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Learning Delta Pride

Here’s another thought that stops people, one I hinted at in Bryce’s story: there are a lot of possibilities that sound exciting – but you’re not sure you’d want to do them forever. And because of their quirky nature, they’re resume killers – they slam a lot of doors shut. Sure, it’d be a fun ride, but where do you go from there?

Well, 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:  

1990-present     CATFISH FARMER (Indianola, Mississippi)

Managed 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.

That’s what Don Linn’s resume looks like, and that’s 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?

            To 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 Linn’s office, take a right at the 4-way stop sign and then take a left where the church used to be and it’ll be a quarter mile ahead.

            Where the church used to be?

            How would I know where the church used to be? But that’s 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 ain’t 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, you’d say “we done got thundered on.” When the catfish tastes good, it’s “on flavor.” The foreman is called the straw boss, and if he’s off drinking you’re 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:

            “How you been?”

            “I been good.”

            “Where you been?”

            “I been around.”

            “So when you figure he be around then?”

            “He be here ten minutes or so.”

            Eleven 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 can’t get any men to work during bow hunting season. Conversations focus on hunting, football, and who’s 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.

Don 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 England’s intellectual culture, but he’s insistent on one point, which took him a year to wake up to: “It’d be easy to mistake these people’s ways for lack of intelligence, but most of them are as smart as you and me. They’ve never been out in the world. Some are uneducated, but they know their business better than I know mine.”

            This part of the state doesn’t have a long history. It was swamp and bayou until the levees were constructed along the Mississippi in the 1920’s. 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 wouldn’t 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 nature’s most efficient animal in turning feed into protein (twice as efficient as chicken, for instance). Catfish are the hogs of aquaculture – they’ll 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 water’s 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.

            That’s about when Don arrived. He’s six feet even, thick sideswept auburn hair, too-pink of skin for these parts, and has let his gut go a little. He hasn’t changed much what he wears: pleated khakis, pink polo, docksiders. Don’s 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, there’s psychic income galore. But Don isn’t one of those people. He didn’t come to Mississippi with the sentiment that farming was particularly noble. Back in Dallas, he didn’t own a cabin out in lake country. He carries a rifle in case he encounters a water moccasin, but that’s all it’s 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 moral fashion. 

            His 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 they’d 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 he’d got himself in to.

            A few nights later, the phone rang at 2 a.m. Don couldn’t sleep anyway, it was so hot.

            “Get on out to the ponds,” the voice said.

            Don 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.

            “They can’t breathe,” Don was told. “They’re coming to the surface to get a gulp of air.”

            Why would fish be breathing air? It didn’t make any sense. Slowly he figured it out. There’s 10,000 head of fish to every acre – unbelievably thick with fish, and they’re 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.

            Don found that other farmers wouldn’t return his phone calls. He wondered if he’d 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.

I make it sound like his MBA ain’t worth a lick here, and I don’t mean to. Farming is a famously tough business. It’s as risky as biotech and it pays out no better than T-bills. (That’s 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 can’t harvest the fish when it’s too hot, or they won’t be on flavor. If the fish get too big while you’re waiting for their flavor to clean out, they become too tough.

Grow 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 there’s worm-resistant seed, which can get by with little pesticide – except the seed is expensive, which means Don’s bet is already in the ground. If the sprouts get hailed on or can’t get a stand through the crust, he loses his bet. Last summer, it was so hot that Don’s plants couldn’t 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, it’s a classic resource-optimization-problem. In the language of a farmer, it’s just life.

Late 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 coop’s 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.

            The 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.

            Don’s dedication and resourcefulness have paid off. Despite the deteriorating agricultural economy countrywide, Don’s business has grown – at rates even his business school mates would admire. Revenue has tripled and profits have quadrupled.

I rode with Don on his rounds. He’s calm and thoughtful. Nothing I asked him caught him off guard or forced him to contemplate something he hasn’t 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 didn’t leave anything out.

Most of Don’s days are spent shuttling about in his Suburban, making sure everything’s getting done. The rule of thumb for farming is, “go wherever you’re spending or making the most money at that moment.” This morning a seining crew was harvesting the catfish in pond 9. They’d 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 doesn’t have to say too much. His presence is a motivator. If his hires don’t think they’re being monitored, they’ll slack off. That’s the work culture here, and so that’s the essential nature of his role, and it’s hard for that not to have its erosive effect – he has to be slightly watchful, just about all the time. Don didn’t learn this lesson quickly, and it’s not in his basic nature. On Wall Street everybody’s 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.

I asked Don why he left First Boston.

“I started out at Paine Webber,” he said. “We were drilled that if we gave good advice we’d 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 went ahead.”

The 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. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s no different than Hollywood cranking out the Matrix sequels, or the record industry churning out boy bands.

I 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.

“So you understand this then,” Don said.

“I 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 works.”

“Well, I was old enough to know I didn’t want to do business that way, and I told my bosses as much. I told them I’d 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 wouldn’t work – if he did the deal, he’d 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 couldn’t do it. My father was a high school principal. My role model was a professor of finance at Vanderbilt. They never compromised their ethics.”

“So what’d you do?”

