another thought that stops people, one I hinted at in Bryces story:
there are a lot of possibilities that sound exciting but youre not
sure youd want to do them forever. And because of their quirky nature,
theyre resume killers they slam a lot of doors shut. Sure, itd
be a fun ride, but where do you go from there?
imagine you were a Harvard MBA, then an investment banker with First
Boston at the Vice President level. At that point, if you had the guts,
you could jump to about anywhere white-collar and respectable, or you
could stay put and get rich. Instead, imagine you went off and did
something crazy like this instead:
CATFISH FARMER (Indianola, Mississippi)
8,000 acres of grow crops and 1,500 water acres of catfish (5.5 million
head). $16 million annual sales. Side businesses wholly or partially owned
include cotton gin, flying service for pesticide spraying, feed mill, fish
processing plant, and adult extended care facility.
what Don Linns resume looks like, and thats about all I knew of his
story when I went to see him. But my curiosity was raging. What would his
life be like? Would the foolish originality of this path be worth its
stubborn irreversibility? Was it, indeed, a one-way ticket? Could daily
life in the third-poorest county in the poorest state in the union
possibly be interesting enough
to keep his Ivy League mind engaged?
get to Indianola, you fly to Memphis, drive down past Graceland, and keep
going in that direction for half a day. Once you get to Indianola, to find
Don Linns office, take a right at the 4-way stop sign and then take a
left where the church used to be and itll be a quarter mile ahead.
the church used to be?
would I know where the church used
to be? But thats the way you get directions in the mid-South. Don
grew up in South Carolina and Tennessee, and then spent the go-go 80s
in Dallas, but a Southern accent aint the beginning of how they talk
here. You never say it rained. You might say we got ourselves a little
private rain, inch and a tenth, or, it was a real packing rain,
meaning the clay soil glued itself into a crust that the cotton sprouts
have a hard time busting through, or, if the rain was heavy, youd say
we done got thundered on. When the catfish tastes good, its on
flavor. The foreman is called the straw boss, and if hes off
drinking youre told, he got the Jack attack. And when you go
looking for him and run into one of the farmhands, the conversation might
transact like this:
when you figure he be around then?
be here ten minutes or so.
thousand people live here. Unemployment is 12%, not bad. Cash advance
shops outnumber bank branches. A trenchant crack problem plagues the
neighborhood on the other side of the railroad tracks. You cant get any
men to work during bow hunting season. Conversations focus on hunting,
football, and whos screwing who. The local weekly newspaper lists every
traffic fine and charge brought by the local police. Most of the jobs
listed are for drivers. A truck driver takes home $8.50 an hour, the women
at the catfish processing plant a little less, and the seining crew, which
dredges the ponds, earns minimum wage. A straw boss earns anywhere from
$40,000 to $100,000.
gets up at 4 a.m. every morning to read. Almost every day, a shipment
arrives from Amazon.com with more brain food. Don misses New Englands
intellectual culture, but hes insistent on one point, which took him a
year to wake up to: Itd be easy to mistake these peoples ways for
lack of intelligence, but most of them are as smart as you and me.
Theyve never been out in the world. Some are uneducated, but they know
their business better than I know mine.
part of the state doesnt have a long history. It was swamp and bayou
until the levees were constructed along the Mississippi in the 1920s.
The hardwood forests of mangrove, pecan, and walnut were cleared to get
rid of mosquitos and stop the spread of malaria. The drained land was so
heavy with clay, they named it gumbo. It wouldnt seep. Only the
old high spots could grow corn, so with the rest they farmed rice, but
rice is prohibitively expensive. Two decades ago someone dug a 5 foot pond
in the gumbo and tried raising catfish. This made a certain economic
sense. Catfish are natures most efficient animal in turning feed into
protein (twice as efficient as chicken, for instance). Catfish are the
hogs of aquaculture theyll eat anything. Fish pick up their flavor
from their environment. Catfish acquire their legendary aroma by scarfing
off the bottom, where fish rot. A decade ago, someone started feeding
catfish a puffed cereal which had been aerated and thus floated. The
filets from young catfish that eat off the waters surface are as flaky
and light as any freshwater whitefish. It used to take 3 days to net a
fish, truck it to the plant, get it filetted and frozen. Now it takes 30
minutes. Boom! The catfish industry exploded, and this part of the country
finally had the means to sustain itself and a reason to be proud.
about when Don arrived. Hes six feet even, thick sideswept auburn hair,
too-pink of skin for these parts, and has let his gut go a little. He
hasnt changed much what he wears: pleated khakis, pink polo, docksiders.
