A Kingdom from Dust
On a summer day in the San Joaquin Valley, 101 in the shade, I merge onto Highway 99 past downtown Fresno and steer through the vibrations of heat. I’m headed to the valley’s deep south, to a little farmworker town in a far corner of Kern County called Lost Hills. This is where the biggest irrigated farmer in the world — the one whose mad plantings of almonds and pistachios have triggered California’s nut rush — keeps on growing, no matter drought or flood. He doesn’t live in Lost Hills. He lives in Beverly Hills. How has he managed to outwit nature for so long?
The GPS tells me to take Interstate 5, the fastest route through the belly of the state, but I’m partial to Highway 99, the old road that brought the Okies and Mexicans to the fields and deposited a twang on my Armenian tongue. The highway runs two lanes here, three lanes there, through miles of agriculture broken every 20 minutes by fast food, gas station, and cheap motel. Tracts of houses, California’s last affordable dream, civilize three or four exits, and then it’s back to the open road splattered with the guts and feathers of chickens that jumped ship on the slaughterhouse drive. Pink and white oleanders divide the highway, and every third vehicle that whooshes by is a big rig. More often than not, it is hauling away some piece of the valley’s bounty. The harvest begins in January with one type of mandarin and ends in December with another type of mandarin and in between spills forth everything in your supermarket produce and dairy aisles except for bananas and mangoes, though the farmers here are working on the tropical, too.
I stick to the left lane and try to stay ahead of the pack. The big-rig drivers are cranky two ways, and the farmworkers in their last-leg vans are half-asleep. Ninety-nine is the deadliest highway in America. Deadly in the rush of harvest, deadly in the quiet of fog, deadly in the blur of Saturday nights when the fieldwork is done and the beer drinking becomes a second humiliation. Twenty miles outside Fresno, I cross the Kings, the river that irrigates more farmland than any other river here. The Kings is bone-dry as usual. To find its flow, I’d have to go looking in a thousand irrigation ditches in the fields beyond.
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.
I pity the outsider trying to make sense of it. My grandfather, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, traveled 7,000 miles by ship and train in 1920 to find out if his uncle’s exhortation — “The grapes here are the size of jade eggs” — was true. My father, born in a vineyard outside Fresno, was a raisin grower before he became a bar owner. I grew up in the suburbs where our playgrounds were named after the pioneers of fruit and canals of irrigation shot through our neighborhoods to the farms we did not know. For half my life, I never stopped to wonder: How much was magic? How much was plunder?
I’m going to Kern County, just shy of the mountains, to figure out how the biggest farmers in America, led by the biggest of them all, are not only keeping alive their orchards and vineyards during drought but adding more almonds (79,000 acres), more pistachios (73,000 acres), more grapes (35,000 acres), and more mandarins (13,000 acres). Even as the supplies of federal and state water have dropped to near zero, agriculture in Kern keeps chugging along, growing more intensive. The new plantings aren’t cotton, alfalfa, or carrots — the crops a farmer can decide not to seed when water becomes scarce. These are trees and vines raised in nurseries and put into the ground at a cost of $10,000 an acre to satisfy the world’s growing appetite for nuts and fruits.
Agriculture in the south valley has extended far beyond the provisions of its one river, the Kern. The farmers there are raising almost 1 million acres of crops, and fewer than half these acres are irrigated with flows from the Kern. The river is nothing if not fickle. One year, it delivers 900,000 acre-feet of snowmelt. The next year, it delivers 300,000 acre-feet. To grow, Big Ag needed a bigger and more dependable supply. So beginning in the 1940s, Kern farmers went out and grabbed a share of not one distant river but two: the San Joaquin to the north and the Sacramento to the north of that. The imported flow arrives by way of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, the one-of-a-kind hydraulic system built by the feds and state to remedy God’s uneven design of California. The water sent to Kern County — 1.4 million acre-feet a year — has doubled the cropland. But not even the two projects working in perfect tandem can defy drought. When nature bites down hard, and the government flow gets reduced to a trickle, growers in Kern turn on their pumps and reach deeper into the earth.
The aquifer, a sea of water beneath the clay that dates back centuries, isn’t bottomless. It can be squeezed only so much. As the growers punch more holes into the ground looking for a vanishing resource, the earth is sinking. The choices for the Kern farmer now come down to two: He can reach deep into his pocket and buy high-priced water from an irrigation district with surplus supplies. Or he can devise a scheme to steal water from a neighbor up the road. I now hear whispers of water belonging to farmers two counties away being pumped out of the ground and hijacked in the dead of night to irrigate the nuts of Lost Hills.
I roll past Tulare, where every February they hold the biggest tractor show in the world, even bigger than the one in Paris. Past Delano and the first vineyards that Cesar Chavez marched against. Past McFarland and the high school runners who won five state championships in a row in the 1990s. Past Oildale and the boxcar where Merle Haggard grew up. Past Bakersfield and the high school football stadium where Frank Gifford and Les Richter, two future NFL Hall of Famers, squared off in the Valley Championship in 1947 in the driving rain. And then it hits me when I reach the road to Weedpatch, where my grandfather’s story in America — a poet on his hands and knees picking potatoes — began. I’ve gone too far. The wide-open middle of California did its lullaby on me again.
I turn back around and find Route 46, the road that killed James Dean. I steer past Wasco to the dust-blowing orchards that flank Lost Hills, the densest planting of almonds, pistachios, and pomegranates on earth. This is the domain of Stewart Resnick, the richest farmer in the country and maybe the most peculiar one, too. His story is the one I’ve been carting around in my notebook for the past few decades, sure I was ready to write it after five years or ten years, only to learn of another twist that would lead me down another road.
Like the wheat barons of the 1870s who lived on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, Resnick isn’t of this place. He’s never driven a tractor or opened an irrigation valve. He’s never put a dusty boot on the neck of a shovel and dug down into the soil. He wouldn’t know one of his Valencia orange groves from one of his Washington navel orange groves. The land to him isn’t real. It’s an economy of scale on a scale no one’s ever tried here. He grew up in New Jersey, where his father ran a bar. He came to California in the 1950s to remake himself. Welcome to the club. He remade himself into a graduate of the UCLA law school, a cleaner of Los Angeles buildings, a vendor of security alarms, a seller of flowers in a pot, a minter of Elvis plates and Princess Diana dolls, a bottler of Fiji Island water, a farmer of San Joaquin Valley dirt. He purchased his first 640-acre section in the late 1970s and kept adding more sections of almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, and citrus until he stretched the lines of agriculture like no Californian before him.
At age 81, he’s gotten so big, he doesn’t know how big. 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.
Resnick’s billions rely on his ability to master water, sun, soil, and even bees. When he first planted seedless mandarins in the valley 17 years ago, the bees from the citrus orchards around him were flying into his groves, pollinating his flowers, and putting seeds into the flesh of his fruit. He told his neighbors to alter the flight of the bees or he’d sue them for trespassing. The farmers responded that the path of a bee wasn’t something they could supervise, and they threatened to sue him back. The dispute over the “no fly zone” was finally resolved by the invention of a netting that Resnick sheathes around his mandarins each spring. The plastic unfurls across the grove like a giant roll of Saran Wrap. No bee can penetrate the shield, and his mandarins remain seedless.
The control Resnick exercises inside his $4.5 billion privately held company does relinquish to one person: his wife, Lynda, vice chairman and co-owner, the “Pomegranate Queen,” as she calls herself. She is the brander of the empire, the final word on their Super Bowl ads, the creator of product marketing. There’s “Cheat Death” for their antioxidant-rich pomegranate juice and “Get Crackin’ ” for their pistachios and “Untouched by Man” for their Fiji water. A husband and wife sharing the reins is rare for corporate America, rarer still for industrial agriculture. He commands his realm, and she commands hers, and he takes care to mind the line. “If he sticks even a toe onto her turf,” says a former business partner, “she gives him a look that sends him right back.”
Together, the Resnicks have wedded the valley’s hidebound farming culture with L.A.’s celebrity culture. They don’t do agribusiness. Rather, they say, they’re “harvesting health and happiness around the world through our iconic consumer brands.” Their crops aren’t crops but heart-healthy snacks and life-extending elixirs. Stewart refers to the occasional trek between Lost Hills and Beverly Hills — roughly 140 miles — as a “carpetbagger’s distance.” It seems even longer, he says, if you add in the psychological distance of being an East Coast Jew in a California farm belt where Jews are few and far between. Lynda is making the trip on the company jet more often these days. She’s done giving big gifts to Los Angeles museums and mental health hospitals that name buildings after her and Stewart. The south valley — its people and poverty, its obesity and diabetes — is her newest mission.
In Lost Hills, they call her “Lady Lynda.” She shows up in high fashion and stands in the dust and tells them about another charter school or affordable-housing project she is bringing to them. They have no way to grasp the $50 million to $80 million a year that the Resnicks say they are spending on philanthropy. This is a magnitude of intervention that no other agricultural company in California has ever attempted. The giving goes to college scholarships and tutors. It goes to doctors and nurses, trainers and dietitians, who track the weight of workers, prod them to exercise, and wean them off soda and tortillas. As she announces the newest gift, the men and women in the back of the crowd smile and applaud politely and try not to show their faces to the publicity crew she has brought with her to film the event. Many are here without documents, after all.
Seventy-five years ago, writer Carey McWilliams, in Factories in the Field, lambasted the “ribboned Dukes” and “belted Barons” of California agriculture. If he were on the scene today, he’d have to add “sashed Queens” to the list. Measuring the reach of the Resnicks, it’s tempting to lean on the hyperventilated language of the 1930s: Empire. Kingdom. Fiefdom. Feudal. Today, most everything in this desolate reach of Kern County, save for the oil wells, belongs to Paramount Farming, which belongs to the Resnicks. But Paramount isn’t Paramount anymore. By the decree of Lynda, who once contemplated a bowl of those juicy little seedless mandarins and on the spot named them Cuties, this is now the land of Wonderful.
It’s the summer of 2016, eight weeks before the big pick, and I’m zigzagging across the almonds and pistachios, square mile after square mile of immaculate orchards lined with micro-irrigation systems and heavy with nuts. Of all the wonders of Wonderful, this is the one I find most mystifying. The State Water Project that allowed western Kern County to grow into a farming behemoth has given no water or very little water over the past three years amid the worst drought in California history. If this were any other part of Kern, the farmers would be reaching into the earth to make up the difference. But western Kern has no groundwater to draw from. The aquifer either doesn’t exist or is so befouled by salts that the water is poison.
As a consequence, the farmland here, nearly 100,000 acres planted in permanent crops, is completely reliant on the government’s supply of mountain water. This is gambler’s ground unlike any other in California, and as I drive from hill to dale, examining each orchard, my head spins. How can this be? No rain in five years. State water dwindling year after year. No water in the ground to make up for the missing government supply. So why hasn’t this place gone to tumbleweeds? How can another record crop be sitting pretty on these trees?
