Stewart Resnick: The Reluctant Farmer

From Valley Boulevard , it was a short drive to downtown Los Angeles . I circled past the skyscrapers and looked for the big beam of light that used to shine down on the Times Mirror building. Another seventy-five of my old colleagues, prize winners who had made the paper one of the world’s best, had been told that their services were no longer needed. In a matter of three years, a newsroom of 1,300 had been slashed in half by a succession of publishers who were convinced that readers wanted their morning paper to mimic the quick and dirty of the Internet. What counted in the Digital Age wasn’t news written in a compelling style or hard-hitting investigative reports or absorbing narratives. What counted were the hits that landed on a newspaper’s website. It hardly mattered that the thousands of hits prompted by a small feature story on “shaved” ice, for instance, had nothing to do with snow cones and everything to do with the “shaved” pubis of Britney Spears. The carpetbaggers from Chicago who now owned the paper, and the underwhelming editor they had chosen to run it, were determined to usher in nothing short of a remaking. If it meant giving up the qualities that made us unique, the very service we did best that hundreds of thousands of readers relied on us to do, it was a necessary shedding to attract a new generation of information consumers. A few among us argued that it was a theory of desperation, a violation of the principle that you waltz with the one who brought you to the dance. The fact that it was being imposed by the Tribune Company, a second-rate media chain that wanted nothing more than to see the haughty L.A. Times knocked down a few pegs, made it all the more difficult to swallow. Of course, if we were looking for someone easy to blame, they were right here in the San Marino suburbs of Los Angeles . All those blue-blooded Chandler cousins who ached for John Birch to return had finally gotten even with Otis for turning their rag into a newspaper. In the months following his 2006 death, their years of scheming to see that none of Otis’s sons would ever become his successor had come to this: the paper was now owned by a midget on a Harley who had made his fortune raising rents on the poor.

Maybe no one family could have held on forever. Bloodlines thin, dynasties are genetically geared to implode. The city, as cities are wont to do, had unfolded along an arc of power that had moved inexorably outward. There was that early epoch of boomers, speculators and wheat farmers, growers of citrus and herders of goats. They gave way to a long run of clubby white capitalists who, one generation removed from the goat glands their fathers harvested to bring back their virility, liked to think of themselves as “old money.” They were the latter-day corporate elites whose moment was crowned with the 1984 Olympics they sponsored. Finally the power splintered off into many pieces, with no single node of control but rather a diffusion of union Latinos, Hollywood Jews, Armenian entrepreneurs, and Asians who were building satellites of Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong. Otis Chandler had foreseen the challenges to a newspaper whose model of growth was predicated on the continuing expansion of white suburbia. What would happen when hundreds of thousands of Third World Latinos and Asians began migrating to those suburbs, driving whites to Orange County and San Diego and Phoenix and Las Vegas —places beyond the pale of the L.A. Times? Should he open new bureaus to serve them and become the paper of record for the entire West? Or should he redouble his efforts to reach the children of the immigrants and make them his new readers? The paper had attempted to do both with varying degrees of commitment, and mostly failed. I didn’t know of a single Chinese patriarch in the San Gabriel Valley who subscribed to the Times. 

A handful of billionaire industrialists and philanthropists did their best to influence civic affairs in the fashion of the Chandlers . But L.A. had become too flattened out, too inclined to dispute, for any beneficent rule. Of the forty-one billionaires who called the city home, I found myself most fascinated by Stewart Resnick who, like Harry Chandler a century before, had leveraged his wealth to buy vast stretches of California farmland and stockpile hundreds of millions of dollars worth of river water. In less than two decades, Resnick had purchased 120,000 acres and planted the largest groves of almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, and citrus under the control of any one man in the world. Only the footprint of J.G. Boswell, whose family came west from Georgia in the 1920s and dried up Tulare Lake to carve out the world’s richest cotton fields, was bigger. Boswell boasted 140,000 acres and controlled a full 15 percent of the Kings River, which irrigated more farmland (one million-plus acres) than any other river except the Nile and Indus. But when it came to the sheer dollars that one man’s crops brought in—and the marketing of those products to the world—Resnick was clearly the new king of California .