Dons here as a businessman. His wife talks a lot about a sense of
place, and if you enjoy being close to nature, rolling the sleeves up,
theres psychic income galore. But Don isnt one of those people. He
didnt come to Mississippi with the sentiment that farming was
particularly noble. Back in Dallas, he didnt own a cabin out in lake
country. He carries a rifle in case he encounters a water moccasin, but
thats all its used for. The adrenaline he gets, that charge that
makes it all worthwhile, comes entirely from the risks and rewards of
running a big complex operation - and being able to run this business in a
first day on the job, a flock of Canadian geese arrived by truck that
sounds weird, I know, but the geese had been purchased, with the intent
theyd populate the bayou that ran through their land. The geese were
thrown into a cabin and had their way with the place. Don
had to go in there with pruning shears and clip their wings. Quickly
covered in goose shit and blood, Don was wondering what hed got himself
few nights later, the phone rang at 2 a.m. Don couldnt sleep anyway, it
was so hot.
on out to the ponds, the voice said.
drove out to the ponds, each of which is about the size of a football
field. There was a froth on the water. Something had driven those fish
crazy, and a lot of them were turning belly up.
cant breathe, Don was told. Theyre coming to the surface to
get a gulp of air.
would fish be breathing air? It didnt make any sense. Slowly he figured
it out. Theres 10,000 head of fish to every acre unbelievably thick
with fish, and theyre burning oxygen to digest their food. During the
day, sunlight triggers photosynthesis in the algae, keeping the water
oxygenated. On a hot night, with the water evaporating, the oxygen runs
out. Don put a paddle wheel on the water to stir air into the water, but
it was too late. For the next month, Don rode around the ponds at night,
monitoring the oxygen levels with a measuring device on a long pole,
trying to keep his fish alive by allocating paddle wheels where the
situation was desperate.
found that other farmers wouldnt return his phone calls. He wondered if
hed done something to insult them. Then he found out that it was
insulting to use the phone. They like to chat in person, down at the café
or by the side of the road.
make it sound like his MBA aint worth a lick here, and I dont mean
to. Farming is a famously tough business. Its as risky as biotech and
it pays out no better than T-bills. (Thats including the aid income
from the government, which is more than half of the total income on most
farms). The difference between making 2% a year and losing your shirt is
in maximizing the efficiency of resources. Catfish fingerlings cost 5
cents per, and by the time a fish is big enough to harvest, with 12 ounces
of meat on its bones, Don has spent 55 cents on every fish. He sells them
for about 70 cents a pound. You cant harvest the fish when its too
hot, or they wont be on flavor. If the fish get too big while youre
waiting for their flavor to clean out, they become too tough.
crops are even more weather-dependent. Corn goes in mid-March, then some
early soybeans. Wait for another cold snap, then plant the cotton. It
costs $325 to raise and pick an acre of cotton. Most of that money used to
go into pesticides. But now theres worm-resistant seed, which can get
by with little pesticide except the seed is expensive, which means
Dons bet is already in the ground. If the sprouts get hailed on or
cant get a stand through the crust, he loses his bet. Last summer, it
was so hot that Dons plants couldnt pollenate. Back at his office,
Don has computer programs generating wall charts that map out every penny
spent on every acre. He spends two hours every day watching the
commodities exchanges and hedging his risk by buying or selling in the
futures market. In the language of an MBA, its a classic
resource-optimization-problem. In the language of a farmer, its just
his first year, Don earned the respect of the other farmers in the valley.
Five big farms share ownership in a catfish processing cooperative, Delta
Pride. Don got a call at midnight from the coops bookkeeper. The
bookkeeper had been ordered by two executives to make fictional entries
inflating sales. On behalf of the coop, Don went in the next morning and
fired them on the spot. He discovered the coop was in bad financial shape.
None of the farms could afford to lose their investment. Don decided to
step in and run it himself for a year. He nursed the business back to
strength and won over the locals. He saved a couple hundred jobs.
next year, Don learned that good people were having to leave Indianola for
Jackson, where they could get care for their elderly parents. So Don
created an elder-care facility, sort of like day care for parents. It was
so successful he now has three centers.
dedication and resourcefulness have paid off. Despite the deteriorating
agricultural economy countrywide, Dons business has grown at rates
even his business school mates would admire. Revenue has tripled and
profits have quadrupled.
rode with Don on his rounds. Hes calm and thoughtful. Nothing I asked
him caught him off guard or forced him to contemplate something he
hasnt already considered on his own. That said, he was hungry to talk
with me and to show me the good and bad of his life. He didnt leave
of Dons days are spent shuttling about in his Suburban, making sure
everythings getting done. The rule of thumb for farming is, go
wherever youre spending or making the most money at that moment.
This morning a seining crew was harvesting the catfish in pond 9. Theyd
stretched a huge net across the water, dragging each end with a tractor.