I do all the calculations from the numbers I am able to gather, and I cannot figure out how these nuts are getting enough water. There is a local water bank, a kind of underground lake, that the Resnicks control. In the years of plentiful rains and heavy snowmelt, the bank fills up with more than 1 million acre-feet of stored water. But most of this water has been spent by the Resnicks and other account holders in years two, three, and four of the drought. Whatever remains is not nearly enough to make up for the shortfall of imported water from the state.
Then I get lucky. I come upon a Wonderful field man in a four-by-four truck who listens to my bewilderment and takes pity. As he drives off, he throws a clue out the window. Turn onto Twisselman Road off I-5 and continue west until it intersects with the California Aqueduct. There, he tells me, in the shadow of the state’s great concrete vein moving snowmelt north to south, I will find a private, off-the-books pipeline that Stewart Resnick has built to keep his trees from dying. The water is being taken from unsuspecting farmers in an irrigation district in Tulare County more than 40 miles away.
No stranger enters this zone unless it’s to get rid of a body or dump waste from cooking meth or drown a hot car. Its vastness makes you feel safe and in jeopardy at the same time. I head straight into the glare of the sun shooting over the Coast Range. Through the haze I can see the knoll of the aqueduct come closer. Ever since I was a kid, I have felt its pull — a gravitational presence on the land and in my own story. On a fog-drip night in January 1972, two men walked into my father’s empty bar with gloves on and shot him to death. They dumped their stolen car into the canal’s black waters and got away with murder for the next 32 years. In a valley of dead rivers, each one killed on behalf of agriculture, the aqueduct was the one river still alive. Its artificiality had achieved a permanence; its permanence had created my California.
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.
Where gravity needs a boost, the pipes run atop wooden crates used to pack boxes of fruit. Where the pipes butt up against Twisselman Road, a more clever bit of engineering is required. Here, a crew has dug a culvert beneath the road and hiked the pipeline under the asphalt that divides one field from another. Here, private water jumps from Tulare County to Kern County, but government jurisdictions don’t count. On one side of the road and the other, for miles in both directions, the dirt belongs to Wonderful. I stand over the pipes and give them a hard slap. They slap back with the cold vibration of water. Where’s it coming from? Who’s it going to?
Water is what led me to Stewart Resnick in the winter of 2003. Back then, the Los Angeles Times had a bureau in the middle of California. The bureau happened to be my house in northwest Fresno. I had finished the last chapter of The King of California, a book I wrote with a good friend about J.G. Boswell, who owned more land and controlled more water than any other person in the West for most of the 20th century. He and his forebears from Georgia had dried up Tulare Lake, the biggest body of freshwater this side of the Mississippi, and planted 100,000 acres of cotton outside the town of Corcoran. As it happened, just down the road, on the other side of the lake bottom, Resnick had captured his own body of water, the Kern Water Bank, and planted millions of nut trees on desert scrub. No journalist had written a word about his rise as an agricultural giant, how he had turned public water into private water by grabbing control of California’s largest water bank, a project jump-started with $74 million in taxpayer money. The deed had been done in a series of hidden meetings in Monterey. Resnick wanted no part in my story. Each time I called, his secretary hung up the phone.
I waited five years before placing another call to his headquarters. It was the early spring of 2008, and this time his secretary didn’t hang up on me. I had in mind a magazine profile on Stewart, the Nut King. “Why not send him an email?” the secretary suggested. A few weeks later, I found myself riding up the elevator of a high-rise on the Westside of Los Angeles.
He sat behind a desk without clutter and stood up to shake my hand. He was a small, trim man, no more than 5 foot 5, in his early 70s with thinning silver hair and brown eyes rimmed in pink. The speech of his parents and grandparents, the Yiddish-inflected New York with its humors and cut-to-the-quick impatiences, had not left his own speech in the half-century since he’d come to California. He was dressed in the latest slim-fit style. Arrayed before him were small bowls of almonds, pistachios, and easy-to-peel mandarins, a plate of ground white turkey meat cooked in olive oil, and a glass of pomegranate juice. Everything but the turkey had come from his orchards. He’d been diagnosed with early prostate cancer and had no doubt that the juice was keeping him well. “My health, knock on wood, is good. It gives me the luxury to keep on working. Frankly, I’m having too much fun to think about retiring.”
Even if he were inclined to wind down, he had no successor in mind. None of his three children had the slightest interest in taking over the company. Still, he was starting to think about his legacy, and that’s why he finally agreed to meet with me. “I’ve never given an interview to a newspaper or magazine before. I’ve told them all no. When you’re making the kind of money we’re making, what’s the upside? I’d rather be unknown than known.” He had recently read The King of California, and that got him thinking. “I’m not going to live forever, even with the massive amounts of pomegranate juice I’m drinking. It might be nice if my kids and grandkids could turn to a book someday and read about what we’ve built.”
He and Lynda were changing the way food was grown in California and sold to the world. If they were farmers, they were farmers who hung out with Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, David Geffen, Warren Beatty, and Joan Didion. They donated $15 million to found UCLA’s Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital and more than $25 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to build a pavilion in their name. Unlike many other billionaires, they could poke fun at themselves. During the holiday season, they sent out 4,000 gift boxes to their “nearest and dearest friends” filled with their fruits and nuts, along with a card of the two of them dressed in skin-colored body stockings, posing as Adam and Eve. “If only Eve had offered Adam a pomegranate instead of an apple,” Lynda wrote, “every day could have been a holiday.”
The Resnick story certainly deserved a book, but did he really want me to be the one to write it? Boswell had tried to tear apart a copy of The King of California when his secretary asked if he might autograph it.
“Why not we start with an extended interview or two?” I offered.
“Let’s meet again in two weeks,” he said.
The front gates of the 25,000-square-foot Beaux Arts mansion on Sunset Boulevard magically opened without a guard giving a nod. I exited my car and approached the entrance with its 14-foot columns and wrought-iron balustrades. Perched up there, a queen might peek out and utter, “Let them eat cake,” Lynda once said. When the mansion was built in 1927, it was known as the Sunset House. I was prepared to knock on the door, but a housekeeper, flanked by two blow-dried dogs, greeted me on the front steps and led me inside. I tried not to stare at the gold that was everywhere: heavy-legged gold furniture, paintings in thick gold frames, gold-leaf carpet, and gold-fringed drapes. From the vaulted ceilings with gold-leaf moldings hung two blown-glass chandeliers. The curtains were made of a fabric woven in Venice and substantial enough that they might finish off a person who happened to be looking out the window in the throes of an earthquake.
There was a majordomo of the house, a butler, a chef, a sous-chef, three housekeepers, a limo driver, and a trio of assistants who worked in the basement, juggling Lynda’s calendar and the buying, wrapping, and shipping of gifts she handed out to her Rolodex of “highfalutin people.” Stewart had made it clear that Lynda would not be joining us. She had her own book — about her genius as a marketer — going. He had spent the morning on his exercise bike reading Fortune. Fresh from a shower, a red Kabbalah string tied around his wrist and a multihued pair of socks covering his feet, he welcomed me. If he had his druthers, he said, he’d still be living in a little ranch house in Culver City. “None of this is my idea. This is my wife. This is Lynda.”
Where do you begin with a man of great riches if not the distant places you might have in common? And so I began with slaughter and madness and then moved on to bartenders for fathers.
His grandfather Resnick had fled the Ukraine in the wake of another killing of Jews by Cossacks. The bells in the churches pealed, and out came the villagers with their scythes and axes, believing they had found the reason for their poverty. It was the early 1900s, and his grandfather and grandmother decided to secure passage to America. His father was 3 years old at the time. They settled in Brooklyn among Jews who had fled their own pogroms, and his grandfather went into the needle-and-embroidery trade. His father met his mother, the cantor’s daughter, and they married. When the Depression struck, his parents migrated to Middlebush, New Jersey, where they bought a few trucks and peddled coffee and pots and pans. Stewart was the second of their four children, the only boy. “I sort of remember growing up on a farm,” he said. “But we weren’t there long.” They moved to Highland Park, home to Johnson & Johnson and close enough to Rutgers University to hear the fans screaming at Neilson Field. Manhattan was 30 minutes in one direction; the Jersey Shore, 30 minutes in the other. The borough measured no more than 2 square miles. It wouldn’t even make a couple of sections of his almonds.
His father bought a neighborhood bar and ran it with the same iron fist with which he ran the house. He was short, bull-like, and didn’t take crap from anyone. “He was about my size, but he was very tough. He was a big drinker, a big liver who loved the fast life. His bar was a place for guys, Damon Runyon–type guys.”
Resnick’s pals were all Jewish kids from upper-class families, so it wasn’t easy being the poorest one, the one whose father was a gambler and capable at any moment of losing the few comforts they had. Once, he came home from school and discovered the family car gone. His father had lost it in a bet. “He was tough on the outside. But inside he had these weaknesses. Compulsive gambler and alcoholic. Then he’d lose his temper and get the strap out.”
Like many billionaires, he didn’t have a decent explanation for his fortune. Because he hadn’t done it with Daddy’s money or what he considered a superior brain, he attributed his wealth to luck and to a simple lesson he had learned early in life. He was 13 and standing inside the Rutgers Pharmacy on the first day of his first job. The boss showed him a storeroom filled with chemicals tossed here and there and told him to bring order to the mess. He didn’t know where to begin. He studied the situation. The stacks of bottles gave him no answer. The boss came back in, saw his do-nothing, and said only three words: “Just get started.” He began to move, and the job went quickly after that. Digging in was its own wisdom, he discovered. Order finds itself through action. Just get started became one of his guiding principles.
At Highland Park High, he excelled in math and struggled in English. Upon graduation, he only needed to look across the Raritan River to find his college. The idea was to enroll at Rutgers and study to become a doctor. A year into his studies, an uncle called from California. He had moved out to Long Beach, bought some property, and built one of those new strip malls. The money was too easy. His dad had sold the bar and was adrift. Why not California? Once his parents decided to go, he decided to go, too. He left in 1956. “I never liked New Jersey, but I never knew why. California showed me why.”
The making of a billionaire over the next half-century was a series of dots that connected in the California sunshine. It was linear, logical, fluid, and quite nearly destined.
He got into UCLA and joined a Jewish fraternity. One of his frat brothers was a wealthy kid whose father ran a janitorial business. He had an industrial machine, hardly used, that scrubbed and waxed floors. Resnick dipped into his savings from his job at a mental hospital and went in half on the machine. “After school and on weekends, we’d clean and wax floors. It took time for the wax to dry. So in that time, we started cleaning windows, too.” They named the business Clean Time Building Maintenance.
His frat brother got bored, as rich boys do, and Resnick bought out his half interest for $300. He started cleaning pizza parlors and drugstores. Business got so brisk that he bought two trucks and hired crews. By the time he graduated from UCLA in 1960 and entered its law school, he was bringing home $40,000 a year — the equivalent of $320,000 today. “When I got out of law school, I probably had 100 people I was employing.”
At the buildings he was cleaning, he noticed that no one was watching the front and back doors. With that insight, he sold the company for $2.5 million and went into the security guard business. It then dawned on him that guards were good, but they had to be paid an hourly wage. Burglar alarms, on the other hand, offered round-the-clock vigilance without coffee breaks. He went out and bought an alarm company. That company led to another company, and he soon owned half the commercial alarm accounts in Los Angeles.
