Pando

A Journey Through Oligarch Valley: End of the Road

By Yasha Levine , written on September 10, 2015

From The Oligarch Valley Desk

Oligarch Valley is not a pleasant place to visit.

There are no quaint family farms with cute red barns and cozy cottages. No happy family farmers lovingly working their land. It’s just warehouses, grain silos, trucks, irrigation ditches. It’s hot, dry and dusty. And the same oppressive industrial farmscape surrounds you where ever you go. The same smell of shit, the same miserable cows crammed into the same shit-smeared feedlots. And all of it is owned by the same small group of people, mile after mile after mile. After a while the sights vanish, and you’re faced with a kind of sensory deprivation.

One day out here is enough to get you down. A few days can turn into full-blown depression.

After five days, I’ve had enough. I turn my rental around and head back home down I-5 to LA in a stupor, a feeling of utter hopelessness.

Dropping down into the San Fernando Valley, I catch the tail end of a DemocracyNow show on the radio. Amy Goodman is discussing Jeremy Scahill’s new movie “Dirty Wars,” drones and targeted assassinations in Afghanistan—the usual big important issues of our day and age. I’m struck by the fact that American journalists know more about the politics of a faraway alien country like Afghanistan than they do about California’s Oligarch Valley, the power center of the biggest and wealthiest state in the union.

Does anyone outside the oligarchs care about this place? Maybe they do: every so often along the I-5 I see a rough-and-ready sign or billboard posted along the highway asking for help beating back the Big Government’s attack on poor defenseless farmers.

Here’s one: 

Water = Jobs 

Keep Water Flowing to Farms & Cities

Tell Feinstein pass Water Bill HR 1837 

Or another: 

CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL 

Or a variation on the one above: 

NEW DUST BOWL

Created by Congress 

And another:

Farm Water Cut = Higher Food Cost!
50% cut 2010
60% cut 2009
65% cut 2008 

At the bottom of some of the signs you’ll find urls of a few different plucky organizations, just trying to make Oligarch Valley more livable for the regular folks: WaterForAll.com, FamiliesProtectingTheValley.com… just grassroots movements of farm owners and farm workers uniting to fight the government and save their livelihood.

Nah, I’m fucking with you. Or at least someone is.

Take WaterForAll.com, part of the Latino Water Coalition, an astroturf group created by farming interests to give a populist face to a purely corporate cause. The group has been put on ice, but was very active back in 2009 when it paid poor Latino migrant workers to take part in a series of “protests,” including a five-day “March for Water” staged for Fox News cameras, to make it seem like the people of California are dying of thirst at the hands of Big Government. The groups even drew Sean Hannity out to Oligarch Valley to denounce President Obama for deploying his Greenshirt shocktroops against hardworking American farmers in order to protect some uppity endangered fish. Hannity demanded that Obama “turn this water on now.” 

“The water” was something called the Peripheral Canal, a massive multibillion dollar aqueduct project that would dip another big pipe into Bay Area’s water and express ship it down to Oligarch Valley.

Much of Oligarch Valley's water comes from the San Francisco Delta and they want more. By some estimates, at least $5 billion worth of water flows through the Delta every year. Much of it is captured for local consumption and shipped down south by aqueduct, but about half is allowed to flow out into San Francisco Bay unexploited. In water lingo, it’s called “environmental outflow” and it is required to keep the Delta’s ecosystem healthy and protect its farmland—or at least that’s what big city elitists say.

To Oligarch Valley farmers, “environmental outflow” represents a blatant waste of a perfectly good resource, and is a textbook example of how socialist central planning destroys the economy by hindering free-market forces. They look at the Delta the same way a condominium developer looks at inner city low-income housing: a wasted resource that needs to be turned into luxury lofts.

Oligarch Valley has been itching to get their hands on that water for decades, and in 2009, during a short dry spell, they came out guns a blazing… 

There was a media blitz, plenty of behind-the-scene lobbying and a surprising number of grassroots citizen groups pushing for the Peripheral Canal. Among them was one calling itself the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, a group set up by employees of Paramount Farms, the massive agribusiness owned Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick. Another was being run out of an Orange County PR firm on behalf of a several Oligarch Valley farmers… Seems like the only time people notice the Central Valley is when oligarchs want something done.

The Peripheral Canal plan crashed and burned, shot down by an extremely wet year, but it will return: not least because Jerry Brown has vowed to push for it again, completing his father’s legacy.

Meantime, the Fox News cameras are staying away and, nope, no one else knows or much cares about this place. Which is precisely how they like it here in Oligarch Valley. They have a secret they don’t want us regular folk to know: that no matter how hard we try, we’ll never win. Sure, if we work hard enough, we might do pretty well for ourselves: but they’ll always take a cut of our earnings and wealth. The homes we buy, the water we drink, the food we eat, the cotton socks we wear—it all comes from them. They are our feudal lords, and they tax us for the privilege of being their serfs. All because some great-great-great great grandaddy of theirs plundered and conned his way into a bunch of land. They get to keep milking their inheritance. While we start from scratch, and play by their rules. 

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Editor's Note: This article also appears in NSFWCORP: A Long Fucking Story, an oral history of NSFWCORP including interviews with former writers and previously out of print long-form features.