“Well, around this same time, my baby boy was walking but not yet talking. He’d entered that phase when he was developing separation anxiety. Part of that is he’d 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 I’d 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.”

“And he didn’t recognize you?”

“I was a stranger. He’d cry if his mother walked out of the room, but he’d cry if I walked in the room. That was when it finally hit me. No more.”

Don’s story fit the same pattern as Bryce’s – unethical business alone wasn’t 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 didn’t get me to quit – it was realizing how much weight I’d lost. If you need to summon the will to make a change, don’t debate ethics. Get personal. If you don’t 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 home.

“So 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.

“Not exactly. I came to an agreement with the firm that after the bonus cycle, I wouldn’t re-up for another round. I had about thirty days to figure out what to do next.”

“You didn’t have savings?”

“Well, I had some, but with a mortgage and two kids …” He wasn’t going to let himself hang out for months waiting for a vision.

“So, of all the things you could have done, how in the world did you end up a catfish farmer? Particularly if you didn’t think it was noble, and you weren’t an outdoorsman itching to get back to the land?”

“It wasn’t like I chose catfish farmer off a long list of possibilities. It was the only opportunity that presented itself.”

This farm had been passed down in her wife’s family since the Depression, but her generation had run for the cities and wanted nothing to do with farming. If they couldn’t find somebody to manage the operation, the family would have to sell the land. During this 30-day period, Don’s father-in-law paid them a visit, described his problem, and Don – who’d never in his wildest dreams considered something like this – volunteered for the job. It wasn’t 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.

“Weren’t you afraid?”

“I sure was.”

“Of?”

“Of 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 I’d done this crazy thing? I didn’t 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.

“Was that feeling of being able to see the rest of your life, knowing it wouldn’t change much – was that comfortable or uncomfortable?”

“Both.”

            Farming may be just a business to Don, but it’s had a different effect on him than investment banking did, just as the catfish changed when it started feeding from cleaner water. Success here doesn’t come at someone else’s expense. Don isn’t trying to steal another farm’s business. He can’t outbid them or charge more than the market will bear, and there’s no chance for excessive profits. It encourages him to be steady, to take it slow, and to ride out the crises.

            I took the chance to bring up the irreversibility question. Was he going to do this forever? Did he even have a choice?

            He said, “Those soybeans we watched going in – those are the last soybeans we’ll ever plant.”

            “What are you going to grow instead?”

            “Nothing. We’re selling the farm.”

            “Why? You can’t make any money?”

            “No, we’re doing fine. We’ve had some tough years, but the farm’s well capitalized. The family wants their money out.” If his wife’s 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 job’s up in September,” he added.

            This was a bit of a shock. I’d only been there two days, but I could tell I’d have memories of this place forever.

            “Why don’t you buy it?” I asked.

            “Can’t afford it.”

            “How long have you known?”

            “Since the end of last season.”

            “How’s it make you feel?”

            “Scared of the uncertainty.”

            “I bet.”

            “I’ll be all right though.”

            “What are you thinking of doing?”

            “Well, I would have thought that nobody in the world wants to hire a former banker turned farmer. But, as it turns out, I’ve become a bit of an expert on transgenic foodstuffs. I’ve 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 aren’t genetic hybrids – they have one gene scratched out. There’s a new catfish cereal that has fish meal protein mixed in, though we’ve held back on using that yet. I’ve been reading all the research as these and other products came to market. So, it’s a little premature – I haven’t been hired yet – but there’s some biotech startups who are interested in the diversity of my background. I’m talking to headhunters and flying out for interviews.”

            “Wow.”

            “Yeah.”

“Who 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?”

“Not me.”

“What part of the country?”

“Big cities. Bay Area, Boston, Maryland, research triangle.”

“Intellectual havens.”

“Yup. And won’t be swatting mosquitos in November.”

            I was really heartened to know it was going to work out for Don – that this wasn’t 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 they’re wary of newfangled products. It’s a lot easier to imagine them buying seed from Don, who’s walked in their shoes, than from some bioengineer who’s never set foot on a farm.

            In fact, when we get back to the office, Don has a phoner with a headhunter. Don’s done more than read the research – he’s 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.

            Don told me this upcoming passage felt different than the one he made a decade ago. He’s not trying to play it down, minimize the change it will surely bring. “Transition’s not the right word – it’ll 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 he’s got enough layers on him now to hold out no matter how hard it gets in the next year. He’s 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.

            At 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, he’s been tracking down his old friends and reestablishing contact. Ironically, his life compares well. Most of Don’s 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 couldn’t last forever. Don’s come to think the strategy of keeping your doors open is mostly an illusion, or a trap.

            A 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.

            “Oh, he’s not here,” Don’s secretary said.

            “When will he be back?”

            “Well, he went out into the country to set a pile of stumps on fire.”

            “Mmmm. How long you figure that take?”

            “Could be right quick but, if those stumps are slow to catch, he could be a while.”

            “Well you tell him I said hi.”

            “I sure will.”    

            Don emailed me that night. He’d discovered the last words Raymond Carver wrote, titled “Late Fragment”:

            And did you get what

            You wanted from this life even so?

            I did.

            That was classic Don. Ying yanging between piles of stumps by day, Carver’s verse by night.