His first wife, the mother of his two sons and daughter, told him she was quite happy living in their $30,000 condo in Culver City. Month after month, she made ends meet on a $1,600 budget. “She was a very frugal lady. She wanted me to put our $5 million in an account, draw interest, and we could live happily on the 50 grand a year.”
She didn’t understand his drive. He was going to Vegas, hanging out with his own Damon Runyon characters, and making plans to get even bigger. He packed his bags and left his wife and kids. It wasn’t a midlife crisis, he told me. He did little, if any, catting around. Then one day, he was trying to find a marketing person and got a call from Lynda Sinay, who worked in advertising. She was in her late 20s, almost a decade younger than Stewart, and the mother of two children. She had recently divorced and wasn’t about to settle for a life in Culver City. She was the daughter of Jack Harris, a film distributor, who moved the family to Los Angeles when Lynda was 15 to produce movies. One of his films, The Blob, became a cult classic, and they lived in a house on the Westside with two Rolls-Royces in the garage.
By age 19, Lynda had dropped out of college, married a magazine ad man, and opened her own advertising agency. She wasn’t content to pursue the usual list of wealthy businessmen as clients. She was aiming to surround herself with famous actors and artists and public intellectuals. She divorced her husband in 1968 and began dating Anthony Russo, who worked at the RAND think tank in Santa Monica with military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. From a safe, Ellsberg had lifted the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of how successive presidents lied to the public to cover up the failings of the Vietnam War. Russo and Ellsberg needed a place to photocopy the 7,000 pages, and Lynda volunteered the Xerox machine at her ad agency on Melrose Avenue. The three of them spent two weeks of all-nighters making copies. When a copy found its way to The New York Times, Lynda was pursued by federal prosecutors until they concluded she was more dilettante than radical.
The courtship of Stewart and Lynda went fast. They both knew what they wanted. They married in 1972, and he sold the alarm company for $100 million. He wanted to stay in the customer service business and heard from his doctor that Teleflora, the giant flower-delivery company, could be bought for a buyer’s price. It was Lynda who came up with the idea of “flowers-in-a-gift.” Roses are short-lived, she reasoned, but the teapot or watering can that the flowers arrive in is a keepsake. The concept changed the industry. She won a gold Effie, advertising’s Oscar.
In the late 1970s, he went looking for a hedge against inflation. His accountant suggested he buy apartments. He could collect the rents while he slept. But he wasn’t looking for the monotony of steady. He was in the mood to gamble. On vacation in the south of France, he heard about a farming company called Paramount that needed a buyer for some of its orchards in Kern County. “They were selling 2,500 acres of oranges and lemons and a packing house for a third of their appraised value,” Resnick said. “It was simply a place to park some money and have another opportunity.” He drove to Delano, the farm town where Chavez and his union had made so much trouble and history. By the time he drove back, he was a citrus grower. “I think I paid $9 million. Look it, I’m from Beverly Hills. I didn’t know good land from bad land. But I had some good people helping me.”
He and Lynda decided in 1984 to buy the Franklin Mint, the maker of commemorative coins and other kitsch, for $167.5 million. They knew little about the company except it was selling its keepsakes for five times the amount Teleflora was. Shoving aside the coins, they introduced a Scarlett O’Hara doll that, by itself, raked in $35 million in sales. They were pushing plates, costume jewelry, perfume, and model cars. They issued a commemorative medal of Tiger Woods winning the 1997 Masters that offended the golfer. He called it fake junk, sued, and won. Lynda spent $150,000 at an auction to buy the beaded gown and matching bolero jacket, “the Elvis Dress,” that Princess Diana had worn on a visit to Hong Kong. The designers at the Mint made a porcelain doll with a tiny replica outfit so precise that it had to be hand-beaded with 2,000 fake pearls. It was a hit. Annual sales at the Mint jumped to nearly $1 billion.
Bankers and their fair-weather financing exasperated Resnick. He hired Bert Steir, a Bostonian with a Bronze Star from the Second World War and a degree from Harvard, to come west and work his deals. The oil companies and insurance companies were looking to unload their farms in Kern County, Steir learned, chunks of earth that measured 20,000 and 40,000 acres. Mobil and Texaco and Prudential Life were willing to practically give the ground and trees away. This is how Resnick became a pistachio, almond, and pomegranate grower. Sitting in his mansion in 2008, he already counted more than 100,000 acres of orchards across five counties. His trees were drinking from the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, from rivers and irrigation canals and the water bank. “My life is about California. I didn’t grow up here, but if it wasn’t for California, its openness and opportunities, I wouldn’t be sitting where I’m sitting.”
No other farmer, not even Gallo, had cornered a market the way Resnick had cornered the growing, buying, processing, and selling of pistachios. He had his hands on 65 percent of the nation’s crop. One of the first things he did with his monopoly was kill the California Pistachio Commission, the industry’s marketing group, by yanking his funding. He and Lynda wanted to run their own ads for their own brand. The independent growers and processors, no surprise, regarded him as a bully eager to employ teams of lawyers and tens of millions of dollars to force his agenda. A member of the commission, on the eve of its demise, told me, “Stewart wants to be a benevolent dictator. But if he thinks you’re defying him, he’ll start with, ‘Nobody realizes the good I’ve done for agriculture.’ Then he moves on to, ‘Do you know who I am? Do you know what I am? I’m a billionaire.’ He’s got an awful temper he’s trying to control through Kabbalah. That little red string is supposed to remind him to count to ten. But his ego — there’s no controlling that.”
Resnick had heard it all before. He was the bad guy in agriculture for no bigger offense than that he was big. “Look, these farmers go back two, three, and four generations. Me, I’m a carpetbagger from Beverly Hills. But you ask the growers we process, and they’ll tell you that year in and year out, no one offers a better price. No one pushes their product harder.” It was this persistence and, above all, good timing that explained his bigness. “I’d have to say that fully half of my success has been luck. Now in farming, we’re in a unique position. The crops we grow can only be grown in a few places in the world. Still, none of it would have happened without luck.”
What he and Lynda had done with the wretched pomegranate was another matter. They planted the first 640 acres, half the pomegranates in the country at the time, knowing there was zero market. Instead of trying to sell the fruit as a piece of fruit, they squeezed its seeds into POMWonderful. If anyone doubted the health benefits of the juice, they spent more than $30 million in research to prove that it fought heart disease and prostate woes. Antioxidants that delivered 32 grams of sugar in each serving didn’t come cheap: $11 a bottle. Lynda sent the first batches of POM, week after week, as gifts to David Bowie, Rupert Murdoch, and Disney head Michael Eisner. On Oscar night, she handed out free samples to the stars at the Vanity Fair party. “Of course, I know everyone in the world,” she told one reporter. “Every mogul, every movie star. You have no idea the people on my VIP list who drink it. But that doesn’t make people buy a second bottle. They do that because they love it.”
A POM craze followed. Stewart and Lynda planted 15,000 more acres and bought a juice plant. “Who would have thought that people would be asking their bartender to fix them a Pomtini?” he said. All of it was Lynda’s doing, of course. There she stood in the foreground of the photo that accompanied a New Yorker profile titled “Pomegranate Princess.” She was wearing a black pantsuit with open-toed silver pumps and a single piece of jewelry around her neck. In the distant background, under the gaze of a 10-foot-tall marble goddess, sat Stewart in a gold-skirted chair, head down. “She wanted to tell the story of the pomegranate,” he told me with a touch of sarcasm. “For a long time, she got no credit. Now she’s getting lots of credit.”
I returned for two more sessions, and then he and Lynda took off to their $15 million vacation house in Aspen, where they were warring with the locals over a housing project for community workers that was blocking their view. By the time they returned to Beverly Hills, he had lost interest in a book about his life, at least one that I might write. I kept my notes and tapes and waited for another day.
Lost Hills sits on an upslope. This is the closest to hills it comes. Main Street is Highway 46, which slices through the middle of town. At the east end, where the highway meets Interstate 5, the traveler gets a choice. Day’s Inn or Motel 6. Carl’s Jr., Subway, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Love’s, or Arby’s. None of the sales taxes go to City Hall because Lost Hills isn’t a city. It’s known as a census-designated place, which is another way of saying that Kern County has every reason to neglect it. Highway 46 shoots past Resnick almonds and takes you straight into town, population 1,938. The tumbleweeds on open ground give you a peek into what Lost Hills looked like before the aqueduct made a river here.
The July sun is a scorcher, and I fuss with the dial on the AC long enough to blow past the town’s one stoplight and the aqueduct, too. I’m in another land, an expanse of hard, ugly, cratered-out earth the color of sand. Hundreds of giant praying mantises standing on platforms of concrete are pulling oil from a Chevron field. This is the west end of Lost Hills, the extraction end. The wind kicks up dirt from the reap of oil and almonds, and the dust cloud carries back into town, raining down on the elementary school first.
I park the car and walk in the direction of a scattering of buildings slapped together with stucco and corrugated tin. A meat store, an auto repair, a pool hall, and an arcade pass for a commercial strip. No one is out and about. They’re either working in the heat or hiding from the heat. Three dogs, part pit bull, the menacing part, have given up on the shade and lie on the open road. Their tongues loll to their knees. I walk into the supermarket El Toro Loco, and the clerk directs me to the back office, where a tobacco-chewing Yemeni named Anthony Hussein is sitting beneath a photograph of an uncle in his U.S. Army uniform. The uncle died at age 22 fighting in Afghanistan. “Talk to me,” Hussein says, draining a can of Rockstar. “What do you need to know, sir?”
“What’s it been like here during the drought?”
“Drought, no drought, makes no difference. The aqueduct was built with tax money, yes? The aqueduct brings the water, yes? So everybody should have it, right? But this is water for Mr. Resnick. Not the people. When it doesn’t come, he finds a way to make it come.” He spits tobacco juice into the empty can of Rockstar. “The checks the workers bring in here from Mr. Resnick are the same checks they bring in for years. I cash them the same. Nothing changes. Big fish eat the small fish here. Anything else I can help you with?”
He seems in a hurry. He guides me back into the main store with its displays of fresh fruit and vegetables, meats, cold cuts, and baked goods. The shelves spill piñatas, gloves, hats, pruning shears, and loaves of Bimbo white bread. The wall of Pacifico and 16-ounce cans of Bud is rebuilt daily. Vicente Fernández, the king of Ranchera music, is crooning to no one, but it won’t be this way in 30 minutes, Hussein tells me. Today is quincena day, twice-a-month payday, and he needs me to scram because the workers coming in to cash their checks and wire 25 percent back across the border to families in Guanajuato and Guerrero will wonder if I’m with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If that happens, they’ll go down the highway, and he’ll lose the $1 he takes for every $100 worth of their checks. “It’s a bad day,” he says, shooing me out. “You look like Border Patrol undercover.”
