The Couple Who Turned a California Desert Into a Multi-Billion Dollar Snack Empire

AP Photo/The Porterville Recorder, Chieko Hara

Have you eaten a California almond lately? Or drank one of those pomegranate juices in the orb-shaped bottle, or enjoyed a “Halo” brand mandarin? Well, thank a California farmer and read Mark Arax’s 20,000-word feature in The California Sunday Magazine to understand your role in draining the groundwater of California’s interior.

In the works for 20 years, Arax’s phenomenal story, “A Kingdom From Dust,” profiles Stewart and Lynda Resnick, billionaires who grow almonds, pistachios, citrus and pomegranates on desert land they have never tilled or irrigated themselves, land that taxpayers and state and federal water have helped them turn into a dangerous and lucrative agricultural gamble. Stewart is the landowner and Lynda the brains behind the marketing of their company, providing employee-friendly brands with healthy snacks. After all, the Los Angeles market sits just 130 miles from their San Joaquin Valley fields.

When Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman co-wrote the 2003 book The King of California, it was J.G. Boswell who owned more land and water than anyone else in the San Joaquin Valley. Today, Stewart Resnick is the world’s largest irrigated farmer. Arax’s new piece examines the methods of Boswell’s de facto heir. The Resnicks are people who, in Arax’s words, “control more land and water — 130 billion gallons a year — than any other man and woman in California and still believe it isn’t enough.” So how much land does Resnick have?

Last time he checked, he told me he owned 180,000 acres of California. That’s 281 square miles. He is irrigating 121,000 of those acres. This doesn’t count the 21,000 acres of grapefruits and limes he’s growing in Texas and Mexico. He uses more water than any other person in the West. His 15 million trees in the San Joaquin Valley consume more than 400,000 acre-feet of water a year. The city of Los Angeles, by comparison, consumes 587,000 acre-feet.

It’s hard to comprehend this sense of scale, and equally hard to understand this huge rural valley itself. Arax is a native of the San Joaquin Valley; his family farmed the land. If you eat California produce — and you likely do — you need to read this to appreciate the economic and ecological cost of that food and the way private interests increasingly control the liquid commodity we all need to survive.

But Arax does more than profile America’s biggest farmer. This piece offers an intimate portrait of life in a region ignored by most outsiders, an area considered the flyover country of the Golden State, what Bakersfield author Gerald Haslam calls the “Other California.” Few outsiders really take the time to look at the Valley. It mystifies those who do. To help, Arax collapses four hundred years of history in prose both poetic and concise.

There’s a mountain range to my left and a mountain range to my right and in between a plain flatter than Kansas where crop and sky meet. One of the most dramatic alterations of the earth’s surface in human history took place here. The hillocks that existed back in Yokut Indian days were flattened by a hunk of metal called the Fresno Scraper. Every river busting out of the Sierra was bent sideways, if not backward, by a bulwark of ditches, levees, canals, and dams. The farmer corralled the snowmelt and erased the valley, its desert and marsh. He leveled its hog wallows, denuded its salt brush, and killed the last of its mustang, antelope, and tule elk. He emptied the sky of tens of millions of geese and drained the 800 square miles of Tulare Lake dry.

He did this first in the name of wheat and then beef, milk, raisins, cotton, and nuts. Once he finished grabbing the flow of the five rivers that ran across the plain, he used his turbine pumps to seize the water beneath the ground. As he bled the aquifer dry, he called on the government to bring him an even mightier river from afar. Down the great aqueduct, by freight of politics and gravity, came the excess waters of the Sacramento River. The farmer moved the rain. The more water he got, the more crops he planted, and the more crops he planted, the more water he needed to plant more crops, and on and on. One million acres of the valley floor, greater than the size of Rhode Island, are now covered in almond trees.

After establishing this peculiar setting, Arax pursues one central question: How did the Resnick’s irrigated acres thrive during the catastrophic five-year drought, when irrigation water was scarce to non-existent, and overpumping kept dropping the water table? Arax finds the answer in the kind of off-limits area whose “vastness makes you feel safe and in jeopardy at the same time.”

