Tony Campos is an almond grower in the Fresno area. He’s not just an almond grower — he’s more like an almond king. But, as I say in a piece in the current National Review, he wasn’t born a king, or a prince.
My piece is called “An Entrepreneurial Life: Pictures from struggling, wonderful California.” I went out to Fresno to see some entrepreneurs: to find out how they live, what they do, and what their obstacles are, if any. One afternoon, I met Tony Campos and learned his story. I learned it mainly from his friend Richard Spencer, a fellow entrepreneur.
I want to share that story with you, here in Impromptus. I tell some of it in the magazine — but want to tell more here.
Tony was born in the Basque country. He came to this country in 1952, when he was 17. He had not a penny. Well, he had a few pennies: He was able to take a bus from New York to Wyoming. He was going out West to work as a shepherd.
In New York, I believe, he was in line at a food stand or in some eatery. The woman ahead of him ordered French fries and mustard. So that’s what Tony ordered. He ordered it five or six days in a row, because that’s what he knew to order.
He tended sheep in Wyoming for a while. Then, with his brothers, he moved to California. They tended sheep there. Then they got into farming. Eventually, they hit on almonds.
Let me interrupt this story to mention this: I remember reading, long ago, that Paul Laxalt’s dad was a shepherd from the Basque country. (Laxalt, you recall, was governor of Nevada, and then a senator.) I asked Tony whether he knew the family. He does indeed.
Anyway, they got into almonds, he and his brothers. In the beginning, they worked by hand, and that work was often back-breaking. Today, Tony (the only remaining brother) has a big, gleaming operation, with equipment that reminded me of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Business has never been better, according to Tony. This is because of a global market, as I understand it: He sells to 62 countries. Nevertheless, he could be doing a lot more. He is constantly hamstrung by regulation — regulations relating to food safety and employment, primarily. As I say in my piece, he understands the need for regulation. But why so excessive, and costly, and perverse? Money and time that he could spend on expanding the business, he spends on regulations.
His daughter Jeannine shares with me a piece of paper — actually, two pieces of paper. On them are all the regulatory agencies and offices that Campos Brothers has to respond to. I count 72. Federal, state, and local. Wouldn’t 71 agencies and offices be enough? How about 61? How about 41? And the thing is, Jeannine tells me, these people sometimes make flatly contradictory demands.
The Social Security Administration says, “If you do X, you will be criminally liable.” The Department of Homeland Security says, “If you don’t do X, you will be criminally liable.” So what the hell do you do?
Wrap your mind around a regulation in the pipeline — a regulation that is apparently coming: A kit fox wanders into your almond orchard and takes a dump next to a tree. You have to quarantine off a sizable area around the tree. You have to “cleanse” it, destroying all the trees within.
Well, why not keep Mr. Fox out in the first place? You can’t — he’s on the endangered-species list.
And so on, and so on. The government can tie you up in all sorts of ways. It’s amazing that some people can stay in business.
From what I can tell, Tony Campos is right out of Horatio Alger. He has done a lot of good for many people — his family, his employees, their families, his customers.
And let me repeat something I say about Richard Spencer, in my magazine piece. What is true of him is true of a great many others — including his buddy Tony, of course. Yeah, he’s rich. Yeah, he’s part of the “1 percent.” But (a) he’s worked his butt off, (b) he has provided goods and services that people need or want, (c) he’s paid millions in taxes, (d) he’s given millions to charity, (e) he’s employed thousands of people.
How can that be bad? If we demonize the entrepreneur, and overtax him and overregulate him, we’re only harming ourselves. We may think we’re standing up for the little guy or whatever. But we’re really shafting him and everyone else.
Thus endeth Free Enterprise 101.
Feel like a little music? For my latest column in CityArts, go here. I talk about Lorin Maazel conducting Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera; the Vienna Philharmonic and a newish piece by Jörg Widmann; and a new piece by Stephen Hough.
Cutesy headline of the week? Well, my eye caught this, from the Associated Press: “National knife rights movement gets twist in Texas.” Is that more cutesy or more clever? I can’t tell.
Finally, no life — none — deserves the opening line of this obit: “The woman Richard Burton left to marry Elizabeth Taylor has died.”
To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.