I sit in my car and wait in the parking lot. They arrive in Chevy trucks and Dodge vans and spill out in groups of four or five under the sweat-stained hats of the 49ers, Penn State, and the Yankees. Each face wears its own weary. The 20-year-olds look like 20-year-olds; the 30-year-olds, like 40-year-olds; the 40-year-olds, like 60-year-olds. Summer or not, they’re dressed in shirt layered upon shirt and the same no-name dusty blue jeans. Or at least this is what I can glean through the car window. I grab my notebook and walk up to one of the vans.
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.”
He has come to El Toro Loco to cash his check and buy some beer. I follow him inside to a long line of workers that ends at a plastic window where Hussein sits on the other side, working the cash register like a teller at a race track. When it’s Pablo’s turn, he hands Hussein a check for $437, and Hussein counts out $433 back to him in cash. On the way out of the market, Pablo buys a case of Pacifico. Tonight, feeling no pain, he’ll sit in one of the strip clubs in Bakersfield and maybe buy himself a fancy lap dance.
Across the street, the Soto family has built a new Mexican restaurant named Gabby’s that dwarfs every other business on the street with its Spanish Mission façade. The Sotos made a name for themselves in Lost Hills by taking their taco trucks into the agricultural fields. Angelica, one of four sisters, runs the restaurant. She tells me her not-so-silent partner is Lady Lynda, who was so bothered that Lost Hills didn’t have a sit-down restaurant of its own that she sought out Angelica. Lynda assisted her with the design and color scheme but otherwise has remained hands-off. “She’ll check in every so often to see how business is going. But she doesn’t dictate this or that.” Angelica would prefer not to get into the details of their financial arrangement. It’s been more than a year since the grand opening, and they’re still operating in the red. So far, Lynda has shown only patience. A restaurant built by Wonderful for the purpose of making the company town look better from the roadside may enjoy a more forgiving bottom line than, say, the Subway up the road. But that still doesn’t mean that most people in town can afford to eat here. “We’re still trying to figure out who our typical customer is going to be,” Angelica says. For now, she’s playing country western music on the sound system and trying to lure a combination of oil-field workers, supervisors at Wonderful, and travelers driving the last miles of James Dean.
I leave Gabby’s and follow a winding concrete path through the new Wonderful Park. The grass is a color green on the verge of blue, and the cutouts for trees are razor etched. The 5.3 acres are so flawless and at odds with the town that the whole thing feels like a movie set. Even the community water tank is painted baby blue with a big sunflower. “You Have Found Lost Hills!!” it says. On the north end sits the Wonderful Soccer Field with its all-weather track, stadium lights, artificial turf, and giant yellow sunburst embossed at midfield. On the south end stands the Wonderful Community Center, where residents are urged to attend thrice-weekly Zumba and core-training sessions, healthy cooking classes, and weekend cultural outings featuring the likes of America’s Premier Latino Dance Company.
This is a lot of gestures to unpack, and as I exit the grounds, I keep turning around to get one last look that’s true. I don’t know how Hershey did Hershey, Pennsylvania, but Lynda is present in every painted sunburst, every planted flower, every blade of grass. The believer and the skeptic do their tussle inside my head. This is a park for the people, to give them a break from their hard lives. Lost Hills finally has something to be proud about. This is an offering of cake handed down from king and queen to serfs. It is one more way to extend the brand. Even Wonderful Park is spelled with the same heart-shaped O that stamps a bottle of POM.
The compass in my car says I’m headed east, but that means almost nothing inside a province of 15 million trees. Each square-mile section is divided into blocks, and each block counts a precise number of rows. When a farmer’s orchards encompass 186 square miles, finding the field man can be a challenge. Section, block, and row don’t compute; he has to direct me by cellphone and guideposts. My dust cloud tells him I’m getting close. He turns out to be a kindly religious man whose short hair is dyed the black of shoe polish. I ask him about his delivery of services — pruning, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, water — that can be calibrated and timed to enable the smallest unit to achieve maximum yield. Surely, no one does this better than Wonderful?
He explains that Wonderful has grown too big to hassle such precision. Let the smaller grower walk among his trees and farm by the row. Fussing with one input or another, he can produce 3,500 pounds of nuts an acre. Wonderful, by contrast, shoots for the middle. The scale of production — and the ability to process, market, and sell its own crops — allows Wonderful to be mostly mediocre in the fields and remain highly profitable. No one’s going to get fired for bringing home 2,500 pounds of nuts an acre. “These trees are pruned by a machine that hedges one side and then the other,” he says. “But the smaller farmer still uses a pruning shears to make his most important cuts. If he knows what he’s doing, the shears can make a thousand more pounds an acre.”
It’s the beginning of September 2016, and battalions of heavy machinery dispatched from the Wonderful equipment yards pound the ground and rattle the trees. No picking of crop agitates the earth like the picking of almonds and pistachios. A plume of dust joins up with other plumes of dust until the sky over the valley turns sickly. By the eighth day of harvest, the sun is gone. Not that long ago, we used to time our sinus infections by the immense cloud of defoliants sprayed on the cotton fields at the end of Indian summer. Now it’s the seven-week nut harvest that brings out the inhalers. All this stirring up is a consequence of mechanization. Because a human picker is not needed in the almond and pistachio groves, the nut harvest doesn’t spread around money the way it spreads around dust. Wages that used to go to workers stay in the pocket of the nut growers. Maybe not since the wheat barons has the income disparity between farmer and farmworker been greater. Growers a tenth the size of Resnick flee the dust in their Ferraris to their second houses in Carmel.
I follow one of the engines of harvest as it rolls into an orchard like a tank. Giant pincers manned by a single worker grab the tree by the throat and start shaking. For the next two or three seconds, the almonds pour down like hail. The vibration is a stunning piece of violence to behold. It moves in a wave from trunk to limb to nut and back down to earth. The jolt and shudder would tear out the roots of a lesser species. When the clamps let go of the trunk, 8,000 almonds, green outer shells wilted and partly opened, the meat inside a wooden womb, lie scattered on the flat dry earth. Somehow, 30 or 40 nuts aren’t compelled to drop. The man and his pincers can’t be bothered. The rain of almonds has moved on to the next tree. Once each tree has been shaken, the nuts are left on the ground for a few days to dry.
I walk to another part of the orchard and watch phase two. In a swirl of dust, a worker atop a different machine is blowing the almonds from their spot beneath the trees to the middle of the row. The nuts are kept there a few more days — any longer and the ants will attack them — to complete their drying. I then move to the far side of the orchard, where another worker, riding a huge mower, is kicking up an even bigger cloud of dust. He maneuvers down the middle of the row, sweeps up the dried almonds, and throws them into a catcher. The contents of each catcher, 500 pounds of almond meat, are placed on a conveyor 20 feet high and dumped into a big-rig hauler for transport to the Wonderful processing plant.
All told, nine men operating five machines will pick clean this orchard over the next four weeks. They’ll take home $11 an hour for their labors. And how will the Resnicks fare? Each tree produces 22 pounds of nuts. Typically, each pound sells wholesale for $3.75. That’s $83 a tree. By harvest’s end, the Resnicks will have put their clamps on 4.4 million almond trees. Nearly $365 million worth of Wonderful almonds will have dropped down from the dry sky.
In the city of trees, I find a paved road with speed bumps that takes me to the harvest of pistachios. The bunches of chartreuse-tipped nuts hanging from antler branches never touch the ground. Two men sit inside separate cabins of a small tractor with pincers on one side and a catcher on the other. One man drives and shakes the tree while the other man makes sure the clusters fall into the butterfly opening of the receiver. The vibration here isn’t quite as vehement. As the nuts pour down onto the roof of the catcher, the operator shifts the trough so that it becomes a conveyor belt. The continuous rattle feeds the nuts into a series of bins on the backside of the tractor. There’s no waiting around. Unlike the almond, the pistachio is moist and combustible. The nut must be hurried from bin to truck to processing plant to keep it from discoloring. “This is a big crop,” the field man tells me.
All told, 36 men operating six machines will harvest the orchard in six days. Each tree produces 38 pounds of nuts. Typically, each pound sells wholesale for $4.25. The math works out to $162 a tree. The pistachio trees in Wonderful number 6 million. That’s a billion-dollar crop.
The truck driver hits the wide open of Highway 33 and traces the serpentine of the aqueduct. He’s headed to the Wonderful plant, 13 miles north of Lost Hills, to drop off his load. He’s carrying 55,000 pounds of crop in two swaggering trailers open to the sun. The load will translate into 18,000 pounds of finished nuts in a matter of days. Whether he realizes it, he’s part of the biggest pistachio harvest in history. California growers, in the grip of drought, have produced 900 million pounds of the green nut. That’s more than double the crop that Resnick boasted about when I saw him eight years ago. Nearly a third of the harvest — the nuts grown by Wonderful, the nuts grown by hundreds of farmers who belong to the Wonderful brand — will come through these gates.
The new plant, the size of seven super Walmarts and built at a cost of $300 million, rises out of a clearing like an apparition. The eye numbed by the tedium of orchards isn’t prepared for the 1.3 million square feet of industrial assault, though the palm trees and roses along the perimeter try for a transition. This is where the pistachios, 400 truckloads a day, 50 days of harvest, come to be weighed, washed, peeled, dried, gassed, sorted, salted, roasted, packaged, and shipped out to the world.
No whistle shouts mealtime in the modern-day company town. The graders, sorters, and beeping forklift drivers head to an immaculate café, where the Wonderful Salad — roasted chicken, mixed greens, cilantro, pistachios, and slices of mandarin in a blue cheese vinaigrette — sells for $3. Lynda believes that if they’re enticed in the right direction, the 1,300 workers might choose to prepare the same healthy fare at home. Sugar kills, she tells them. It takes a life every six seconds. What spikes blood sugar more than a can of Coke? A flour tortilla. Eat a corn tortilla instead, she urges. She’s built a grocery section in the back of the café stocked with grapeseed oil and what she touts are “Whole Foods–quality vegetables and fruits that sell at Walmart prices.” Why grapeseed oil, I ask Andy Anzaldo, head of grower relations and a fitness buff, who’s taken on the added duties of what might be called Wonderful’s Minister of Health. “Research is showing that grapeseed oil is healthier than corn oil and canola oil and may be better for you than olive oil,” he tells me.
Anzaldo’s grandfather came from Guadalajara in the 1950s as part of the bracero farmworker program. His father worked as a truck driver, transporting crops to the city. Anzaldo grew up in Bakersfield and attended a Catholic high school where he played football and basketball. For college, he picked California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo over the hill and majored in agriculture business. The Resnicks brought him aboard in 1999, and now he works alongside Lynda and consults daily with the company chef. Five years ago, they decided to get rid of the nacho chips, french fries, and soft drinks. The workers didn’t react well. That’s when the Resnicks decided to sell the concept of wellness to their 4,300 employees throughout the valley the same way they sell workplace safety. “We changed the culture of safety, and we think we can do the same with health,” Anzaldo says.
