Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | February 2017 | 15 minutes (4,100 words)
The February issue of The California Sunday Magazine devoted its feature well to a single piece, 20 years in the making. Mark Arax, a native of California’s San Joaquin Valley and the son of a grape grower in Fresno, has spent the last several decades working on a story about billionaires Lynda and Stuart Resnick, who transformed an agricultural desert into a cornucopia of pistachios, pomegranates, and oranges — cleverly marketed as “Cuties” and “Halos” by their business, The Wonderful Company. In just a few decades, the Resnicks rebranded of San Joaquin Valley agriculture, and the impoverished community of Lost Hills, in their image, despite never having farmed a day in their lives. Arax is writing a book about water wars in California that will be published by Knopf.
Aaron Gilbreath: You said you carried around notes about Stewart Resnick for nearly two decades. How did you first hear about him?
Mark Arax: When I was writing The King of California, about J.G. Boswell in the Tulare Lake Basin, I started hearing about this guy from Beverly Hills who had bought a bunch of farmland. This was around the late 1990s. People mentioned this guy in the next basin over who was attempting to be the new King of California. Boswell grew up in the San Joaquin Valley; this other guy came from the East Coast. I did a piece on Resnick’s capture of the Kern Water Bank right toward the tail end of finishing the Boswell book. That was twenty years after he’d arrived. This land is so big, so vast, that these stories go undetected for years and years.
AG: One of the strangest things about Resnick and Boswell is how they really wanted to remain invisible. You kept knocking on doors trying to get interviews. Resnick declined multiple times and finally agreed to sit down with you in 2008 because he wanted a book about himself. Then he lost interest.
MA: Today the Resnicks have a PR office that’s a million-dollar-plus operation. In 2008, they didn’t have anybody. You had to call the attorney, then the secretary would hang up the phone and the attorney would just say “No comment.” It was really secretive, but I was used to that. The Boswell family saying was “As long as the whale never surfaces, it’s never harpooned.” That’s the way these guys operated. Obviously, persistence paid off in getting Boswell to talk, so I figured the same thing would happen with Resnick.
AG: Even though you chipped away at Boswell to make that whale surface, did you just assume that Resnick’s story would take a long time? Did you ever think it wouldn’t come together?
MA: I told Resnick’s story in pieces as I got it. In 2003, I got the piece about the Kern Water Bank without his cooperation. I gathered some more notes, some more string as we call it, and did that piece in the opening of my third book West of West. I have this scene with Resnick in his mansion, so I started playing with that whole thing. It’s almost like a first stab at a painting. Then I decided for this new book that I had to tell as much of his whole story that I could, and that’s when I went back into it. Each time I’ve gone in and taken something out, written about it, and this was the time that I decided to do the definitive Resnick chapter, which became the magazine piece.
AG: So you’ve been working with this material for years.
MA: And the virtue of that is you get to see how a story and operation evolves. It’s been almost 20 years — had I done this piece back in the early 2000s, there would have been no philanthropy to write about, they weren’t doing that kind of philanthropy in Lost Hills yet. Writing about the Resnicks now, you see how they evolved as people, how their farming evolved, how Lost Hills and their engagement with the community evolved.
AG: That philanthropy is a huge part of your California Sunday piece. To me, it’s one of the most interesting things about their business, because as consumers we don’t often think about farmers as philanthropists. Yet the Resnicks have such keen marketing instincts that their philanthropy is designed to both indoctrinate their workers and to show the world that they’re a good company, growing healthy food and treating their employees well. Have you ever encountered any other farming company that does that sort of thing?
MA: Most of the big farmers that live in the Valley don’t actually reside in their communities. A lot of them live in Fresno and farm outside of town, and their idea of philanthropy is giving to the Valley Children’s Hospital or Fresno State Bulldogs, or maybe giving back to a university they attended, like Cal Poly. They rarely give back to the little rural towns they farm in, so very little of their philanthropy affects the Mexican farm worker. Boswell took the town of Corcoran as his company town: He built the football stadium and social services, senior citizen and community centers, but the level of philanthropy the Resnicks practice is unprecedented in American agriculture. You can’t help but be dazzled by it, but it also raises some disturbing questions.
