by Bruce Patterson, March 17, 2010

For a dozen years I periodically hauled horses in and out of the Harris Ranch down in the Westlands Irrigation District in the San Joaquin Valley. Famous to grocery shoppers for their brand of beef, and to commuters along I-5 for their massive feedlot filled with cattle and, a few miles upwind, their luxurious resort and steakhouse (conveniently located exactly halfway between LA and San Francisco/Sacramento), the Harris Ranch is a lot more than just those things. Aside from their Cattle and Horse Divisions, they’re also into row and field crops, fruits, nuts and real estate.

To get to the Harris Ranch stables you’ve gotta exit I-5 and take old State Hwy. 33. Hwy. 33 used to be the only north/south route running the west side of the valley before, back in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Fed­erales built I-5 superhighway and the state and the Federales built the California Aqueduct. Since I was nearly always continuing south or north, that’d be about a 13-mile-stretch of old Hwy. 33 I drove within that one ranch and maintained for the exclusive use of those having business there. Although I don’t mean that quite literally since, if you’re coming from the north on I-5 and you wish to take the slow, scenic route into Coalinga, there’s nobody there to stop you.

Onetime–I forget what year it was–I arrived at the Harris Ranch just a day or two after some serious flashfloods. Not far down I-5 a car with a family of Mexicans inside had gotten washed off a highway bridge and carried away downstream. They got carried away downstream so far that the local authorities gave up on finding them. It took a bunch of relatives and friends to go and find the bodies, and it hadn’t taken them long.

Anyway, I was bringing in two mares and two knobby-kneed foals and I had to go slowly around Hwy. 33’s washouts and obstructions. It had rained so hard and long that parts of the highway had disap­peared beneath sheets of silt washed out of the vege­table fields. I slowly eased down into the bottom of a washed-out gulch and saw two ranch hands kicking shovels trying to find the bottom end of the highway culvert that was buried under a few feet of rocks, gravel, sand and silt. Since after a long haul it doesn’t hurt to let your horses relax a bit before off-loading them, nor me to stretch my legs, I stopped to talk to the fellahs about the good-golly weather, anxious to hear their stories.

Judging by their complexions, getups and shiny new company pickup truck, I took it that they were out of the Horse or Cattle Division and not out of Peas and Carrots. I could also tell that they were none too happy to be kicking their shovels. We said our howdy-dos, they kept shoveling and it came out that the state hadn’t given them a lick of help reopening the highway and so they were forced to do it all them­selves and, gee, how’d I get through?

That was obvious enough and so was their attitude that, what with more rain coming, this here was a genuine high-water emergency and so they couldn’t be wasting their breath on idle gab with a wayfaring stranger. So I smiled, wished them luck and got back in my truck.

“What a bunch of gall,” I thought to myself once I was wheeling away. If you want to ruin a foreman’s day, hand him a shovel. You want to get a foreman hopping mad, be out in the fields manhandling irriga­tion pipes under a sweltering sky and coax him out of his air conditioned pickup truck by pretending you’ve got something important you’ve gotta tell him. Then it didn’t escape my attention that, as a California tax­payer, I had absolutely no interest in that stretch of private driveway having a hold on my wages in perpe­tuity. When the authorities can’t get up the money to find the bodies of people washed off one of their highway bridges, where they gonna scrape up the money to service this one corporation? With the I-5 superhighway and–you talk about pennies from Heaven–the California State Aqueduct running down the center of their holdings, you’d think they’d be too embarrassed to take anymore from the taxpayers. Much less have the gall to feel entitled to it. It goes to show how naïve I can still be in my grumpy old age.

The Harris Ranch Corporation is typical of West­lands operations except, judging by the massive size of its neighbors, it’s very small time. Also some members of the Harris family are still actively involved in the business and that’s real rare anywhere nowadays, what with soulless institutions in the saddle and kicking their spurs. Out in the Westlands are some of the largest and most heavily subsidized corporate land holdings on earth. The arrangement down there is more akin to European feudalism than “free market” capitalism. The social hierarchy is nearly identical to what a half century ago you’d find in Apartheid places like Albany, Georgia or Clarksburg, Mississippi. The government is monarchist, the plantation owners Noble Lords and most everybody else is a sharecrop­per, shopkeeper or peon. Set up against what used to be America’s agrarian ideals, the Westlands could be the Papal States in Italy during the 19th Century, a banana republic or, given modern farming technolo­gies, Russia’s breadbasket (the Ukraine) under the ownership of the Communist Party. Distilled to its essence, it’s the ancient regime under which he who has got, gets.

The farm town of Mendota, which is located on the northeast edge of the Westlands, made the national news awhile back. Anytime you can get unemployed Mexican campesinos out protesting state-mandated water cutbacks and their suffering “caused” by the damned environmentalists with their phony compassion for the liddle-biddy Delta Smelt that should have been driven into extinction a long time ago since nobody would miss them anyway, the national media laps that shit up. Seeing how such sto­ries provide positive moral examples for the mass audience and all. Like, when even peons whose most precious possession is a real Green Card have enough sense to know on what side their un-bread is buttered on, why not the rest of us?

I could tell a tale or two about Mendota and towns like it back during the last gasp of their heydays since I lived in the San Joaquin for awhile back in 1973. I lived down there long enough to work some crops and make some friends, anyway. Yet Steinbeck, Saroyan, Gerald Haslem, Richard Rodriquez and many, many others have already written much about the San Joaquin’s central reality and the question at its heart: how can so much wage slavery and count-your-nickels poverty; grinding, hopeless poverty, the kind of pov­erty that convinces you at a young age that you will rest only after you die, can exist in the heart of the Land of Plenty? You answer that question to your own satisfaction and, if you haven’t done so already, you’ll learn to fear for the futures of your children. Because no matter what else you can say about dog-eat-dog capitalism for the peons and socialism for the nobles, only the moral equivalent of gangsters or mer­cenaries can confuse it with The Best of All Possible Worlds, much less God’s Will.

This winter’s rains haven’t ended California’s drought, but they have for the moment stopped the constant media drumbeat for a new multi-zillion bond issue to, once and for all, solve California’s “chronic water shortages” by building more dams and shipping more Delta water south. But don’t you worry. In the coming months you’ll get an earful and then some. Your ears will be overflowing with anything and everything the lobbyists can tell you to get you to see things their way and cough up your children’s money and futures. But, even if you pay close attention, you’ll hardly hear a peep about the Westlands. Chances are all you’ll hear about the Westlands you’ve just heard. And the reason for that is obvious enough: if you wish to steal and get away with it, always to do it in the black of night. ¥¥

(Bruce Patterson’s new blog/revamped website is: www.4mules.com.)

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