California’s wealthiest farm family plans mega-warehouse complex that would reshape Kern economy

An aerial view of an industrial park located next to a railway and major highway.
Wonderful Co. is pushing to more than double the size of its Kern County industrial park, right, hoping to capitalize on America’s seismic shift to online shopping.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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California’s wealthiest farming family is proposing an expansion of industrial warehousing in Kern County that would fundamentally reshape the economy in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Outside of Kern, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, the billionaire owners of the Wonderful Co., are better known for pomegranates and pistachios. But for more than a decade, they have also owned a master-planned industrial park in the city of Shafter, northwest of Bakersfield, that is home to distribution centers for Fortune 500 companies like Target, Amazon and Walmart.

Now, looking to capitalize on the seismic shift to online shopping, the Resnicks want to position Kern County as a new frontier for the industrial-scale warehousing that is key to connecting customers with their goods. Wonderful is pushing to more than double the size of its industrial park by converting 1,800 acres of its own almond groves into additional warehousing space.

And it’s pursuing costly infrastructure projects that company leaders say will mitigate the impacts of that expansion.


Wonderful says its vision for a scaled-up Wonderful Industrial Park is wholly different from the thousands of sprawling distribution centers that have swallowed up neighborhoods in California’s Inland Empire. The influx of mega-warehouses in Riverside and San Bernardino counties has generated thousands of jobs — but also relentless truck traffic and poor air quality that have given rise to a backlash.

Wonderful’s industrial park sits along railroad tracks on more than 1,600 acres of former farmland several miles outside the Shafter town center. With the exception of a cluster of homes on the other side of the tracks, the surrounding acreage is primarily agricultural. Wonderful describes the park as a job creator in a region hard hit by economic shifts in agriculture and oil.

Cargo trucks mix with auto traffic on a busy two-lane road.
Wonderful Co.’s plans for a mega-warehousing complex near Shafter include a new six-lane highway to ease traffic on State Route 43 (pictured) and other area roadways.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The company is working with local officials on plans for a new highway that would route trucks away from central Shafter. It also plans to funnel at least $120 million into an inland rail terminal, expected to be completed next spring. The goal is to move more products from coastal ports by rail to Shafter, reducing traffic on State Route 99, already one of the busiest truck routes in California.

If all goes according to plan, Shafter would be transformed from a small town, population 20,162, into an international trade hub; and Kern County — a region that long has prized what’s extracted from the ground — would become ground zero for the growing global goods movement.

This Central Valley county long relied on oil, gas and agriculture. But as those industries change, Kern County is now banking on warehousing and logistics for jobs and revenue.

Dec. 19, 2023

Many Shafter residents say the opportunity for steady, relatively well-paying work in areas other than farming and oil would come as a welcome addition. But some are concerned that doubling-down on an industry that will bring more truck and train travel to one of the nation’s most polluted corridors can’t help but have negative consequences.


“I understand that company says it will bring jobs; this is true to some extent,” said Gustavo Aguirre, assistant director of the Delano-based Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. “But it is also true that it’s going to bring health and environmental impacts that are going to impact the neighbors who live near the industrial park.”

The way John Guinn tells it, the Wonderful Industrial Park was created out of necessity.

Several decades ago, as big-box retailers moved into San Joaquin Valley towns, Main Street shoe shops and dry goods stores struggled to survive. Town officials were looking to create employment opportunities.

“The world was changing,” said Guinn, who worked as city manager in Shafter for 17 years. “We had to find a way to do something different.”

So Shafter rezoned a portion of land between Highway 99 and Interstate 5, along the BNSF rail line, and that became the industrial park. The first tenant was Target, which built a warehouse of roughly 2 million square feet in 2003.

In 2011, the Resnicks’ real estate arm bought the development. Guinn retired from the city in 2014 and joined Wonderful as executive vice president and chief operating officer for the real estate team. It’s a role, he said, that will allow him to bring his broader vision for Shafter to light.

The outcome of the fight between Wonderful Co.’s wealthy owners and California’s storied farmworker union will shape the future of a divisive new process for unionizing agricultural job sites.

April 5, 2024

Today, the Wonderful Industrial Park typically builds and leases million-square-foot warehouses. Just over half of the 1,625 acres already zoned for industrial buildings have been developed.


It’s proved a profitable form of diversification for Wonderful — which also owns Fiji Water and Justin Vineyards — at a time when almond prices are falling and water supplies are tight.

According to Wonderful, the industrial park has generated about 10,000 jobs, including warehouse employees, truck drivers and services handling shipping logistics. With the planned expansion, company leaders said, the complex eventually could support 50,000 jobs.