The Spanish rice isn’t rice but cauliflower made to look like rice. The pizza dough is cauliflower, too. A worker can still order a hamburger, but it’s half the size of the old hamburger and costs $6 — twice what the wild salmon served with creamed leeks and raw asparagus salad costs. Whichever dish they choose, workers are asked not to take a bite until they have considered Lynda’s latest concoction: an ounce of apple cider vinegar cut with ginger, mandarin juice, and turmeric served in small plastic cups like the wine of Mass. Everything about our physical selves, Lynda believes, begins in our guts. To change the microbial life in our digestive tracts and reduce inflammation that leads to disease, we have to reintroduce fermented foods into our diet.
If the workers doubt the benefit of the enzymes from apple cider vinegar, video banners stream a continuous message of bad food habits to be broken and body mass indexes to be measured and met. “Rethink Your Drink” is the latest slogan. Coke, Gatorade, and Monster Energy are sky-high in sweeteners, but don’t be fooled by that SunnyD, either. “More than half our employees are obese or near obese,” Anzaldo tells me. “One out of eight has diabetes. You can’t reverse diabetes, but you can control it with a blood sugar level between 6.5 and 8. That’s our goal. To manage the disease. Because when we don’t manage it, they end up with severe chronic health issues and amputated limbs.”
Anzaldo is a man wired for solemn, but he does manage to smile once during lunch, when talking about the 1,150 workers who’ve earned bonuses of up to $500 for losing a collective 14,000 pounds in two years. That still leaves the majority of the workforce beyond his cajole. “You and I look at this meal,” he says. “Wild salmon and all these sides made from scratch. ‘Wow. This is only $3?’ But for a lot of workers, bringing that big fat burrito from home still makes sense.”
I had seen what J.G. Boswell had done for the town of Corcoran. The hospital, senior citizens’ center, and football stadium all bore the signature of his giving. What the Resnicks were doing for Lost Hills, though, was a level of philanthropy I had never witnessed in the valley. They were hardly the first rich people to use patronage to try to wheedle a citizenry toward their idea of a better life. But this wasn’t the Resnick Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This was Lost Hills, where the people are dependent on the Resnicks from cradle to grave. “There’s a lot to commend here,” I tell Anzaldo, “but where does persuasion end and coercion begin?”
As a second-generation Mexican American, Anzaldo says he knows the powerful clench of fast food and sugar among his own family. “We are sensitive to that. We can’t insist on wellness the way we can insist on plant safety. Being healthy is a choice. Have we gone too far? The feedback we’re hearing is ‘No.’ In fact, some of the workers think that we haven’t gone far enough.”
The workers aren’t around for a quick survey. They’ve gone back to the nut line. On a Facebook page with postings in Spanish, they offer a glimpse of life “inside pistachio world.” They give thanks for a job that provides decent wages and access to a free wellness center next door staffed by a full-time doctor, physician’s assistant, registered dietitian, and marriage and family therapist. During paid breaks, they do their 15 minutes of Zumba, take a walk along a designated path, and munch on the free fruits and veggies put out for them. Mostly, though, they can’t wait for the avalanche of nuts to end. “One more bin,” a post reads. “So so sleepy,” says another. “One more hour and I’m outta this fucking place.”
On the way out, the voice in their head, Lynda’s voice, goads them to give one more hour to the Wonderful Fitness Center. Inside, a trainer watches over a line of treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes. There’s a section stacked with weights and a yoga room with mats on a hardwood floor. When the next shift ends, he tells me, the gym will fill up with workers looking to win the cash bonuses from the company’s GetFit program. On the whiteboard in front of the weights, the big boys list their totals. They’re all chasing Bobby, whose 325-pound bench press, 335-pound squat, and 455-pound dead lift make him the sole member of the 1,000-Pound Club.
In the maroon of sundown,I follow the workers back to Lost Hills. Their houses made from railroad boxcars have been painted purple, blue, yellow, and gold. The colors turn brilliant in the light made spectacular by the particles of dust. Down a rutted road, 100 trailers with foundations dressed in plywood back up against an orchard. Even if they had wheels, they wouldn’t be going anywhere. The people here have traveled too far. Some of them have paid $12,000 to buy their trailers and spent thousands more to fix them up. The brick-hard ground can’t be bought. They’re paying $340 a month for its privilege. As farmworker colonies go, this one isn’t as grim as others I’ve visited. There’s no garbage piled high and smoldering, no chickens picking at scratch. The Sureños gang has tagged the front entrance but otherwise has left the inside unmarked. The junk scattered about could be a lot worse. It is the ditch up the road, the one that carries no water, that is filled with old mattresses and spent appliances. Twine strung trailer to trailer hangs with the laundry of fathers, mothers, and children. The space for a family’s secrets is only a few feet. Here and there a mulberry tree, its canopy pruned back, breaks up the red-smeared sky.
A woman named Lupe is standing above me on the wooden stairway that climbs to the front door of her trailer. She is small with lively brown eyes and a sweet but confident voice. Her husband, Manuel, will awaken in 30 minutes to prepare for his night shift. Under lights, he prunes, plows, and irrigates the almonds. Lupe and Manuel, like many of the residents, grew up next to each other in a pueblo called San Antonio deep in the state of Guerrero, a mountainous region of dramatic beauty. They were married only a short time when Manuel decided to cross the border almost 20 years ago. He worked as a gardener in Los Angeles and then heard about the almond trees on the other side of the mountain where the living was so much cheaper. He landed a steady job with a big grower and a year later paid a coyote $5,000 to bring Lupe and their baby son to Lost Hills.
She remembers handing the boy to her sister-in-law, who carried phony papers, and watching them cross by bridge into California. Because Lupe had no papers, she followed the coyote for many more miles until they reached a steep pass. Lucky for her that the young man was kind. Before he left her to cross alone, he gave her soda, water, chips, and Cheetos. The baby is now a 20-year-old student at Bakersfield College. Lupe gave birth to two daughters, U.S. citizens, who are now 11 and 6. If she has her way, they will go to college, too. “We tell the children about the fields when they are young so they don’t know the fields when they are old,” she says. More than a dozen family members have followed Lupe and Manuel to Lost Hills. One cousin arrived only last week. Relatives arranged his passage, paying the coyote the new rate of $12,000. A portion of his wages will be set aside each month to pay down the debt. “We send money home each month to our families left behind,” Lupe says. “Then some of the money we save goes to pay the coyote. It takes a lot of work to get ahead.” She and Manuel were able to buy their trailer several years ago. He spends much of his off hours fixing it up. He has painted the interior and put down two new patterns of linoleum, one to mark the living room and the other to mark the kitchen. The ceiling, all sheetrock and spackling, remains a work in progress.
Lupe excuses herself to prepare dinner. The bowls on her kitchen table are filled with grapes, berries, bananas, and red and green bell peppers. She washes two kinds of lettuce and cuts up fresh papaya to mix into a salad. I notice she keeps the water running for a long time. I ask her if she is concerned about wasting water, given the drought and the distance the water has traveled — 20 miles from a well in Wasco — and that the cost goes up the more they use. Already, they are paying $69 a month to the local utility district. She tells me the water comes out of the tap yellow and foul smelling, and she doesn’t trust it. The family takes showers in it, and she washes their laundry in it, and if she runs the water long enough, she will use it to wash her vegetables and cook her rice and potatoes. But she cannot remember the last time she or Manuel or their children drank it. “It comes out like pee,” says her 11-year-old daughter.
The water is filtered for arsenic, boron, and other salts, and the monthly tests show no violation of state or federal standards. This hasn’t convinced the people of Lost Hills, however. Lupe says no one in her family, and none of her friends living in the trailer park or on the other side of town, drinks the water that comes out of the pipe.
In the kitchen corner, cases of bottled water are stacked halfway up the wall. These are donations from other farmworker families, but they’re not for her and Manuel and the kids. Her brother-in-law was killed recently in a car crash along Highway 46. He was headed to the fields at the same time that another farmworker, drunk on beer, was coming home from the fields. The sober man died. What to give a grieving widow and her five children in Lost Hills but drinking water?
In the trailer next door, Lupe’s cousin Margarita lives with her husband, Selfo, and their three young children. They were farmers back in San Antonio, growing lettuce, cilantro, and radishes on a small plot of land. Then the drug cartels took over the countryside and planted poppies. One day, gunmen mowed down residents with AK-47s and threw grenades at the church filled with parishioners. “I saw horrible things,” Margarita says. “My husband would have been shot dead like the others, but he was lucky. He had left for the cornfields a few minutes before the killings.”
That was four years ago. They are still paying off the $27,000 debt to relatives who hired the coyote. The relatives try not to press them, but the arrangement still feels like a form of indentured servitude. Selfo works 50 hours a week as an irrigator. He makes $10.75 an hour. It comes out to $2,000 a month. The rent is $540. The food is more. The gas to and from the orchards costs him $80 a week. They spend $50 a month on bottled water. “There’s not much left over,” he says. “Our relatives have been patient.” He worries because there isn’t enough water now to properly irrigate the almonds, pistachios, and pomegranates. He wonders what agriculture will look like in western Kern in ten years.
“A bunch of trees are going dry,” he says. “The land is turning to salt. In one orchard, half the trees are dying.”
I had traveled the fields of Wonderful from one end of western Kern to the other, looking for dying trees. I had not seen any. “Because of a lack of water?” I ask. “The drought?”
“Yes. It’s happening.” The bosses won’t speak of it, he says. If I want to know more, I need to talk to Lupe’s brother, Gustavo, who has worked as an irrigator at Wonderful for five years and knows what the company is planning for the future.
Lupe and I walk to the far side of the trailer park to find Gustavo. He is a single man who rents a bedroom from other family members for $150 a month. Lupe knocks on his door, and he invites us in. The room smells of Vicks VapoRub. A cross of Jesus hangs from the bedpost. “Welcome to San Antonio del Norte,” he says. “San Antonio south doesn’t exist anymore.” He is a small, good-looking man with a patch of black hair under his lip. I ask him how the drought has affected Wonderful. He says his bosses have been instructing him to cut the water each irrigation. There are plans, crazy as it sounds, to take out 10,000 acres of almonds. When the rain returns, some of the ground will be replanted in pistachios, a tree that can better withstand drought. “Wonderful is getting smaller,” he says.
The next day, I drive to a spot a few miles beyond the trailer park where the county road dead-ends in a pomegranate orchard, or what used to be a pomegranate orchard before a Caterpillar came crashing through. Every last tree has been torn out of the ground. Thousands of Wonderful acres lay bare. The juice isn’t selling like it used to. The POM tanks, I’m told, are backed up with a three-year supply. The Federal Trade Commission found Wonderful guilty of false advertising and ordered the Resnicks to stop claiming that POM cured heart disease and erectile dysfunction. A balancing of books in an office in the city has decided that this orchard and others around it, covered by too little water, can go. Already, Wonderful has bulldozed 8,000 to 10,000 acres of pomegranate trees over the past few years to send more water to its nuts. Across the field, a heavy machine is stacking what’s left of the trees into giant mounds. Each mound is fed into an even bigger machine whose teeth pulverize the trees and make sawdust. I park the car and walk across the barren rows. Here and there my boots crunch down on the dried remains of pomegranates that look like small pieces of scat dropped by a coyote. Plastic drip-irrigation lines stick out of the ground at wrong angles. Tender sprouts poke out of the dry soil, and I bend down to feel their prickle. They’re baby tumbleweeds that have come home.