Both men were the sons of terrible drunks. Both ran their empires from headquarters in Los Angeles and hired the best college-trained agriculturalists to watch over their distant fields. Both men extended their reach around the world. Boswell was hardly a dirt-under-the-nails farmer, but cotton at least ran deep in his plantation past. Resnick, by contrast, was the son of Jewish bar owner in Highland Park, New Jersey, who headed west in 1956 after his dad gambled away everything. He made his first million while still in law school at UCLA, waxing floors and cleaning carpets under the business name of Clean Time Building Maintenance. (“When it’s time to clean, it’s Clean Time.”) Then he took those same commercial buildings and began watching over them with security guards and alarm systems. By the 1970s, Resnick controlled half the commercial alarm accounts in Los Angeles , a $100 million business.

This became a springboard to Teleflora, the giant flower-delivery service that his second wife, Lynda, revolutionized with the concept of a “flower in a gift.” Roses were short-lived, she reasoned, but the teapot or watering can that the flowers arrived in was a keepsake. Experts in knickknacks, the Resnicks then bought the ultimate house of knickknacks—the Franklin Mint—for the sum of $167.5 million. Lynda shoved aside the commemorative coins and medallions that were the mint’s stock-in-trade and introduced a Scarlett O’Hara doll that, all by itself, generated $35 million in sales. From there, it was the John Wayne collector plate and the precise replica, scaled down, of the beaded gown and matching bolero jacket—a là Elvis—worn by Princess Di. By the year 2000, annual sales at the Franklin Mint approached $1 billion.

Looking for a hedge against inflation, Resnick got the idea of dabbling in real dirt. In the late 1970s, he traveled to Delano , the farm town where Cesar Chavez and his union had made so much history, and purchased his first grove—2,500 acres of citrus with a packing plant. Soon after, the Kern County oil companies, looking to unload their farms, approached him with chunks of twenty and forty thousand acres. They were practically giving the land away. That his nearest field in Lost Hills sat more than a hundred miles from his gilded palace in Beverly Hills made for some easy incongruity. But Resnick was only following in the tradition of the late-nineteenth-century industrial tycoons who had developed from afar the first farms in California ’s interior. What made him different from them and all their progeny was his belief that the city and the farm are part of the same possibility. He had taken the Big Middle culture of co-ops and farmers and wedded it to the L.A. culture of marketing and celebrity, turning his crops into heart-friendly snacks and antioxidant elixirs and chi-chi potions.

I had been trying to get Resnick to tell me his story since the early 2000s, but I could never maneuver past his farm managers or succession of personal secretaries (during one six-month period, three different women held the title). He and Lynda had plucked the nearly forgotten pomegranate and squeezed its ancient, bittersweet fruit into POMWonderful, the ruby-colored juice in the figure-eight bottle (two pomegranates making love) that fought heart disease and prostate troubles. If these claims seemed familiar, the Resnicks had hired some of the world’s best medical scientists—to the tune of $25 million in research—to bear them out. Single-handedly they turned the fruit into a rage. On Oscar night, the gift bags handed to the stars carried POMWonderful. Bartenders were mixing Pom martinis, and cosmetologists were giving Pom facials.

On every floor of their high-rise that overlooked West Olympic Boulevard, employees were engaged in the far-flung operations of Roll International—from Paramount Farms to Fiji Water to Teleflora. Yet there was no one in the building that a reporter with a simple question could turn to. Resnick had no office of media relations for the simple reason that he had no media relations. The first time I called looking for a comment, I was working on a story about how Resnick had wrested control of a Kern County water bank built with $74 million in public funds. I explained to the secretary that this private grab didn’t put her boss in the best light, and I needed his version of events. “We don’t talk to the press,” she said. “Good-bye.” Click.

My persistence had won over Boswell, and he was a man who abided by the family motto that “As long as the whale never surfaces, it is never harpooned.” So I kept trying with Resnick. Then one day in 2008, after reading the Boswell book, he returned my phone call. “I’ve never given an interview before,” he explained. “Forbes, Business Week, Fortune, the New York Times, I’ve told them all no. When you’re making the kind of money we’re making, what’s the upside? I’d rather be unknown than known.

