Cotton Colossus


J.G. Boswell and the Making

of a Secret American Empire

By Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman

Public Affairs -- 558 pages -- $30

That California is a top producer of cotton -- along with prunes, nuts, and movie star pols -- is a surprising bit of trivia relished by natives. Yet few know how the Golden State got to be second only to Texas in cotton. It's a tangled story, and to comb it all out, Los Angeles Times reporter Mark Arax and business editor Rick Wartzman have written The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire.

As business history, it's a worthy topic. The title's subject is the little-known James Griffin Boswell II. Born 80 years ago in Georgia, Boswell still runs the cotton-growing and -ginning complex his uncle started in 1921. The founder nursed the outfit through hard times -- with much help from the New Deal and, later, from connections from his second marriage, to a daughter of Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler. Jim Boswell, a few years out of the Army and Stanford University, took over in 1952. He expanded hugely, amassing 200,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley plus more land in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and even Australia. If agribusiness has a face, it is Boswell's.

Since the private company is centered in California, its story inevitably revolves around water. The authors tell how cotton fields came to rise where the vast Tulare Lake once spread out across 800 square miles. Most of that water is now dammed, channeled, and often mixed with fertilizers in irrigation ditches. The effect on wildlife was devastating. To dominate this realm -- in fact, to become America's largest farmer -- Boswell engaged in a decades-long defense of the company's violation of the original 160-acre limit on farms eligible for U.S. Bureau of Reclamation water.

All of which might seem to make Boswell a worthy target for demonization. But The King of California is no antibusiness harangue. It weighs fairly the company's successes, notably its innovative application of technology to the planting, picking, and packing of cotton. Farming Boswell-style seems as precise as nanocircuitry. Yet readers may find that for all of its details on Boswell's empire and on the social and environmental havoc it has wreaked, the book fails to deliver a sharp, final judgment on him and his business. The authors tell far more about Boswell than anyone before but avoid summing it all up. Exhaustively researched, the book may leave readers unsure whether Boswell is in fact a king or a knave.

By Robert Barker

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