I pull over into the dirt of a pomegranate orchard, the ancient fruit that the Resnicks have turned into POMWonderful, the sweet purple juice inside a swell-upon-swell bottle. The shiny red orbs, three months shy of harvest, pop out from the bright green leaves like bulbs on a Christmas tree. I study the terrain. This must be the spot the Wonderful field man was describing. Sure enough, cozied up next to the bank of the aqueduct, I see a glint. I get out of the car and walk down an embankment. There before me, two aluminum pipes, side by side, 12 inches in diameter each, slither in the sun.

The Resnicks control 65 percent of the American pistachio market, processing nuts at a facility the size of seven super Walmarts. Farming on a large scale in California involves a caste system: Off-site landowners hire Mexican families to irrigate, fumigate, pick, and prune to generate profits. So where will all these farm workers go — men and women who paid coyotes thousands to smuggle them from Mexico to Lost Hills — when the water can longer support these crops? Despite the Resnick’s contentious use of water, their fields create a lot of jobs. They pour a lot of money into Lost Hills, where their parent farm company, Wonderful, has branded their new additions the Wonderful Park and Wonderful Community Center. Arax talked to one farm worker outside El Toro Loco supermarket.

Inside sits a young man named Pablo. The oldest of five children, he came from Mexico when he was 18. He had no papers, like so many others, just an image of what this side of the border looked like. When he was told there were fields upon fields, he did not believe there could be this many fields. That was eight or nine years ago. He lives down the road in Wasco, the “Rose Capital of America,” though the roses, too, have turned to nuts. He works year-round for Wonderful. This means he can avoid the thievery of a labor contractor who acts as a middleman between the farmer and the farmworker and charges for rides and drinks and doesn’t always pay minimum wage. Pablo prunes and irrigates the almond and pistachio trees and applies the chemicals that cannot be applied by helicopter. He makes $10.50 an hour, and the company provides him with a 401(k) plan and medical insurance.

He’s thankful to the Resnicks, especially “Lady Lynda,” for that. “I saw her a few months ago. She is here and there, but I have never seen her up close. She owns this place.” He goes on to explain what he means by own. Most everything that can be touched in this corner of California belongs to Wonderful. Four thousand people — more than double the number on the highway sign — live in town, and three out of every four rely on a payday from Wonderful. All but a handful come from Mexico. In the Wonderful fields, he tells me, at least 80 percent of the workers carry no documents or documents that are not real. U.S. immigration has little say-so here. Rather, it is the authority vested in Wonderful that counts. It was Lynda who teamed up with the USDA to develop 21 new single-family homes and 60 new townhouses on a couple of acres of almonds that Wonderful tore out. The neighborhoods didn’t have sidewalks; when it rained, the kids had to walk to school in the mud. Lynda built sidewalks and storm drains, the new park and community center, and repaved the roads. So the way Pablo uses own isn’t necessarily a pejorative. “When I crossed the border and found Lost Hills, there was nothing here,” he says. “Now there’s something here. We had gangs and murders, but that’s better, too.”

In addition to 401(k)s, the Resnick’s Wonderful factory pushes a healthy lifestyle on its workers, from cafeteria food to a free wellness center that includes a gym, dietician, doctors, and therapists. This level of care — or control — is unprecedented among Valley farm workers. So are the Resnicks shaping the future of agriculture, by treating laborers as more than disposable cheap labor? Or are they simply savvy business people who know that equitable treatment of employees means a stronger company and better brand?

To the Resnicks, crops are no different than the Franklin Mint dolls they once sold, or the keepsake teapots their flower-delivery company sold roses in. “I’m from Beverly Hills,” Stewart says. “I didn’t know good land from bad land.” The difference, now that they’re dealing with public water and California’s ability to continue to feed the country, is to generate more revenue than most countries and support its growing cities. Agriculture is not just any other product. Yes, it deals in fruit and nuts, but it really deals in water. And that commodity has a large enough socio-economic impact that governments cannot leave it in the hands of a few wealthy landowners.

If you think this is just a California problem, you’re wrong. One day water will be more valuable than oil, and like oil it will start wars. It’s already the source of battles between farmers whose wells reach for the same diminishing groundwater. The big players know this. That’s why they buy land that has water they can sell to the highest bidders, be they farmers or cities, especially during a drought. And in California, global warming or not, there will always be another drought.

Read the story