The “Wonderful” Empire: How Land, Nuts and Water Made America’s Biggest Farmer

The “Wonderful” Empire: How Land, Nuts and Water Made America’s Biggest Farmer

Stewart Resnick, America’s biggest farmer, continues to expand. But with California’s limited water resources, nature might just push back.

In the Central Valley, the sunshine is plentiful but the moisture is not.

Stewart Resnick is the biggest farmer in the United States and the overwhelming majority of his crops are rooted in the fertile lands of California, where the sunshine is plentiful, but the moisture is not.

Along with his marketing guru wife, Lynda, the billionaire Resnick couple are global tree nut magnates who have moved food trends towards healthier snacks. They’ve also become recognized throughout the Golden State as philanthropic benefactors and well-connected members of the ruling class. In short, the Resnicks are walking definition of a power couple, more at home in their opulent Beverley Hills mansion than the dusty farm fields of the Central Valley. As we have written about before, the Resnicks have a long stream of questionable business deals focused on acquiring freshwater access and rights in a state where water is both a limiting factor and prized possession.

Lots of land, lots of water, and the water use is nuts.

Stewart Resnick is more of an accidental agriculturalist who had previously made it big through a cleaning company, an alarm business and even as co-owner (with Lynda) of the Franklin Mint. The transition to farming came after he bought a small slice of Central Valley citrus groves in the late 1970s. Thousands more acres were added as drought led to cut-rate prices in dry Kern County, a part of southern Central Valley where oranges bloom next to oilfields.

Today, the Resnicks’ Wonderful Company is an impressive conglomerate that stands as the world’s largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios, in addition to holding a bevy of other successful brands, like Halos mandarin oranges, POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, bottled water brand, FIJI, and the flower delivery company, Telaflora. At the bottom of all these products is what flows up to the branches, fruit and into the bottles; namely, water. Water isn’t just important to the Resnicks’ agricultural domain, it’s essential in immense volumes and in decent enough quality. The availability of water for farming is already a primary concern and with so much agricultural land, a lot is at stake to keep irrigation water flowing. In an authoritative recounting of this empire entitled, “A Kingdom from Dust,” which appeared in February’s edition of The California Sunday Magazine, author Mark Arax describes Stewart Resnick’s (aka, the “Nut King”) vast landholdings and its relationship to water.

“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.”

Let that wash over you. As the biggest farmers with the most irrigated land, the Resnicks use more water than anyone else, even when all those urban Los Angeles users showering in the morning and watering their lawns, maybe surreptitiously, at night. When Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones took an exhaustive look at the Resnicks’ and their water use in his excellent article, the best estimates for all the Wonderful Company’s California-grown crops – from almonds to pomegranates – tallied up to more water than all LA home use combined. For more detail, see the chart below, courtesy of Mother Jones. (Note that the 400,000 acre-feet estimate equates to 493 million cubic meters and is in the ballpark of 450 million cubic meters.)

Chart courtesy Mother Jones (Josh Harkinson, author).

Time For a Smaller Footprint

The Resnicks and Wonderful are still riding high, especially after the substantial storms in the preceding wet season broke the California drought, filled rivers and reservoirs and recharged aquifers, stocking the Kern County Water Bank. The Resnicks not only managed to get through the drought, but also had bountiful seasons, showing that their efforts to commandeer water have worked.

The question is, how long will it last? As the effects of climate change in California deepens, climate scientists expect more heat and less water in already hot and dry areas like the Central Valley, thus water acquisition will become even more limited and water more valuable. A recent review of the climate science on California’s agriculture found that the Valley’s perennial crops, such tree nuts, could experience drastically reduced yields and acreage due in part to higher average temperatures. Running a business so dependent on water, particularly one that grows perennial tree crops and requires irrigation, not rain, how can the Resnicks’ Wonderful expansion continue?

Another intrepid California billionaire named John Vidovich, scion of the Vidovich fortune, has a different path forward for the Golden State, one that he’s established in his own land and water grabs. After years of observing, fighting and working with the Resnicks, Vidovich has a unique perspective on Stewart Resnick and the acres of crops that have made Wonderful a success, as he tells Arax:

“‘Let’s call it what it is,’ [Vidovich] 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.”

If it wasn’t apparent to Resnick and other large agricultural water users, the plentiful, reliable water counted on in the past is likely coming to an end, no matter how much water is stored underground. Too much and not enough of anything never works out well, especially for the water essential to us all, and the food that we all need. Time to change.

You can read more about the Resnick’s other major water exploitation – Fiji Water – here and here.

Originally published at GRACE’s former blog Ecocentric by Kai Olson-Sawyer on 03.27.2018. Image: Almond grove by Alexrc, Adobe. Chart courtesy of Mother Jones.