Boxed goods move along a conveyor belt at a warehouse.
Warehouses are quickly becoming more mechanized, meaning more robotics and less need for people. “Warehouses are both job creators and job destroyers,” says UC Riverside’s Ellen Reese.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Marco Avendaño, 27, has worked for nearly a year as a forklift operator for CJ Logistics in the industrial park. Avendaño, who didn’t go to college, said he’s learned new skills and now finds himself interested in pursuing a management role with the company.

“Even though it just started as a job for me, it made me get a career mindset,” he said.

His schedule — 9:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. — works well for him and his fiancee, a librarian, who are raising three children. By his working nights, he said, “we still grow that bond with our family.”

Avendaño previously held two other jobs in the industrial park — at a manufacturing plant that has closed and for a contractor at the Walmart warehouse. In his current job, he said he’s received several raises and is making $22.69 an hour — “more than I’ve ever made hourly.”


As the park expands, the number of jobs created with each warehouse is likely to slow. Warehouses are quickly becoming more mechanized, meaning more robotics and less need for people. The advancements in technology could stymie Wonderful’s job projections.

“Warehouses are both job creators and job destroyers,” said Ellen Reese, co-director of the Inland Empire Labor & Community Center at UC Riverside. She noted that automation is reducing the number of warehouse employees, but not necessarily making jobs safer.

“A lot of the research actually suggests that more automated warehouses have higher injury rates than less automated warehouses,” she said.

Guinn acknowledged that more efficient warehouses will require less labor. But the remaining jobs, he said, will be more technically skilled and require higher pay.

Inside Walmart’s warehouse, for example, an automated system builds pallets tailored to the needs of individual stores more quickly and accurately than a team of humans could. The facility employs just 400 people across all shifts, many of whom are highly skilled equipment operators trained to troubleshoot technical problems. The average salary is between $28 and $29 an hour.

“I don’t think it’s bad if we’re able to do twice as much with half as much labor,” Guinn said. “What I think is bad is to have a whole lot of folks that don’t have a job, or have jobs that aren’t very good.”


Wonderful says it’s helping ease the transition with an on-site career center that trains workers for the higher-skilled jobs.

On a March morning, Luis Chapa wore virtual reality goggles inside a classroom at the career center and simulated driving a stand-up forklift. He’s training as a maintenance technician and earning on-the-job experience and college credits through a free yearlong program.

Two men wear VR headsets that simulate forklift operations.
Two men take part in an apprenticeship program at the Wonderful Career Center in Shafter, using VR headsets that simulate forklift operations.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Before enrolling in the apprenticeship program, Chapa, 37, worked for two and a half years in Bakersfield’s oil industry. The work on a demolition crew was strenuous and dirty, and Chapa, a father of two, said his pay stalled at $26 an hour.

He decided to make a career change and is confident the training will lead to a better-paid position with Wonderful or another company at the industrial park.

“My cap-off in the oil fields would pretty much be my starting point where I’m heading,” said Chapa.


Along with their farming empire, Stewart and Lynda Resnick are known for their philanthropy, which includes major gifts for climate research, as well as money for scholarships and wellness centers in the valley towns where many of their workers live. So Wonderful is acutely aware of the optics as the company positions the park for a much bigger footprint.

Guinn and others maintain that, with the right planning, the expansion doesn’t have to mirror the trade-offs in the Inland Empire.

The company envisions building the Wonderful Pacific Terminal at the industrial park, so that trains can ferry cargo from California ports directly to the facility. Once built, Guinn estimates that 20% of imported containers could arrive by rail, with each train replacing the equivalent of 240 trucks.

An aerial of Wonderful's building at the company's industrial park in Kern County.
The Wonderful Company, co-owned by billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, says expanding its industrial park in Shafter will generate new jobs in a region shaken by economic shifts in oil and agriculture.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Wonderful is also touting plans for a six-lane highway, the Central Valley Green Pass, that would act as a relief valve for Highway 99.

Both projects are still in the planning phase and in need of multiple approvals.

As another carrot, Wonderful has agreed to create a fund for the local park district if Shafter officials approve the company’s rezoning application. New warehouse tenants would pay 2 cents per square foot per month — or $240,000 annually for a million-square-foot warehouse — into a fund dedicated to enhancing sports programs, arts and crafts and community events.


Aguirre, with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, is helping negotiate a broader community benefits agreement intended to ensure the people who live in and near Shafter get more than jobs out of the deal.

“The residents recognize that [this project] could bring jobs, but they come with a price,” Aguirre said. “Because of this, they say, ‘What are you going to do for our community?’”

This article is part of The Times’ equity reporting initiative, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, exploring the challenges facing low-income workers and the efforts being made to address California’s economic divide.