You use the word “indoctrinate.” I never used that, but that’s actually a good word because the Resnicks are really trying to change everything, right down to the habits of the Mexican farmworker, including what they eat. It crosses over into a kind of a social engineering that raises troubling questions. They’re not just writing checks; Lynda Resnick is also running and helping design their charter schools’ educational programs. She’s working with doctors and dieticians to design their weight loss and exercise programs. That level of involvement is a very different kind of hands-on philanthropy.
AG: What do you think about the Resnick’s philanthropy and level of engagement signals about the future of the agriculture in the West? It’s strange to think of these white, rich, Whole Foods-types pushing their dietary values and philosophy on immigrant communities.
MA: It’s almost like Lynda Resnick wants to change the microbial content in their stomachs. Before the farmworkers eat lunch at the company restaurant, she encourages the workers to drink this little concoction she’s made from apple cider vinegar, turmeric, ginger and mandarin juice. All the times I’ve been in the restaurant I never saw any workers partake of this concoction, but that’s what she’s pushing. I drank it. It was nice. Apple cider vinegar is good for your stomach and all that, but when you read about that level of involvement, you’re very conflicted about all of this.
The level of philanthropy the Resnicks practice is unprecedented in American agriculture. You can’t help but be dazzled by it.
Lost Hills is now the ultimate company town; everything is branded. You see this incredible five-acre park with a playground with water fountains where kids can play. The Resnicks built soccer fields with artificial turf and lighting. The park itself is named the Wonderful Park. If you look at the ‘o’ on the ‘wonderful,’ it’s the same heart-shaped ‘o’ that stamps the Resnick’s brand of pomegranate juice, so that makes it a little creepy.
AG: It seems like Orwellian brainwashing. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, the word “wonderful” everywhere.
MA: That’s Lynda, she brands everything. She even changed the company name: It wasn’t enough that it was called Paramount, that’s a pretty grand name right there, it had to become The Wonderful Company. I think that’s the kind of nth degree of marketing that raises troubling questions.
AG: With Wonderful, it seems like she’s really trying to get into consumers’ heads, to make them think that this company, not just these products, is wonderful. Despite being born in the Valley, you did such a great job presenting the Resnicks’ complex story fairly, in a way that didn’t present an unjustified bias, and let readers draw their own conclusions.
MA: They’re tackling diabetes and obesity, and you can’t help but applaud those efforts. There’s what I call a tussle inside my head, between the skeptic and the believer, and I think that held through throughout the story is a need to constantly try to look at this through both of those sensibilities
They don’t know their own motives. When you ask them how this all began and why it began so late, the Resnicks talk about a lecture they attended in Aspen, where Harvard Professor Sandel comes out to talk about the moral obligations of wealth. Then they get in the car and look at each other and say, “Are we doing enough?” They decided that they were not. And yet, when they decided to jump in, they jumped in in a way that’s never been done in agriculture in the United States, certainly not in California.
AG: In the piece, you describe how the Bruce Springsteen played a show in Fresno, and how nobody at the concert put any money in the piggy bank he left at the front of the stage for the people who work the fields. Springsteen was so shocked he asked you, “What kind of place is this?” Do landowners care more about Mexican-American workers than they used to?
MA: In between songs at that concert, Springsteen talked about what motivated a particular song or where it came from, and some of the people in the audience got so upset that they walked out and demanded their money back. I’m not sure he understood the kind of place he was coming to, where there was this almost self-hatred about needing to rely on that labor.
