Ag Empires, Local Voices

We sit here, many of us, silently watching the snow melt in the Sierra, mentally watching the margins of Tulare Lake invisibly creep toward the homes and farms of people on the lake’s margins, while fields in the lake’s bottom planted to baby tomato plants are kept artificially dry. We can’t physically see what’s going on—the lake is too big even under normal conditions, which it hasn’t seen in 100 years. We can’t see who’s in charge because they make their decisions in private. We can see who’s not in charge as public servants in multiple agencies throw up their hands in desperation.

This unhealthy situation comes from too many years living in deference to the power of landed wealth. But there are cracks in that power, and we can choose to break through if we wish.

“The flood isn’t being handled properly,” Mark Grewal was quoted as saying in the L.A. Times piece March 24. Just days earlier Lois Henry reported on Jack Mitchell, the manager of the Deer Creek Storm Water District, who discovered (in the middle of the night) that the creek’s levee had been cut to keep somebody’s land dry while sending a sheet of water toward Alpaugh and Allensworth. Prevented from managing the flood properly by a huge piece of Boswell equipment, Mitchell was threatened with arrest if he tried to move it. He said “Well, what do I do? Just let two towns flood to keep this water off the lake bed?”

I mention Grewal and Henry because they are local voices, speaking up in a way local voices rarely spoke forty years ago. Mark Grewal was born and raised in Exeter and spent his summers learning to farm from his grandfather, Bud Adams, on 20 acres of citrus in Lindsay. Grewal worked passionately for Boswell until he jumped ship to start his own ag consulting firm; he knows intimately how floods were managed in the past. Lois Henry grew up east of Fresno and has been covering Valley issues as a journalist most of her life. She now runs the online news website, SJV Water, which has been producing the best ground-based information on water’s movers and shakers for five years. She speaks with the authority of knowing from the inside who’s responsible for what and where. 

Another local voice, of course, is Fresno-born Mark Arax, who broke open the tight-lipped silence around the Boswell Company. Thirty years ago you couldn’t say the “B” word less than reverently without marking yourself as an outsider, someone clearly dangerous to the status quo. Twenty years ago that changed when Arax and Wartzman published “The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire.” I think that one book altered the course of our region. But it would not have had that impact had it not come from a local voice.

When “King of California” was published, Boswell was America’s biggest farmer. Since J.G.’s death, that position has been taken over by Stuart and Lynda Resnick (Wonderful, Inc.) with a new challenger, John Vidovich (Sandridge Partners) in position No. 2. (Some of this story was unveiled in Arax’s “The Dreamt Land,” 2019.) That doesn’t necessarily mean Boswell has become smaller in size; it simply means the aggregation of land and water rights in few hands has tripled. Now there are three titans battling it out (or cooperating invisibly) while everyone else waits to see what they will do. 

Satellite aerial photo of Tulare Lake.Matthew Cordosa

We can read these books and news articles, and learn the unknown facts of our story here, but organic change will not come fast enough for the people on the lake’s margins to keep from drowning. It’s time we spoke up, to say, at the very least, that we stand with those people who have made their homes, their farms, their dairies there. It’s time we make the legal claim that this is the people’s water, in flood as well as in drought, not the corporations.’ To say that we want our water managed first for the common good, before, over and above private wealth. 

It’s time to say that we choose homes and lives and farming occupations over the production of tomato sauce at the bottom of a lake that should not now be dry. It’s time.

Trudy Wischemann is a not-so-silent watcher who writes. You can send her your urges to speak c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of the Mid Valley Times newspaper.

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