“On the other hand, I’m not going to live forever, even with the massive amounts of pomegranate juice I’m drinking. It might be nice if my kids and grandkids could turn to a book someday and read about what we’ve built.”

With that, he invited me to his 25,000-square-foot mansion on Sunset Boulevard, described by a harpist who had performed there as “something akin to Versailles , only grander.” That first Saturday, the massive gates opened and I was greeted on the front steps by the Chinese housekeeper and two identical, blow-dried dogs of some high breed. They led me to the rear parlor where Resnick, fresh from a ride on his stationary bike, was expected any moment. I tried to eye the marble statues of Napoleon and the Eighteenth-century paintings of Jean-Honore Fragonard, but there was too much show in the way. Either that or I was on the wrong floor.

He was a short man, right around five foot five, with thin gray hair and a fit build. He wore a Paramount Farms shirt tucked neatly into blue jeans and the most stunning pair of pink, purple, and turquoise socks. “I tell my children no birthday gifts. Just give me real wild socks.” A piece of red string was tied around his wrist, part of his flirtation, I had been told, with kabbalah, the occult rituals of the old-world rabbis.

“My life is about California ,” he said. “I didn’t grow up here, but if it wasn’t for California , its openness and opportunities, I wouldn’t be sitting where I’m sitting. When I arrived in the mid 1950s, it was real simple. You work hard, you get ahead. It was a great time. Everything was like ‘wow.’ We’ll never see those times again.”

He recalled his first entrepreneurial inspiration as a thirteen-year-old in Highland Park : selling Christmas to the Christian families of east Jersey . “People didn’t have cameras in those days so after a snow, I’d take a picture of their house with the Christmas displays all lit up and sell it to them. I had good technique, but not much artistry.”

His pals were all Jewish kids from middle- and upper-class families. It wasn’t easy being the poorest one, he said, knowing his father was capable at any moment of losing the few comforts they had. “I remember one time in high school, the car was gone. He lost it in a bet. He was very tough, bull-like, and didn’t take crap off of anyone. But inside he had these weaknesses. Compulsive gambler and alcoholic.”

I wondered, as I wondered with all wealthy men, what accounted for his ambition. Was it the financial insecurity he knew as a child? The insecurity of the small ethnic outsider? Or was money just a grand game?

“Not a game. My father was a great negative role model. The lessons I got from him were all what not to do. About the only positive he taught me was to never let anyone push me around. So, yes, I had this drive that came from the financial insecurity I saw as a child . My idea was never to go backward. Always live below my means, so it would give me the flexibility to take risks.”

“Living below your means?” I said, smiling.

“Well, none of this is my idea. If I had my way, I’d probably still be living in Culver City in a little ranch house. This is my wife. This is Lynda.”

She had recently posed for a photograph in The New Yorker to accompany a profile entitled the “Pomegranate Princess.” It was a classic shot, a background of heavy-legged gold furniture and paintings in thick gold frames and gold-leafed carpet and gold-fringed drapes. There she stood in the foreground in a black pants suit with open-toed silver pumps and a single piece of jewelry around her neck. In case you mistook her for a woman of understatement, her short auburn hair was teased big and her thin eyebrows arched high. In the distant background, under the gaze of a ten-foot-tall marble goddess, sat husband Stewart in a gold-skirted chair. He was head down in an orbit of paperwork.

“She wanted to tell the story of the pomegranate,” he said. “For a long time, she got no credit. Now she’s getting lots of credit.”

“You kind of got left out of the piece.”

“I’m sort of back there signing checks,” he said, chuckling. “She’s the face. Fine. I’m good with it. But when I decided to plant that first 640 acres of pomegranates, about half the pomegranates in the country at the time, there was absolutely zero market. My farm manager thought I was nuts. ‘At worst,’ I told him, ‘we can make some juice out of it.’”