It’s a really complex psychology, where you have to go into the rural heart of Mexico to pull your workforce, you’re dependent on these people, and yet you sort of hate yourself for being dependent on them, and there’s a certain hatred of them too, for them making you feel that shame. I’m not a psychologist, but there is something deeply broken psychically about this place, and I try to get at that in this California Sunday piece a little bit. The Springsteen anecdote helped me do that.
AG: The story also implied the way growers who rely on Mexican-American labor are people who would rather physically separate themselves from the workforce, so they don’t have to feel those bad feelings. And yet, Lynda Resnick engages them directly.
MA: What the farmer has done is put the labor contractor between him and the labor, to give himself that psychological distance. What Lynda Resnick is doing is getting intimately involved in their workers’ lives, breaking past that barrier. In my story, when she’s on stage talking to farmers about what they’re doing, there’s a real discomfort on the part of these farmers who are listening, because she’s challenging the whole way that they’d gone about this, challenging this relationship where they increasingly distance themselves, and don’t live in those farm communities, don’t deal with their own labor.
AG: Do you feel like the Resnicks might signal some sort of larger change in Valley agriculture?
MA: This place has been resistant to change for about a century and a half, so I don’t see that relationship changing. I see increasing mechanization replacing the usual farm labor, and that’s one of the reasons that these farmers are switching to growing nuts. Nuts are obviously high-dollar crops, but they can also be done with machines. What I see is the farmer now replacing human labor with mechanical labor. Ultimately they’re going to continue to dodge that issue and keep that distance between them and their workers.
You’re dependent on these people, and yet you sort of hate yourself for being dependent on them. There’s a certain hatred of them too, for them making you feel that shame.
AG: What happens to these workers who are living in shacks in Lost Hills? These good hard-working people who have families and ambitions and debts to coyotes? What do they do when mechanization replaces them?
MA:. You’ll still have the great fields that need to be handpicked, and you’ll still have citrus that’ll need to be handpicked, but mechanization is going to shrink the workforce. These folks will continue to work in kitchens, they’re going to work in the hotels, they’re going to be tending peoples’ front yards and backyards, but I think that is going to be a fundamental shift. I don’t see them discovering their labor in the way that the Resnicks have.
AG: Let’s talk about the scale of the landscape. J.G. Boswell and Resnick are superlative landowners. To me, the Valley itself is a land of superlatives, yet somehow you shrunk this land’s complexity down to two very condensed paragraphs early in the piece, setting the scene for people who don’t know this region.
MA: It’s almost taken me thirty years of writing and researching this place to do those two paragraphs in that kind of big distilled way. I found studies that said that the leveling of land that took place here, the alteration, was unprecedented in human history. This Valley is one of the most altered landscapes in human history. So how do you tell that in two paragraphs? That was the challenge there.
AG: Having explored this Valley a lot in the last twenty years, I could sense that this was the kind of introduction that only somebody who’s been working and living in this land for their whole lives could do this well. You set the stage as only a lifer could.
MA:. In each of my books, I try to reckon with the land, to describe it. I’ve described it from the vantage of the pass called the Grapevine, that last mountain road that divides L.A. from the Valley; I’ve called that a kind of a Mason-Dixon line, with the sprawl of L.A. giving way to the sprawl of the farmlands. I’ve told it from other vantages, and each time it’s gotten a little more precise and a little better, but this one certainly was a kind of telling that took a lot of years to try to nail down.
AG: One of the other things you did was demystify the invisible, misunderstood mechanics of Valley agriculture. In your piece, you say “I pity the outsider trying to make sense of” California’s Central Valley. What do you think mystifies outsiders most about this place?
MA: There’s a tendency to paint it broadly. The Central Valley is two valleys: It’s the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley, and they are very different. They have different relationships to water. The Sacramento River up north is a big, badass river. It flows. It still floods Our five rivers down here have been tamed. They follow the demands of agriculture.
