A journey through Oligarch Valley
Editor's note: This article first appeared in the print edition of NSFWCORP, now part of Pando. It appears online here for the first time.
This stretch of Interstate-5 runs in an absolute straight line for 250 coma-inducing miles through an endless expanse of farmland, orchards, arid dirt, howling winds, spooky rural desolation and clouds of airborne fecal matter. It’s the main road connecting Northern and Southern California and the trick to navigating it is to set your cruise control to as close to 100 mph as you dare and gun it, eyes peeled for the sleek black CHP cruisers that prowl the highway.
The 5 bisects the Central Valley, a giant tub 450 miles long and 50 miles wide in the heart of California. It is not a place in which motorists dawdle or on which any sane human mind dwells—and that suits the people who own it just fine. The area along the 5 from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles County is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the United States. The last thing they need is people realizing this and asking themselves, “Hmmm, I wonder who owns all this cow shit?”
The answer to that unasked question is this: a small group of billionaires who can trace their roots back to the landholdings of America’s most notorious criminal visionaries and syndicates. They are the heirs and descendants of such old-timey tycoons and firms as the Union Pacific Railroad, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, Los Angeles Times owner and super-speculator Harry Chandler, obsessive-compulsive cattle baron Henry Miller… the list goes on and on.
“You could call it Oligarch Valley,” our fictional motorist might joke. And he’d be right.
The same small clique of families still owns the place and runs it like their very own banana republic. They commute in on private jets to attend to the business of the day: buying politicians, taking over entire towns, importing immigrant slave labor, organizing astroturf campaigns, picking welfare checks, polluting and generally plundering with impunity… and then off they hop again before the smell of shit gets too strong.
But for all the wealth the region generates for its small low-key aristocracy, Oligarch Valley exists in a perpetual state of third-world impoverishment. It rates as one of the poorest areas in the United States, with a disproportionate share of illiteracy, teen pregnancies, birth defects, agri-industrial pollution and rape.
And the flies… the fucking flies.
My interest in Oligarch Valley developed purely by accident: I stumbled onto it blindly after moving into a McTractHome in the subprime desert suburb of Victorville in 2009. I came to Victorville to see what life was like in a post-bubble subprime suburb and discovered that out here in the arid west, massive real estate development and industrial farming were almost always linked.
At the time, California was in the grip of a minor drought and the local water agency was forced to replenish its dwindling supply by buying $73 million worth of water from a Central Valley family farm. It was enough to sustain up to 30,000 families for an entire year or to fill a kiddie pool the size of San Francisco. And all of it would be shipped down to Victorville, halfway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, down from the Bay Area through hundreds of miles of California’s public aqueducts.
The sale piqued my curiosity. Who the hell was this farmer, and how did he have so much water to spare during a drought?
Most of all it seemed strange that a city would buy water from a private entity. Water, according to California’s constitution, is a public resource. So why was the state buying it the way it would order printer paper, cookies and office supplies from OfficeMax? That’s the kind of thing Bechtel would do in Bolivia, not here in sunny, liberal tax-andregulate California. But the more I learned, the more I realized that Bolivia and California might not be so far apart.
The “farmer” selling the water was a private agriculture and real estate development company called Sandridge Partners. It was based in the Silicon Valley and owned by the Vidovich family. The Vidoviches own cotton fields and almond orchards in the Central Valley, and run a small real estate empire in the Bay Area, complete with office complexes, condominiums, mobile-home parks, hotels and shopping centers. The family’s current elder couple—John and Lydia—live in the upscale suburb of Los Altos Hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. Their house is valued at $11.4 million—remarkable even for the nation’s eighth most expensive zip code. Clearly the Vidoviches aren’t poor, struggling farmers, and yet the federal government has seen fit to award them $11 million in subsidies since 1995, making them one of the biggest welfare-junkie farmers in California.
Still, the Vidoviches were just bit players in California’s public water jamboree. A handful of the largest farmers in Oligarch Valley had pulled off a scheme that privatized California’s water supply and put themselves at the controls of the state’s water market. They used some of that water to fuel real estate developments and some they just sold back to California at ridiculously marked up prices, siphoning millions from state and municipal governments during a severe depression.
Once I had a taste of that story, I knew I needed to get to know Oligarch Valley better. I needed to really get my fingernails dirty and my nostrils filled with the stench of cow dung to figure out who these fuckers were. I put in a call to NSFWCORP HQ: I needed a rental car with windows that close tight, a full tank of gas and a dozen or so clean pages in the magazine. In hindsight I should have asked for some bug spray.