A giant pistachio nut flashes on the big screen. It cracks open and out pops the head shot of Stewart Resnick in a pistachio green tie. When he materializes onstage, he is wearing narrow black jeans, a black mock turtleneck, and a dark jacket. Damn, if he doesn’t look even younger and more fit than the last time I saw him eight years earlier. The Ninth Annual Wonderful Pistachio Conference at the Visalia Convention Center is an invitation-only affair, but I managed to sneak in and grab a seat.
He’s getting ready to introduce Lynda, the main speaker, but first he wants to address the federal government’s recent recall of Wonderful pistachios. Two strains of salmonella found in their pistachios had caused a multistate outbreak of illnesses. The FDA sent a warning letter, and Wonderful pledged to study the chlorine levels in the bathing tanks. As far as the company can tell, no active salmonella has ever traced back to the plant. Even so, Resnick says, he learned a lesson from the 2004 recall of 13 million pounds of the company’s salmonella-tainted almonds: Don’t fight the FDA. “When they get on their high horse, you don’t want to argue with them.”
He launches into a CFO’s riff on the pistachio market. Domestic sales are up 42 percent over the past eight years, but foreign sales have stalled. He blames Iran. Since international sanctions were lifted five years earlier, Iran has been crowding the market with its more buttery-tasting pistachios. The Iranians don’t irrigate their trees. They rely only on rain, which concentrates the flavorful oils. China, for one, prefers the Iranian pistachio. So do the Israelis, who go to the trouble of repackaging the nuts so it doesn’t appear that they’re consuming the product of an enemy. Iranian pistachios show up in Tel Aviv as nuts from Turkey.
What market share has been lost in Asia and the Middle East, the company is looking to get back in Mexico with its spicy Latin line of nuts. Thanks to Wonderful’s $15 million “Get Crackin’ ” campaign — the largest media buy in the history of snack nuts — pistachios now rank among the top ten bestselling salty snack items in the U.S. “We are no longer processing nuts,” he says. “We are creating foods.” Nothing keeps prices high like a monopoly. In case the growers are fearing the antitrust cops from the Department of Justice, they needn’t. For years, agriculture has been given a wide berth when it comes to monopolistic practices. The net return on the pistachio proves that Wonderful’s dominance in the market has benefited every grower in the room. The price for pistachios has climbed from $4.50 a pound to an unbelievable $5.25 a pound. It isn’t going down because he won’t let it go down.
Then he motions to Lynda, who’s standing off to the side of the light-dimmed stage. I’ve never seen her up close, never watched her in action. She seems a little nervous waiting in the wings. Six hundred pistachio growers in blue jeans isn’t her usual crowd. “We saved the best for last,” he says. “As you know, our philosophy at Wonderful is doing well by doing good. About five years ago, Lynda started our community development organization in Lost Hills, and the journey has been an amazing one. We produced a short documentary film. Every time I see it, I’m inspired and proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. We hope you enjoy Finding Lost Hills.”
The 11-minute film opens with a shot of swirling dust. This was Lost Hills before Lynda got involved. “I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I reached a moment in my life where I had to give back in a meaningful way,” she tells the camera. “When I started to realize the socioeconomic issues of the Central Valley, I decided to stop writing checks to other charities and bring my business acumen into the project. It took time to gain the respect of the people, and I was afraid. What if I failed? If you’re messing with people’s lives and it doesn’t work, that’s serious.… It had to work.” Tens of millions of dollars spent on philanthropy in Lost Hills wasn’t just good for the people, she discovered. It was good for the bottom line. Because the more you invested in your employees and their communities, the more productive they became. The film ends with the laughter of kids playing inside the giant sunburst at the center of the soccer field. “I did not name the town,” Lynda says. “But I couldn’t have picked a more cinematic name than Lost Hills. Because it’s so much fun to say that Lost Hills has been found.”
The room full of growers applauds. I applaud, too. Since it is also true that Lost Hills has belonged to the Resnicks for 30 years, one of us might have blurted out, “What took you so long to find it?” As the film runs to credits, I can see that one credit is missing. John Gibler, a freelance journalist, found Lost Hills a year before Lynda. In the summer of 2010, he’d spent several days documenting the deplorable conditions of the modern company town. His account appeared in the Earth Island Journal, a small environmental quarterly out of Berkeley. Somehow, it made its way to Lynda. “There is nothing here,” one of the townsfolk told Gibler. “This is a forgotten community. And you know why? Because it is a community of all Hispanics.”
The piece, I was told, had left Lynda embarrassed and fuming. It must have wounded all the more because she and Stewart thought of themselves as progressive Democrats. Over the years, they had donated large sums of money to political campaigns, and some of it went to Republicans who had pledged to prop up California agriculture. This was how a billionaire who needed more water did politics. At the core, though, the Resnicks were still moved by the duty of social justice, not just as traditional liberals but as secular Jews. Stewart would deny that Gibler’s reporting played a part in their philanthropy. “Look, I have no guilt. I’ve done no big wrong in my life that would cause me to have any. Well, maybe just a little guilt, but that’s Jewish.” He said the prod for all their giving in Lost Hills happened in Aspen, of all places. In the summer of 2009, he and Lynda attended a dinner lecture by Harvard political philosophy professor Michael Sandel about the moral obligations of wealth. “At the time we were handing out college scholarships in the valley, but Lynda decided it wasn’t nearly enough.” A year and a half after hearing Sandel — and in the wake of Gibler’s story — Lynda kicked into high gear their mission to save Lost Hills and several other farmworker towns where Wonderful operated its orchards and processing plants.
They’re now building an $80 million charter-school complex in Delano, just down the road from Cesar Chavez High. It looks like no other campus in the valley: a modern, minimalist two-story design that uses paneled wood and fabricated metal, wild colors, and terraced landscaping to create the feel of a high-tech mountain retreat. When all three phases are finished, 1,800 students will be attending the high school, middle school, elementary, and preschool. What Lynda seems to have in mind is a kind of utopian village set amid orchards, not unlike the utopias that were tried by the early dreamers of Southern California. Young men and women from Teach for America will do their two-year stints at the complex and live in village housing. The curriculum is being created by Noemi Donoso, the chief of education for the Chicago public schools before Lynda recruited her to Wonderful. “Lynda isn’t just writing checks,” Donoso told me. “She’s designing the school. She’s designing the curriculum.”
Lynda is also mapping out a farm-to-food program where students will grow fruits, vegetables, and grains on a plot of village land. A fully equipped teaching kitchen will turn the harvest into school lunches. Already, the high school is filled with hundreds of students bused in from farmworker towns that are among the poorest communities in the West. Among the graduating class are kids headed to Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Dartmouth, and the state and community college systems. When Lynda learned that half the students receiving thousands of dollars in company scholarships were dropping out of school, she wasn’t deterred. She’s now providing tutors and counselors in every region of California to boost the graduation rate.
For the bright kids who have no interest in a bachelor’s degree, she has designed the Wonderful Agriculture Prep Program to serve an additional 1,000 students. Selling the farm to migrant families has required Lynda to rebrand agriculture. No longer does it have to be a career that brings Mexicans to their hands and knees. Under her “rethink agriculture” program, the kids will be trained in plant science and irrigation technology, marketing and sales.
Now Lynda herself stands before us, a single light over her head. She is twinkling from earlobe and finger. Whether it’s the glint of a 15-carat, yellow canary diamond ring, a 25th wedding anniversary gift from Stewart, or one of the pomegranate-colored rubies she says are a girl’s best friend, it’s hard to tell from the back row. She gestures to the young students in the front row, the ones enrolled in the ag-prep classes, and asks them to stand up and take a bow. “They’re our future,” she says. She is determined that their lives will play out differently from the lives of their parents, but she means no disrespect by this. “It’s not easy to hear, but I’m not going to sugarcoat this,” she says. “In Kern County, one in two adults and almost one in five children are obese. And it’s even worse for the children in Kings County. Fifty-three percent of our employees are obese, and 12 percent of them have diabetes.”
The growers start to fidget. It’s not the fidget of boredom. There’s an unease about the room. This isn’t the Lynda posing for photos with Barbra Streisand. This is the Lynda who now endeavors to see farmhands as something more than workers. To the growers, it must feel like a jab in the stomach. They’re listening with their heads bent down. Do they sense the shaming about to come? She delivers it in classic Lynda style. “At Wonderful Health and Wellness, we’re educating our employees about this health crisis. At the plant, we built our gyms, and we have stretching and walking activities. Being Wonderful means more than growing, harvesting, and distributing the best of the best. It also means giving back.”
She walks off the stage with Stewart. He lingers in the crowd long enough to shake hands with a friend from Bel-Air who’s planting thousands of acres of pistachios in the worst ground of Tulare Lake. I walk up and reintroduce myself. His face is blank. I remind him of the time we spent together eight years earlier in his Sunset House. His face is still blank. His partner in the mandarins once told me that when Stewart is done with you, he’s done with you. He and the Resnicks had fought an ugly legal battle that tore their Cutie brand in two. The partner kept the Cutie name but only after paying the Resnicks tens of millions of dollars. Stewart and Lynda created a new brand, the Halo, from the same variety of mandarin. The Cutie and the Halo are now warring in the fields outside the Visalia Convention Center. Inside, a Wonderful media specialist sees that Resnick needs to be rescued. She deftly places her body between him and me. When I tell her my name, she whispers into his ear. “Ah,” he says, “so you’re the one who’s been snooping around.” She grabs him by the wrist, and they make a beeline for the convention hall door.
I catch Highway 99 in rare somnolence. The miles clock by not as road but as story. This is the route my grandfather, one of a legion of fruit tramps, took as he drifted from farm to farm in the 1920s picking crops. He saved up a down payment for a raisin ranch west of Fresno, where my father was born in the worst of the Great Depression. My grandfather lost the farm to vine hoppers is the story he told. My grandmother said it was his leftist politics that ate up that vineyard and the ones that followed. One way or the other, we got rid of our last farm a few years before I was born and moved to the Fresno suburbs.
The men and women who planted, irrigated, sprayed, and picked our crops were phantoms. On our trips to Disneyland, I must have blinkered my eyes heading down 99. I didn’t see the tumbleweeds along the roadside and the strip of parched earth that separated what remained of the desert from the perfect rows of irrigated agriculture. I didn’t see our creation, much less the figures bent under the canopies of vine that our creation counted on.
This was the same road that took me to Selma, the raisin capital of the world, to pack peaches and plums for Mel Girazian, my father’s old friend. I was 16, and his packing house was my first job, a baptism into the “money, money, money” world of the men who grew fruit and the men who sold it. The growers would stand in front of the cull line and never stop moaning about how much of their fruit got rejected by Girazian’s graders. I learned back then that our farmers thought the whole world was out to screw them.