He said he was looking for a modest return, maybe $500 an acre. But like every other crop he bet on—almonds, pistachios, Clementine “Cutie” tangerines—pomegranates hit big. “I’ve never had a bum investment in my life. While I’d like to take all the credit, I’d have to say that fully half of my success has been luck. Now in farming we’re in a unique position. The crops we grow can only be grown in a few places in the world. But none of it would have happened without luck.”

He had caught each crop at the front end of a boom that still showed no signs of abating. Almond sales were rising 10 percent a year in the United States and 25 percent overseas. From one year to the next, the number of almond-bearing trees in California had jumped by 50,000 acres. This wasn’t competition because Resnick, in addition to being a grower, sat as a full processor and pusher of nuts. No other farmer, not even Gallo, had cornered a market the way Resnick had, controlling the growing, buying, and selling of pistachios. Of the 400 million pounds produced each year in the United States , 120 million pounds came off Resnick’s perfectly groomed fields. Another 140 million pounds were grown by farmers who took their pistachios to Paramount to process and market. Thus Resnick had his hands on 65 percent of the nation’s harvest.

“If you want to buy a half million pounds of pistachios anywhere in the world, you have to come to us,” he said.

All by himself (with a little help from his lawyers) he had killed the venerable California Pistachio Commission. Here he was, funding the lion’s share of the commission’s marketing, and not a single Paramount employee was on its board. Worse yet, he claimed, the programs were all geared to helping the small guy. “We were underwriting the costs of programs that were actually doing harm to Paramount . That’s not a situation we could tolerate for very long.”
To his critics, Resnick represented one of the more evil forces in California agriculture, a behemoth willing to employ teams of lawyers and tens of millions of dollars to shove his agenda down the throats of growers who dared to be independent. A member of the pistachio commission, on the eve of its demise, had told me, “Stewart wants to be a benevolent dictator. But if he thinks you’re defying him, he’ll start with ‘Nobody respects me. Nobody realizes the good I’ve done for agriculture.’ Then he’ll move on to, ‘Do you know who I am? Do you know what I am? I’m a billionaire.’ He’s got an awful temper that he’s trying to control through kabbalah. That little red string is supposed to remind him to count to ten. But his ego, there’s no controlling that. And Lynda, well, she’s just over the top. A TV reality show waiting to be discovered.”

Resnick had heard it all before. He was the bad guy in agriculture for no bigger offense than he was big. “Look, these farmers go back two, three, and sometimes four generations. Me, I’m the carpetbagger from Beverly Hills . I’ve never driven a tractor. I’ve never turned on an irrigation pump. But you ask the growers we process and they’ll tell you that year in and year out, no one offers a better price. No one pushes their product harder.”

I had one last question I wanted to ask. I told Resnick I had never stopped admiring writer Carey McWilliams for his undying commitment to the agrarian ideal. But more than seventy years after his “Factories in the Fields,” we had to be honest about the economics of small farming. Old farmers attached to the soil try to hang on, but their children—professionals and tradesmen—are softened by no such nostalgia. Not when they’re getting the same price for a box of plums that their fathers got in 1981. So who could blame the small guy for selling out to a developer for one hundred grand an acre?

I wondered if this meant that our best hope for keeping the valley’s farmland from becoming a new century’s Los Angeles rested with the Resnicks of agriculture, their economies of scale and marketing genius.

“Are you truly a farmer?” I asked. “Or just another developer in waiting?”

“The valley is the most fertile area for farming that I know of in the world,” he said, dodging. “And there’s an awful lot of acres.”

“The reason I ask is because you’ve already begun selling farm water, at least on paper, to other big agricultural concerns—Newhall Ranch, Castle & Cook—so they can turn their fields into suburbs.”

“We’re not talking about taking water and committing it forever to these projects. We’re just saying we believe we have enough water to occasionally pump some for them. Our first loyalty is to our trees.”

“For how long?” I asked. His answer was the answer of a billionaire. “If there’s some big opportunity for us to take a couple thousand acres and build a nice industrial park out there, we’re going to do it. I don’t see it as ‘Oh my God, we’re paving over farmland.’ That’s just life. But on balance, unless there’s a really big opportunity, there’s a continuity to farming that I like.”