Two men in chest waders walked along the pond bottom, one foot on the net
to keep it from floating to the surface. Don doesnt have to say too
much. His presence is a motivator. If his hires dont think theyre
being monitored, theyll slack off. Thats the work culture here, and
so thats the essential nature of his role, and its hard for that not
to have its erosive effect he has to be slightly watchful, just about
all the time. Don didnt learn this lesson quickly, and its not in
his basic nature. On Wall Street everybodys income was tied to their
performance, and that was the motivation anyone needed. Supervision was
nil. So when Don came to Mississippi, he tried to vest his employees with
back-end incentives and empower them with autonomy, et cetera, but the
traditional culture was too entrenched to overcome.
asked Don why he left First Boston.
started out at Paine Webber, he said. We were drilled that if we
gave good advice wed get business. Clients would come to us. And I was
so successful doing that in Boston that the firm asked me to run their
Dallas office. This was 1987, the height of the fever. Investment banking
changed, it became predatory. Six months into it, First Boston made me an
offer to move my team over to their firm. They were more prestigious, so I
way investment banking works, every couple years someone invents a new
kind of financing deal. If it flies, and everyone makes money, they
reproduce this deal on every other company that they can sell it to
whether it fits them or not. In the late 90s, this deal was the IPO. A
few dynamic startups went public and became huge successes. So banks
jumped in and took a couple hundred other startups public, even though few
were worthy. In the mid 80s, the equivalent deal was the LBO, the
leveraged-buyout. First Boston performed a headline-grabbing
multi-billion-dollar leveraged-buyout for Federated Stores, and earned
huge fees in the process. In the following two years, First Boston ordered
all of its corporate financiers to sell lookalike deals to their clients.
Thats the nature of the beast. Its no different than Hollywood
cranking out the Matrix sequels,
or the record industry churning out boy bands.
know this because at the time, I was an assistant bond salesman at First
Boston; I sold the Federated Stores debt and everything else behind it.
you understand this then, Don said.
think I was too young to understand it at the time, but since then, in
seeing the pattern repeated with IPOs, I slowly realized how the business
I was old enough to know I didnt want to do business that way, and I
told my bosses as much. I told them Id only generate business I was
comfortable with. I became passive aggressive, dragging my feet, not
calling my clients. Then I had one particular client, and I was ordered to
push an LBO on him. I knew the numbers wouldnt work if he did the
deal, hed never be able to pay off the bonds but we were supposed
to be long gone by then. I was embarrassed to put together the proposal.
That night, I thought hard about it. I knew I couldnt do it. My father
was a high school principal. My role model was a professor of finance at
Vanderbilt. They never compromised their ethics.
whatd you do?
around this same time, my baby boy was walking but not yet talking. Hed
entered that phase when he was developing separation anxiety. Part of that
is hed cry if he was ever picked up by strangers. And you remember how
it was I was gone 5 or 6 days a week. I was flying to New York twice a
week. All week Id stare at his picture, and I loved him so much it
practically made me cry with joy to think about him. He was becoming a
little person. All week long I wanted nothing more than to be able to come
home and hold him. Pick him up in my arms and play with him.
he didnt recognize you?
was a stranger. Hed cry if his mother walked out of the room, but
hed cry if I walked in the
room. That was when it finally hit me. No more.
story fit the same pattern as Bryces unethical business alone
wasnt enough to impel a change. It had to get personal. For Bryce, that
point was when his best friend betrayed him. For me, churning billable
hours didnt get me to quit it was realizing how much weight Id
lost. If you need to summon the will to make a change, dont debate
ethics. Get personal. If you dont believe in the integrity of your
profession, you can debate the ethics of it forever and never do anything.
But if you define the personal toll its taking, it hits a lot closer to
did you quit? I asked. I had memories of when bankers quit or were
fired, they were ushered from the building by security guards in minutes.
exactly. I came to an agreement with the firm that after the bonus cycle,
I wouldnt re-up for another round. I had about thirty days to figure
out what to do next.
didnt have savings?
I had some, but with a mortgage and two kids
He wasnt going to
let himself hang out for months waiting for a vision.
of all the things you could have done, how in the world did you end up a
catfish farmer? Particularly if you didnt think it was noble, and you
werent an outdoorsman itching to get back to the land?
wasnt like I chose catfish farmer off a long list of possibilities. It
was the only opportunity that presented itself.
farm had been passed down in her wifes family since the Depression, but
her generation had run for the cities and wanted nothing to do with
farming. If they couldnt find somebody to manage the operation, the
family would have to sell the land. During this 30-day period, Dons
father-in-law paid them a visit, described his problem, and Don
whod never in his wildest dreams considered something like this
volunteered for the job. It wasnt a well-analyzed decision. He saw an
out. And he thought it would be good for his kids to run in trees and
fields and sky.
how it would look. Not then, but later. I was aware it would look like a
step down to my old business school classmates. Would anyone ever hire me,
after Id done this crazy thing? I didnt think so. This would be it.