Maybe this explains why the United Way could declare the valley one of the nation’s skinflints, a place where the wealthy farmers donated to the children’s hospital or Fresno State athletics but almost never to the communities filled with Mexicans where their crops grew. As a class of people, the farmers and real estate developers harbor a deep-down contempt for what they have built. They hide from the fact that it relies on the subjugation of peasants from Mexico they themselves have brought here. It exists as one thing they can almost rationalize out in the fields. It becomes something else as soon as they encounter their workers in another guise — as a fellow shopper at Costco or as the parents of the kid who goes to school with their kid. It becomes scorn because they can’t allow it to become pity or self-hatred.
I cross the Tulare County line heading south into Bakersfield, and there in front of me, for no eye to miss, stands the Wonderful Citrus complex with its four-story storage building designed in the shape of an almighty box of Halo mandarins. Conceived by Lynda, it cost one fortune to build and a second fortune to light up. I doubt the Resnicks have any idea of the fester that eats at this place, the shame piled on shame.
On this same stretch of 99, I once wrote a story about farmworkers who moonlighted as meth cookers to make ends meet. Bruce Springsteen turned it into a song on his Ghost of Tom Joad album. More than one ballad was about the valley, so he came to Fresno. The William Saroyan Theatre was packed that October 1996 night. Halfway through his solo performance, he interrupted his set to tell us a piggy bank had been set up by the exit to donate money to the “hardworking men and women in the fields.’’ When the concert was over, I took my wife and children backstage to meet him. As we sat down to chat, one of his assistants leaned over and whispered into his jewel-studded ear. Springsteen shook his head and smiled a thin, ironic smile. Then he turned and faced me. “Tell me,” he asked, though it wasn’t entirely a question. “What kind of place is this? Not a single penny was put in that piggy bank.”
I cut across Twisselman Road to the pipeline gliding along the aqueduct like a silver snake. I thwack both lines. They thwack back. Yes, they’re still delivering water. If I follow them north through Resnick pomegranates, I can find out where the water is coming from. If I follow them south into Resnick almonds, I can see where the water is going. Either way is a trespass. I steer toward the almonds, past a row of worker housing and a main gate. I enter an equipment yard where a Wonderful farmhand is standing next to a tractor. He doesn’t wave me off or give chase. He knows what I don’t know. This road ends abruptly at the rise of a second fence. Nowhere to turn, I turn back around and roll down my window. He’s smiling but speaks only Spanish. He doesn’t know what pipeline means. But if it’s the tube that I’m looking to follow, I must drive through the almond grove. A road will pick up and connect me to where the tube is going.
“Why is the tube here?”
“To carry water from someplace far away to another place far away,” he says.
I thank him and hurry down the dirt road through the almonds, eyeing the rearview mirror to see if a Resnick truck is following me. I’m driving too fast for the ruts in the road. My head keeps hitting the sunroof. A minute later, I reconnect with the pipeline and pursue its length for a football field. Each section of pipe is 40 feet long. I try to calculate how many hundreds of aluminum sections need to be linked seamlessly, or at least watertight, to cover the distance of a mile. Just ahead I can see the last section of pipe throwing a cascade of white water into a main canal belonging to the Lost Hills Water District. I hop out of the car.
Rain for Rent, the pipes say. If Resnick retains every drop, he might squeeze 25 acre-feet of water a day out of both pipes. He needs nearly 1,000 acre-feet a day for 165 days — the length of nut-growing season — to hang a good crop across his acres in western Kern. This last-ditch water in Lost Hills won’t make everything right. But there’s no denying his desperation. It is flowing to a place of dire thirst. For as far as I can see, the water in the canal runs inky through the orchards. Because the road ends here, there is no physical way to follow the canal’s flow. I take out my cellphone and swipe across Google Maps. The image of water moves on and on through miles of western Kern. This is one of the ways the Nut King and the Pomegranate Queen are defying the California drought. This is how the land of Wonderful is keeping alive its trees.
I call the manager of the Lost Hills Water District. He used to work for the Resnicks before Stewart put him in charge of the district. He’s a decent guy making $216,000 a year who doesn’t pretend that he isn’t beholden to Wonderful. As the head of a quasi-public agency, he knows he can’t completely blow off my questions. He doesn’t feign surprise when I tell him about the pipeline, but he dismisses it as a private matter between private parties. It takes my visiting the irrigation district office during a public meeting for him to cough up more details. Yes, the pipeline belongs to Resnick. It’s bringing water from the Dudley Ridge Water District in Kings County. He’s using it to irrigate his almonds and pistachios in Lost Hills.
I find a former partner of Resnick. He doesn’t know about the pipeline. What he knows is that Wonderful is buying up to 50,000 acre-feet of water a year in a series of hidden deals. The sellers include farmers in the Tulare Lake basin who are pumping so much water out of the ground that the levees protecting the town of Corcoran are sinking, not by inches but by feet. During the drought, the Boswell Company has drilled 52 holes into the old lake bottom — seven of these wells reaching a depth of 2,500 feet. To fix the subsidence, and keep the town dry in the next flood, residents and the state prison are having to pay $10 million in extra taxes. Altogether, Resnick has purchased 300,000 acre-feet of water from farmers and water districts — at a cost of $200 million — to cover his shortfall during the drought.
I meet up with the Wonderful field man who first tipped me off to the pipeline. He says he doesn’t feel sorry for Resnick. He got himself into this jam. “This is a company that runs its resources to the max,” he tells me. “When Resnick plants, he plants his trees wall to wall. That’s why he’s in trouble.”
“So he makes a deal for private water?”
“Yep. That’s why he built the pipeline. He needs every drop he can get.”
“Whose water is it?”
“Don’t you know? It’s John Vidovich. Billionaire comes to the rescue of billionaire.”
“But those two guys hate each other.”
“Not anymore. They’re drought’s best buddies.”
John Vidovich will tell you he’s the interloper who came over the other mountain, the Coast Range. His father grew grapes, cherries, and apricots in the Santa Clara Valley back when Stanford University still had a reason to be known as The Farm. He sold a chunk of land to the builders of Sunnyvale and decided he could develop the rest himself. His real estate empire became big enough to bring aboard each of his four children. By the time he died an old man on his tractor in the Cupertino Hills, where he had planted grapes again and was making wine, the transformation of his valley by the silicon chip was complete.
John, his oldest son, had served in the military as an intelligence officer and graduated from Santa Clara law school. He had none of his father’s sentimentality. He paved over the last orchard in the Santa Clara Valley with some apartments and then went looking for another valley where he might build his own empire. That’s how he came upon the San Joaquin. “There’s a lot of people who don’t like me,” he said after his father’s death. “But nobody didn’t like my dad.”
It was a curious statement but true. The son, 5 foot 6 and thin, with closely cropped blond hair and blue eyes that fix on you, isn’t concerned about ingratiating himself. In a timespan even shorter than Resnick’s, the 61-year-old Vidovich has bought up more than 100,000 acres of farmland scattered across the valley. He’s planting ground that no one has ever planted before. If you study his moves, you can see a method to the acres he is accumulating. Whether it’s Fresno or Kings or Tulare or Kern counties, he’s grabbing land where the groundwater is plenty or a river runs through it or the aqueduct spills its north-to-south flow. Don’t let his boots, blue jeans, and ball cap fool you, the old-timers say. He isn’t farming dirt. He’s farming water.
In the winter of 2010, Vidovich put up for sale half his draw of state water from the Dudley Ridge Water District. This amounted to 14,000 acre-feet. Everyone knew where it was going. It was going to houses. California had passed a law intended to stop the rising of new towns in the middle of nowhere. Developers now had to identify a source of water before a city or county would green light their projects. So off the developers went in search of farm water. Resnick himself had sold 5,000 acre-feet to a proposed new town in the farm fields of Madera. Vidovich didn’t have to wait long for a buyer to come calling. The Mojave Water Agency in the high desert needed a backup supply to serve its growing communities of Barstow and Apple Valley, Hesperia and Victorville. The agency did not balk at the price tag: $5,321 an acre-foot. Vidovich went home with $74 million in his pocket.
The sale got under the skin of valley farmers. It was true that agriculture had been selling state project water to cities for two decades. But those deals were one water district selling to another water district. This sale made headlines because it was engineered by one farmer — an outsider from the city — for his benefit only. To top it off, the “greedy SOB” (farmers rarely uttered Vidovich’s name) intended to keep his 7,000 acres of nut trees in Dudley Ridge. He only needed to find groundwater from another basin to replace the state aqueduct water he had just sold.
Vidovich went on a shopping spree. He bought 20,000 acres in the Tulare Lake basin — land that not even Boswell dared farm. He had no intention of farming it, either. But those 20,000 acres near the town of Pixley came with an endowment: a little spit of earth that produced endless amounts of groundwater. Never mind that this is one of the most over-drafted basins in California or that the land is sinking a half-foot a year. Vidovich digs 17 new wells, several to the depth of 1,400 feet, and pumps groundwater into ditches and canals that move the flow across miles of flat lake bed. Where does the water end up? Right there in the big canal of the Dudley Ridge Water District. He’s not only able to irrigate his nut trees with an imported flow of groundwater — 40,000 acre-feet in some years. He can mix this private water with his leftover state water and ship it to at least one stranded neighbor who will pay the price.
Who would have thought the two of them in cahoots? Not long before, Vidovich was trying to grab water from Resnick, not give it. He accused Resnick in 2008 of using various shell companies to monopolize control of the Kern Water Bank. A public resource had been privatized for the purpose of growing tens of thousands of acres of nuts, he charged. The matter was headed to court when Vidovich paid a visit to Resnick. His ego had gotten the best of him, he conceded. What if he dropped his lawsuit and the two of them worked together to solve their water problems? That’s all fine and good, Resnick replied, but what about the $1 million-plus he’d spent on lawyer’s fees? Vidovich wrote out a check for the full amount, then went looking for the water to prop up Resnick’s monopoly. He found it.
By car and foot, I trace the silver pipeline as it creeps north through Wonderful pomegranate orchards. One mile, two miles, three miles, four — it keeps going until it reaches another county and back to one of the main canals in the Dudley Ridge Water District. A pump is shooting water out of the canal and into the Rain for Rent pipes. The water is cold, clean, and salty, though not too salty for a desperate man. Or at least that’s the way Vidovich puts it when I finally reach him.
“This drought has brought Stewart to his knees. What can I say? We’ve had our battles in the past, and I don’t agree with everything he’s doing. But when your neighbor is going to lose his crop, you do what you can to help him.”
I tell Vidovich this sounds almost charitable. “How much water are we talking about?”
“I’d rather not get too specific. It isn’t a lot of water.”
“What’s the cost?”
“I’m not going to give you the numbers. Neighbors don’t tell on neighbors.”
Vidovich has more than one reason to be evasive. Farmers near Pixley already have sued him once for taking too much water out of their ground and moving it. The court settlement allows him to take the water to Dudley Ridge, but it can’t go outside Kings County. Yet the Resnick pipeline is doing just that.
“Resnick picks up the water in Dudley Ridge,” Vidovich says. “It’s his pipe, not mine. Where he takes the water is none of my business.”
