rich if often hidden cultural and natural features of the valley, Adams' words came to haunt me on a recent drive through the Boswell cotton farms of Kings County at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. The most graceful things in sight were crop-dusters swooping and diving, puffing out clouds of sweet-smelling defoliant over acres of cotton. Previously sprayed cotton plants, their leaves chemically burned off, their brown stalks and white bolls withered and bare, awaited the behemoth mechanical harvesters being readied in corporation yards.

Large bodies of water, superficially inviting, turned out to be semi-toxic evaporation ponds into which chemically laced water is pumped. The centers of such towns as Corcoran and Alpaugh were deserted, shops vacant, many of the houses woefully dilapidated. A quarter of the population of Kings County lives below the poverty level; the official unemployment rate has hovered intractably at 16% for a decade; the incidence of teenage pregnancy surpasses that of such Third World countries as Namibia and Haiti. The sprawling Corcoran Prison -- housing Juan Corona, Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, along with 6,000 other tortured souls -- instead of being shocking seemed to fit right in.

Welcome to the richest farming land the world has ever seen.

The relationship between agricultural wealth and the degradation of culture and environment is a central theme in "The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire," a passionate, fair-minded, thought-provoking and groundbreaking book by Times reporter Mark Arax and The Times' business editor, Rick Wartzman. At its center is James "Jim" Boswell, the biggest farmer in America, owner of more than 200,000 acres of America's richest farmland. Boswell, the world's biggest cotton farmer, also grows more irrigated wheat, safflower and seed alfalfa than anyone else in the country. Among his investments was the conversion, in partnership with Del Webb, of a failing cattle ranch near Phoenix into the wildly successful Sun Valley retirement community.

Jim who? If the Boswell name doesn't ring a bell, this is no accident. The company has no public relations department -- this huge empire is run with only 300 salaried employees -- and secrecy is a family obsession. "As long as the whale never surfaces, it is never harpooned" is how one family member put it. And yet, the authors somehow managed to win the trust of Boswell, who grudgingly agreed to be interviewed.

Dressed in a plaid shirt and old chinos, driving a beat-up Dodge truck, Boswell, now 80, is presented as a man with boundless energy and limitless testosterone -- "an old cowboy," as he apparently sees himself. When he was on the board of General Electric, Chairman Reg Jones described him as a man out of "the Old West -- a shooter, a fisherman, a hiker of trails." Jack Welch, GE's former chief executive, characterized him as "a maverick sort of guy." His favorite reading is Range, a magazine devoted to Western cattle grazing. But images can be deceiving. Boswell is also a Stanford graduate and a member of both the Aspen Institute and the exclusive Bohemian Grove.

The book's story line, in other words, has all the makings of yet another cliched CEO celebrity biography: A colorful old character, secretive, tough as nails, full of zest and contradiction, makes hundreds of millions of dollars by being the worst bully in the neighborhood. Fortunately, "The King of California" goes far beyond that genre, quickly leaving the personality of Boswell behind to follow two rich streams to their headwaters and explore topics essential to our understanding of California.

One line of investigation takes us to Boswell's birthplace, Greene County, Ga., and his ancestors' cotton plantation with 33 slaves. In the 1920s one family member, Col. J.G. Boswell -- Jim's uncle, after whom he was named -- headed west, eventually buying land in Kings County, where he could grow cotton far from the boll weevil then devastating the South. Operating out of Los Angeles, the colonel later married Ruth Chandler, daughter of Times publisher Harry Chandler, thereby linking the most well-connected of Southern California families with the agricultural wealth (and water resources) of the Central Valley. When the colonel died in 1952, he left his company to his nephew Jim, who greatly increased the size of the enterprise.

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