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Country's Wealthiest Farmer Stewart Resnick Makes 'A Kingdom From Dust' During Drought

Trent Davis Bailey / The California Sunday Magazine

An irrigation ditch that runs parallel to a Wonderful Company pomegranate orchard.

Trent Davis Bailey / The California Sunday Magazine

The wealthiest farmer in the United States lives and farms in California. Stewart Resnick, 81, owner of The Wonderful Company and 65 percent of the nation's pistachios, has had a distinct and sweeping effect on agriculture in the Golden State.

Throughout his life, he’s rarely given interviews. But journalist Mark Arax was able to get unprecedented access to the Resnick family, and has published part of his work in an article titled “A Kingdom From Dust” in the latest California Sunday Magazine.

Arax joined Insight by phone from Fresno to discuss what he’s learned about supersize farming, the migrant workers of Kern County’s Lost Hills and what it means for the rest of the state when one bends nature to their will.

Interview Highlights

On getting access to Stewart Resnick

It was persistence, really. When I was a journalist at the LA Times, all the way back in 2003, I heard about Resnick acquiring a water bank, kind of an underground lake that had been jump-started by the state with public funds of about $74 million. And he had acquired this thing in kind of these secret meetings in Monterey, and that water allowed him to plant millions of trees — pistachios, almonds, pomegranates, citrus. And no one had ever written about him. So I did a piece on that, and each time I called the company for comment they simply hung up the phone. They had no PR office or anything back then. And then I just kind of kept on pursuing and trying to understand his empire. It was very reminiscent in some ways of the early wheat barons in the 1870s who had these mansions on Knob Hill in San Francisco and then from afar farmed land in the middle of California. So, really, it wasn’t like he gave me access instantly or at once. It was just me over 15 years kind of pulling things out.

On the reluctance of wealthy farmers to give interviews

At one point he told me, “There’s no upside to talking. When you’re making the kind of money we’re making, why talk about it?” And that’s kind of an ethos of the big farmer here in the San Joaquin Valley. There was a cotton giant named of J. G. Boswell, and their family had come out of the South and came to the middle of California in the 1920s, and their family motto was, “As long as a whale never surfaces, it is never harpooned.” And even the Gallo story, it took a court case and many, many years to tell their stories. So really the farmers don’t like talking about their narrative much. So that’s kind of what I’ve been following here for the last 15-20 years.

On how Resnick built his agricultural empire

It's privately held. It's he and his wife, and I think they're worth close to $5 billion now. When I first wrote about him, it was about $900 million, so the almonds and pistachios and halo mandarins and pomegranates had been very good to them. They also owned Fiji Water and much of the story tells about how he built — you know, he was the son of a bar owner in New Jersey, came West to California in the 1950s, went to UCLA Law School and by the time he graduated, he was well on his way to being a millionaire. So the story really tracks how he built this thing and then ultimately in the late '70s, as a hedge against inflation, he comes up and over the mountain from Beverly Hills and starts buying land in Lost Hills in the southern end of Kern County and then just starts acquiring these huge chunks until he now owns 180,000 acres of California. And he's farming about 121,000 of those acres, and he's using more water than any single person in the state. Year in and year out, he's using as much water — or close to as much water — as the city of LA is using. 

On how The Wonderful Company farms kept expanding despite a hard-hitting drought 

The cropping pattern certainly got more extensive. When I went out there, one of my main questions was, we were in the second or third year of the drought. The State Water Project, which serves him in western Kern County, had dried up. They weren't delivering — they were hardly delivering anything. In fact, one year didn't deliver anything at all. The water bank had dried up. They had taken so much water out to make up for the shortfall in state water — that was dried up. The peculiar thing about western Kern is it has no groundwater. The groundwater is deep, and it's lousy, and polluted, and so that is not something you can rely on. And so really he was squeezed down to almost nothing, and yet when I was driving these fields, kind of a city of trees, millions and millions of trees in the middle of nowhere, a record crop was sitting on them. And so I couldn't quite figure that out. And that becomes the mystery that tugs the reader through these 20,000 words of magazine piece, and the same one, the same mystery that I use in my book and I'm working on — something has to give here — what is it? And that's the mystery.

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