The last stop. I expected to be buried in the back yard. He meant this
literally there was a burial plot behind the house.
that feeling of being able to see the rest of your life, knowing it
wouldnt change much was that comfortable or uncomfortable?
may be just a business to Don, but its had a different effect on him
than investment banking did, just as the catfish changed when it started
feeding from cleaner water. Success here doesnt come at someone
elses expense. Don isnt trying to steal another farms business.
He cant outbid them or charge more than the market will bear, and
theres no chance for excessive profits. It encourages him to be steady,
to take it slow, and to ride out the crises.
took the chance to bring up the irreversibility question. Was he going to
do this forever? Did he even have a choice?
said, Those soybeans we watched going in those are the last
soybeans well ever plant.
are you going to grow instead?
Were selling the farm.
You cant make any money?
were doing fine. Weve had some tough years, but the farms well
capitalized. The family wants their money out. If his wifes older
relatives died, the estate tax would be triggered, and the next generation
would have to cough up far more cash than they had. My jobs up in
September, he added.
was a bit of a shock. Id only been there two days, but I could tell
Id have memories of this place forever.
dont you buy it? I asked.
long have you known?
the end of last season.
it make you feel?
of the uncertainty.
be all right though.
are you thinking of doing?
I would have thought that nobody in the world wants to hire a former
banker turned farmer. But, as it turns out, Ive become a bit of an
expert on transgenic foodstuffs. Ive seen first hand the good it can
do. I put us into a program for experimental farms. The summer nights here
were too hot to grow corn until Monsanto invented a strain for the Mid
South. Our seeds are engineered to be worm resistant. Some arent
genetic hybrids they have one gene scratched out. Theres a new
catfish cereal that has fish meal protein mixed in, though weve held
back on using that yet. Ive been reading all the research as these and
other products came to market. So, its a little premature I
havent been hired yet but theres some biotech startups who are
interested in the diversity of my background. Im talking to headhunters
and flying out for interviews.
would have thought taking such a crazy leap would turn out to be the
perfect stepping stone to get in on the next new thing?
part of the country?
cities. Bay Area, Boston, Maryland, research triangle.
And wont be swatting mosquitos in November.
was really heartened to know it was going to work out for Don that
this wasnt irreversible and we talked about it a lot. As he said,
You close one door behind you, and inevitably another opens up in
front. In these startups, they need a business manager who understands
what farmers want and why theyre wary of newfangled products. Its a
lot easier to imagine them buying seed from Don, whos walked in their
shoes, than from some bioengineer whos never set foot on a farm.
fact, when we get back to the office, Don has a phoner with a headhunter.
Dons done more than read the research hes flown to meet with
many of the researchers first hand, for his own education. He visited a
lab in Boston where they were splicing salmon genes into catfish DNA, with
the hopes their supercatfish would get the magical ice water gene.
told me this upcoming passage felt different than the one he made a decade
ago. Hes not trying to play it down, minimize the change it will surely
bring. Transitions not the right word itll require a
transformation. Last October, he went to an continuing education
retreat at Harvard, taught by a sociology professor named Shoshana Zuboff.
Her course was called Odyssey, and it was mostly attended by
businesspeople looking for the next thing in life. She had Don write his
autobiography, then helped him expand on it, write more and more into it,
picking out themes, adding layers. She built her course around the
metaphor of an oyster shell; the outside layer, the formative layer, is
fragile and vulnerable, but the old layers are hard and strong. Don
figures hes got enough layers on him now to hold out no matter how hard
it gets in the next year. Hes looking forward to not merely changing
hats, but changing heads. Did you ever hear businessmen brag about all
the hats they wore? As if wearing the hat was enough, rather than
the whole uniform, or more embodying the whole point of view.
some point, we have to give up the habit of measuring ourselves against
our peers. Don did that long ago. But to prepare for this upcoming
passage, hes been tracking down his old friends and reestablishing
contact. Ironically, his life compares well. Most of Dons classmates
who chose investment banking because it would be a bridge to some other
yet-unknown destination never ended up crossing the bridge. They were
trained to be bankers, they got good at it, they never left its domain.
Most have turned out to be sad guys with gray lives, bankers at accounting
firms, brokers at Schwab, earning half what they did a decade ago the
good times couldnt last forever. Dons come to think the strategy of
keeping your doors open is mostly an illusion, or a trap.
month after my visit, I called for Don to find out if his conversations
with that headhunter had lead to a job yet, and/or if he might be coming
to San Francisco to interview.
hes not here, Dons secretary said.
will he be back?
he went out into the country to set a pile of stumps on fire.
How long you figure that take?
be right quick but, if those stumps are slow to catch, he could be a
you tell him I said hi.
Don emailed me that night. Hed discovered the last words Raymond
Carver wrote, titled Late Fragment:
you get what
wanted from this life even so?
That was classic Don. Ying yanging between piles of stumps by day,
Carvers verse by night.