The San Joaquin Valley’s water isn’t inside our rivers anymore. It’s inside the irrigation canals that take from those rivers, so it’s two different valleys. When you look at the San Joaquin Valley itself, there are three different Valleys within the San Joaquin Valley. There’s an east side that couldn’t be more different than the west side. Then there’s a middle center Valley that is different than the other two. They look different. The farms are vast on the west side, smaller in the center. Then there are communities on the east side and the center of the Valley, and no substantial communities in the west side. Making sense of this place is about being true to what this place is, and so much of those differences have to do with the relationship to water, how easy is it to access. Do you have to pump? Is there an extraction model at the heart of the agriculture, or is there a more sustainable model? That question has created different communities, different Valleys, inside the San Joaquin Valley.
AG: My sense is that few outsiders see any of that.
MA: I know it’s hard to see it. We’re all dumb to our place. John Keats talked about how we’re in these hallways between these chambers, and we’ve just left one where it’s pretty dark, we’re moving into another chamber where there’s a little more light, and we’re starting to understand our existence and who we are, and then we understand our place. The problem today is that so many folks are fixated on themselves, trying to understand themselves and their own internal journeys, that they don’t have any space leftover to really understand their place, and this is a big, big place.
I was dumb to this place at age fifteen, sixteen, literally. My family was living in town, and there these ditches that are shunting water from one side of the Valley to the other, and they’re just part of the landscape. We don’t even think where’s that water going? Who’s it going to? The only time you thought about an irrigation ditch was when some kid drowns in it during summer, so there’s a dumbness to place. Part of why I came back is to try to figure out this place. A lot of the big, great stories of migrations in America played out on this land.
AG: In your California Sunday story you mention how you “never stopped to wonder: How much was magic? How much was plunder?” Moving away helped you see the place more clearly.
We’re all dumb to our place. We don’t even think, where’s that water going? Who’s it going to?
MA: I left for a good ten or twelve years, came back, and that helped. As a writer, I moved from the state’s center where I grew up, to this new book, where I take on the entire kind of state of California, looking at how the bending of water created the state, so I worked my way from the middle outward. Then I came back in the middle because 80 percent of California’s water is used by agriculture, so I don’t apologize for telling the story of the farmer. I mean, can you own 25,000 acres and be a family farmer? It seems an absurd notion. Folks in San Francisco just can’t wrap their heads around that. But then when you go out with one of these farmers onto his land and his children are working it too, it’s a little harder to demonized that guy. What I’m trying to do is play with those notions of what a corporate farm is. What’s a mega-farm? What’s an absentee landowner? What’s a family farmer?
AG: This is where marketing like the Resnick’s really comes in to play. Branding helps manipulate the public’s perception of farms, farm values, family values.
MA: Yeah, that’s right.
AG: Despite how many urban Californians might love fancy meals and farmer’s markets, there seems to be a lot of animosity about the water farmers use outside of the cities.
MA: Oh, it got really ugly this last time. Los Angeles turned on the Valley, turned on the almond. The almond became the demon. They started doing these graphics, showing how many gallons it takes to make a single nut. These are absurd because it takes water to grow food, so there’s a real disconnect that allowed L.A., and in some degree San Francisco, to demonize the farmers here. Some of that is justified because what’s happened is that Valley farmland has gone from the best land to some of the worst land, and the greed of agriculture to grow and keep growing. When it’s a human body, we call that growth something else and try to arrest it with chemicals. Ours is kind of reverse: we use the chemicals to make it grow bigger. It’s a weird little metaphor for cancer.
AG: One of the things about the Valley that is so obviously staggering is how flat and how big it is. Visitors see the surface. It’s overwhelming what goes on out there. It’s hard to comprehend how deep a 2,500 foot well really is. But that’s as important as what’s happening above ground, maybe even more important now that people are pumping so much ancient water out of these shrinking aquifers. As a writer, how do you get people to understand what is happening at that depth underground?
