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J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire
By Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman
Public Affairs, 560 pp., $30.00

The King of California

J.G. Boswell may be the most powerful man you've never heard of. The biggest farmer (a quaint misnomer, given the scale of his business) in America, this octogenarian billionaire wields influence stretching from his vast acreage in California all the way to the steps of Capitol Hill. Boswell's wealth and power are matched by a legendary penchant for secrecy, so it's no minor feat that seasoned newspapermen Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman finally got him to talk. That, along with exhaustive research, produced this story of the Boswell fortune: how Boswell and his uncle, company founder Lieutenant Colonel J.G. Boswell, applied a Machiavellian formula of science, politics, and business acumen to their belief that nature exists to serve man -- specifically, to grow cotton.

It took more than green thumbs for the Boswells and a few other mega-farmers to turn much of the arid San Joaquin Valley into an agricultural Valhalla over the last century. As the authors write, "No landscape in America -- not the cotton South, not the grain belt of the Midwest, not the cane fields of Florida -- [has] been more altered by the hand of agriculture." The key was controlling the flow of water, and among other dubious triumphs, the Boswells managed to drain Tulare Lake -- once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi -- as well as use their influence at all levels of government to tenaciously defend their precious sources of irrigation.

The results were bumper crops of cotton and an environmental disaster. Birds died from botulism flourishing in the stagnant lake and from high levels of selenium in drainage ponds, while their eggs often washed away or shriveled in the sun, depending on when water was pumped for irrigation. The company also dispensed millions of pounds of pesticides and fertilizers, chemicals that ran off into local waterways, becoming prime culprits in recurring fish kills. Yet, as Arax and Wartzman detail, the same political power that allowed Boswell to influence policy-making also helped him escape relatively unscathed when his company was taken to task for these and other environmental transgressions; often, it seemed as though the company's intimidating presence alone was enough to scuttle investigations.

As its page count suggests, The King of California examines more than just Boswell's environmental track record, or even the history of his company. With a narrative that displays, by turns, epic sweep and painstaking detail, it also tells the long and colorful tale of the Valley in which the Boswells carved out their fortunes, a story inextricably intertwined with their own.
-- Anthony Jaffe

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OnEarth. Winter 2004
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council