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The King of California; J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire, by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman; Public Affairs; 560 pages The small family farm has long been a cornerstone of American life, from books like Little House on the Prairie to the writings of the Founding Fathers. Gentleman farmer Thomas Jefferson, for one, believed that “small landholders are the most precious part of the state.” But the days of the small farmer are long gone � big business took over U.S. agriculture decades ago. Few farmers illustrate this change in the industry better than the Boswell clan, which has assembled a vast 200,000-acre estate in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The operation, the largest producer of cotton in the world, has been run for the past half-century by James Griffin “J.G.” Boswell II, now 76. In The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire, Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman attempt to chronicle the history of American agriculture through a biography of Boswell. Both authors work for the Los Angeles Times, Wartzman as a business editor and Arax as a reporter. Boswell rarely speaks to the media, making it even more of a shame that, despite their unprecedented access, the writers let him off the hook so easily. While they criticize his farm’s practices, they don’t pin responsibility on Boswell himself. That said, the thoroughness of Arax and Wartzman’s research makes their book a useful history of the larger subject � American agriculture in the twentieth century. The story begins with Boswell’s uncle, the original James Griffin Boswell. “The Colonel,” as he was known, left his native Georgia in the early twenties, driven away by the boll weevils that devastated Southern cotton fields. He arrived in the San Joaquin Valley in 1923. Farmers there drained Lake Tulare, once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi, in order to farm its rich bottomland. The Colonel knew more about the Army than cotton, so he recruited his little brother, Bill, to come west and run the farm. On his death in 1952, the childless Colonel left his operation to Bill’s son, James Griffin II. The King of California is full of colorful anecdotes about the Boswells that turn what could have been a dry tome into a fun read. But the book’s real value lies in the historical context that Arax and Wartzman provide. Whole chapters are devoted to the Gold Rush-era extermination of the Native Americans who once lived around Lake Tulare; the environmental damage caused by the lake’s drainage and the Boswells’ farming techniques; and the battle over unionizing farmworkers. The authors’ explanation of the federal Farm Bill, and the role of Boswell lobbyists in its evolution, is especially illuminating. Congress intended the original Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 to be a temporary measure to help farmers survive the Depression. But like so many government programs, the laws have been all but impossible to repeal. The government continues to buy surplus crops and pay farmers to plow under their fields, giving millions of dollars to huge operators like Boswell. J.G. claims he has returned all of his crop subsidy checks. But by investigating government records, the authors discover that only one check, for $50,000, was ever sent back. They also find that in 1970 Boswell received $4.4 million � the single biggest payout in the country during a year when the average payment to small farmers was just $63. In this instance and others, the authors’ research enables them to confront J.G.’s blatant and often fantastical memory “mistakes.” But because Arax and Wartzman refrain from direct criticism, the reader all too often has to figure out the truth about Boswell for herself. As a history of the Golden State and modern agriculture, The King of California is a clear success. As a biography, however, it falls short of the mark. Nonetheless, the authors achieve their initial goal: getting one of the world’s biggest farmers to speak on the record about his operations. If only they could have gotten him to be honest. Smith is an assistant editor at Corporate Counsel.

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