MA: In the new book I have a chapter called “Sinking.” It takes the reader into this whole subsidence phenomenon, the science of it, how it happens, the pumping and sinking of the land. You’re right. You think, well, the crops are on the surface, but so much of the drama is playing out 2,000 feet below ground. To see a rig set up and drilling for water ─ it reminds me of the Texas oil fields. It’s that deep. These are million-dollar holes they’re digging.
AG: What do you think about this idea that water represents the next gold – not just a gold rush, but the source of riches, collapse, and wars, like petroleum?
MA: It is, and one of the things I do in the book is trace back the entire history of our bending of water, to show that the mining of gold was really the mining of water. The hydraulics of the system that we’re using today to move water up and down the state was developed during the Gold Rush. The first ditches, the web of ditches, that were built in California, were built during the Gold Rush, and where they couldn’t carve ditches into the land, they built these wooden irrigation ditches, called flumes, to move water across canyons. That extraction started very early on, and it just kept increasing in magnitude, moving up in degrees.
AG: It’s a really disturbing irony that, now that the Gold Rush is over, the same water that extracted gold could be worth more than gold.
MA: I mean, it’s going to get that way. Farming here is problematic, with the need to import labor, the need to import water from northern rivers, the chemical applications – oh, and they’re calling this place Parkinson’s Alley because there are so many cases of Parkinson’s Disease that can be traced back to pesticides and herbicides. And yet, as problematic as farming is, if you lived here all or most of your life, you don’t want to see that farmland turn into suburbia. You don’t want to see another Los Angeles or San Fernando Valley here. Ultimately what you fear is that the water is going to be worth so much, that the farmers are going to strip the water from the land and sell it to developers, so these rivers of agriculture that have been rivers of agriculture for more than a century are going to turn into these rivers of suburbia, and to me, that suburbanization is going to be the ultimate tragedy.
If this place ultimately gets paved over, I don’t know if it will be missed or not. The disconnect between people and the land, and the eater and his or her food, is so great, who knows if they’ll ever miss it?
AG: So is there a solution outside of market economics, like planting crops that can deal with salty soil, less water, less irrigation? Is there hope that the rural Valley won’t become more suburban?
MA: I have hope in this new Groundwater Sustainability Act we finally passed. California is the last state to allow the unregulated drilling of wells. For all of our progressiveness, California was the last state to regulate groundwater extraction. Well now that we’ve regulated groundwater, you’re going to see the issue of sustainable yield drive groundwater use. Meaning, how much can you take out of the ground and then have that water be replenished by snowmelt? That alone will probably idle a million and a half acres of Valley farmland. It’ll get it back to more a sustainable system.
We ended up taking a 100 percent of the rivers. We should have probably taken 60 to 70 percent of the rivers for agriculture and left the other 40 percent for the environment. We would have had fewer crop gluts, fewer surpluses. We would have farmed only the best land instead of now farming some of the worst land. That’s what we’re going to have to legislate ourselves back to, and if California can ever put together these urban growth boundaries, where you draw lines around cities the way Portland drew a line around itself, and you say Okay, this is the city, this is farmland, and you don’t violate that land, then that’s the way you can really develop a farm belt here that really makes sense: smaller, smarter.
AG: Talking about the aesthetic qualities of the Valley, there’s another aspect of the great loss of California to rampant suburbanization: irreplaceable local beauty. Do you as a resident feel that Californians always undervalued this region, that one day maybe they’ll recognize its beauty?
MA: It’s a kind of ugly beauty. The San Joaquin Valley doesn’t please the eyes like Napa and Sonoma, and so much of it is industrialized, but there are parts when you drive to the east side, in particular, the citrus belt, that are gorgeous. The citrus belt sits right there at the foot of the Sierra. When you go through parts of the Valley’s center and see these 40-acre vineyards, and the vines are all twisted and gnarled and have moss growing on them — there is a beauty there. You have to go looking for the little bits. It’s not so obvious. If this place ultimately gets paved over, I don’t know if it will be missed or not. The disconnect between people and the land, and the eater and his or her food, is so great, who knows if they’ll ever miss it?