“He’s taking it into his orchards in Kern. That breaks your agreement with those farmers. You can’t be exporting groundwater from one basin to another.”
“Whatever water he’s taking, it’s too little, too late.”
I try again to pin him down, but he’s a man who likes to think of himself as wily. So I ask about the big picture.
“Let’s call it what it is,” he says. “It’s gambling. Stewart gambled and won for many years. He gambled on the price of nuts going up, and he gambled on the water never going dry. He kept planting more and more trees. But he got too big. Too many pistachios. Too many almonds. Too many pomegranates. Like a lot of empires, it comes to an end.”
“So what about you?” I ask. “What kind of empire are you trying to build?”
“I’m here to show the farmer that ag’s footprint needs to get smaller.”
I chew on his answer for a second. The calculation and hubris inside it. The truth a mercenary has landed on. “I get it. You’re the one who leads the way on selling agricultural water to the cities. Fallowing the farm until the footprint gets smaller and smaller. Making hundreds of millions of dollars in the process?”
“It can’t be farmed like it was,” he says.
Six hundred and forty acres don’t look like 640 acres — a square mile — until they start ripping out the trees. The white flowers have set into buds, and the buds have become baby almonds covered in fuzz. Now it’s the Bobcat’s turn. The biggest farmer of them all is tearing out 10,000 acres because he doesn’t have enough water to cover the nuts to harvest. Since the middle of the drought, the price of almonds has dropped almost by half. In a region of wall-to-wall plantings, one of the walls is crashing down. The way the Bobcat goes full steam, it takes but a few seconds of splendid violence to uproot a tree. The farmer isn’t here to smell the cracking open of wood, the ripping open of warm secret earth. No farmer ever is. The sentimental ones stay away. The bloodless ones stay away. On the day the trees fall quietly upon the orchard floor, no one is here but the Mexican on his tractor.
Then the autumn of 2016 arrives with the strangeness of clouds. The rain starts to fall, big, fat, slashing drops that feel like electricity on my open palm. It hardly ceases for the next five months. Drought turning to flood — it is the story of California. The wildfires can’t be far behind. The winter goes down as one of the wettest in recorded history. So much snowmelt comes down the mountain that it nearly takes out Oroville Dam. The dam ends up holding and the levees, too. All the new water pours into the delta, and what doesn’t go out to sea fills up the aqueduct again. The State Water Project, for the first time in six years, delivers surplus flows. The tule fog sets down again in the valley. The great drought is officially over. California is free to return to its amnesia.
Wonderful has enough water to irrigate its orchards in Lost Hills and park tens of thousands of acre-feet in the water bank. The Resnicks are growing again. From the east side of Tulare County to the west side of Fresno County, they’re planting more nuts and Halos. Of the 22,000 acres they ripped during the drought, 18,000 acres are being replanted in pistachios. Along a fan of the Kings River, a raisin farmer in Selma shows me his well that’s coughing up sand. He points to the young almond trees that envelop his 20 acres like a siege. “Resnick,” he says. “My old well can’t compete with his new wells. I’ll have to go deeper if I can.”
On Sleepy Farm Road outside Paso Robles, the Resnicks were looking to add 380 acres of wine grapes and build a small reservoir with groundwater. One of the neighbors watched in disgust as the bulldozers tore into the hillside. Thousands of California oaks were felled. Only after the media were alerted did Stewart and Lynda claim to have discovered the clear-cutting. Up and down the Central Coast, restaurants are boycotting their wines.
“When we learned of the terrible situation, not to mention our poor reputation within the community, we were ashamed and are sorry,” their official statement reads. “We were asleep at the wheel. We are horrified by the lack of regard for both neighbor and nature, and we hope that the community will accept our deepest and most sincere apologies and find it in their hearts to forgive us.” They pledge to donate the 380 acres to charity.
I write an email to the Wonderful PR team. A day later, I get a call from Mr. Resnick. It’s been more than a year since he gave me the cold shoulder at the pistachio conference. He tells me to meet him in Lost Hills.
He’s dressed Italian chin to foot — Loro Piana jeans and Hogan tennis shoes. “I would have worn my Levi’s,” he says, “but Lynda’s here, and she thinks I dress like a bum.” We’re standing in the sun outside the plant’s corporate office, a building whose clean lines and retro furniture wear the imprint of Lynda, too. He’s surrounded by a half-dozen of his top men and women, the same ones who’ve been artfully dodging me for the past three years. They greet me with smiles and handshakes. A van pulls up to the curb, and the door slides open. Resnick has saved the front seat for me. “You’re the one who needs to see.”
We pull out of the parking lot, past the palm trees and roses, and head up the thin ribbon of Highway 33 into the dust-swirling tunnel of nuts and fruits. The big man with the goatee behind the wheel is Bernard Puget, a Basque sheepman’s son who oversees these orchards. As we hop down from the van to inspect the pomegranates on the eve of harvest, Resnick motions to Bernard’s belly. In his best Borscht Belt nasal, he takes a jab. “Bernard, what’s happened? You get exempted from the company’s wellness program?” Bernard has actually lost a few pounds. “I’m down, Stewart,” he protests. “I’m down.”
The leathery skin on the fruit has turned a nice orange-red. Each bush is saddled with more than a hundred pomegranates the size of softballs and baseballs. The softballs will go to market as whole fruit or as seed pods in a package. The baseballs will be crushed into juice.
“These are loaded,” Resnick says. “It sure looks heavier than last year.”
Bernard smiles and nods to the others. “He’s fishing right now. He thinks I’ve understated the crop.”
Resnick grabs at a pomegranate that might win a blue ribbon at the fair and tries to twist it free. No luck. He yanks and pulls, and it finally comes off, throwing him a foot backward. “You sure this isn’t 18 tons an acre?” he says, goading.
“It’s loaded,” Bernard says. “But for every good-sized fruit, there’s a bunch that never sized up.” Resnick is giving him one of his looks. “What? You don’t believe me?”
“No, I believe you,” Resnick says. “It’s going to be what it’s going to be. We’ll still make money.”
We pile back into the van and head up the road. Then it hits me. This isn’t any road. This is Twisselman. Bernard, hard to believe, is driving straight toward the aqueduct. The knoll begins to rise. I gaze out the passenger window, looking for the glint of the pipeline. It should be right here, but I don’t see it. It’s gone. I look back at Resnick. He’s oblivious, or so it seems. Bernard’s eyes are fixed straight ahead. He’s trying to play dumb, but I can see the sliest of grins peeking out from his mustache and goatee.
“It’s gone,” I say. “How come?”
“We don’t need it anymore,” he whispers.
Back at the plant, Lynda is meeting with Wonderful doctors, nurses, and farmworkers. They’re coming up with ideas that might lead to an even bigger drop in the number of employees with diabetes. Stewart tries to interrupt, but he’s not the boss in this room. “Thirty-five percent of our pre-diabetic population has gone into the healthy range,” she tells the team. “They’re no longer in danger. Now they have to keep that up, right? So how do we do even better next year?”
He guides me to the café, and we grab our lunches from the buffet. He unfolds a $20 bill from a wad he keeps inside a bent paper clip, and we take a seat in the far corner. For a silent minute, we dig into our bowls. I feel his gaze going past me, his voice turning oddly sentimental.
“When I look around here at what we’ve built and then look back at my life in New Jersey, I think, ‘How did it happen?’ For one man and woman to build something like this would be almost impossible today.”
One hundred and twenty thousand acres of nuts and fruits and berries in California and still counting. They had survived the drought. Did it teach him any lessons?
“Lessons?” he says, sounding perplexed. “Who knows when a five-year drought is coming? Who anticipates that you can’t fill a water bank for six or seven years?”
“Come on,” I say. “It’s California.”
“Sure. But you take some risks in business. And when you’ve been as lucky as we’ve been, you start to think you can ride out drought, too.”
He did learn one lesson. You can plant only so many acres on ground that has no groundwater. From now on, they’ll grow on land that offers a double protection against drought. “State or federal water isn’t enough. We want good groundwater, too.”
“You mean no more pipelines carrying water in the dead of night?”
“The pipeline….” He stammers a bit. “Look, I delegate a lot of things, obviously. I’m sure I knew we had a pipeline in there. But that’s not an issue I deal with.”
“How much water was it bringing in?”
“I don’t even know what it was, to be honest with you.”
I take a last bite of cauliflower rice. I know there’s a more forceful way to ask the question, but to what end? This was the same distance — geographic, psychic — that allowed him and Lynda to clear-cut the oaks and to kill the independent pistachio commission, to grab a water bank that belonged to the state and to pretend for 30 years that Lost Hills wasn’t a place of dire need. It was the same distance that allows them to 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.
“I know I can’t do this forever,” he says. “I’m 80 years old. Problem is, I feel like I’m 50. I feel too good to give any of it up.”
His oldest son is retired in Seattle. His second son is a psychiatrist. His daughter, who used to own a restaurant, is busy raising her one son. Lynda has a son who works as a musician and a son who suffered a birth trauma and lives in a care facility. The four grandchildren have visited the orchards once or twice. Not a single one of them wants any part of Wonderful.
“Who gets the keys to the kingdom?”
“I don’t know. All I know is I don’t want to split it up or sell it in some leveraged buyout. I want to know that what we built will continue into the future.”
He takes a look at his watch. He’s got another meeting to attend. As he walks away, I notice his $400 sneakers. They’re dusty with San Joaquin dirt.
I retrace the road I came in on and cross old Tulare Lake, which rose by flood and sank by drought. Four tribes of Yokut lived along its shores. On the shallow bottom, the women fished mussels and clams with their toes. The nets of the Chinese during the Gold Rush caught terrapin that was served as turtle soup in the fanciest restaurants of San Francisco. Then the men of cotton, driven out of the South by the boll weevil, put the five rivers into canals and dried up the lake. They made a new plantation here. Before he died at age 86, J.G. Boswell told me what a fool he and his forebears had been for wasting water, sun, and soil in California to raise fiber, of all things. Cotton still grows on the lake bottom, but less and less each year. Thousands of acres of pistachio trees now await the next flood. Boswell pumps reach 2,500 feet into the earth looking for water to grow crops, looking for water to sell. For now, they’re selling to farmers like Resnick who can pay the price.
The extraction of water beneath the lake bottom won’t last forever. The state of California has adopted a new law that finally regulates the pumping. When it goes into full effect, in a decade or two, more than a million acres of cropland across the valley will have to be retired. By then, Wonderful, if it still exists, will be a portfolio run by men even farther away than Beverly Hills. The water will be stripped from the land and sold to developers of new towns both here and over the mountain. In my lifetime alone, California has gone from 13 million people to 40 million people. Nothing will stop the houses. The Wheat King begets the Cattle King, and the Cattle King begets the Cotton King, and the Cotton King begets the Nut King and Pomegranate Queen. Like the waters of the lake, the indent of the Resnicks will recede from the land, too. The Yokut had a saying that when the farmer drained the last drops of snowmelt from Tulare Lake, the water would return. It would return as tule fog to remind the white man of his theft. The fog is our history.