What Mississippi Catfish Farms Look Like From Above

By James Fallows

Or at least that is how some of them looked yesterday, from 2500 feet up over the Mississippi Delta. (The triangular white area is window reflection.) For another view, which gives an idea of how strangely brown much of the Delta area looks—this was near Clarksdale, as I remember—at this time of year:

Mississippi is the leading catfish-producing state; the clay-rich soils of the Delta are part of the reason why extensive ponds are so suitable here. The map below is a decade-plus out of date but still conveys the main idea.

Map from Auburn University

I don't care that much about catfish—though there's an intriguing story here about the odd role that Bangladeshi catfish farmers have played in recent travails of the U.S. industry (not the one you would expect). Plus last night my wife and I enjoyed our fill of catfish, hush puppies, deep-fried jalapenos, and more at the monthly Fish Fry held at the small and friendly Lowndes County airport, in Columbus, and hosted by Billy Scarborough of Tri-South Aviation

Preparing for an on-airport fish fry. That's the runway in the background, and deep-fat fryers in the foreground.

Instead I mention this mainly for a regional and a journalistic-procedural reason. The regional one is that for the past few days we've been in Louisiana, East Texas, and now back in Mississippi, seeing wildlife refuges, downtowns struggling to recover, and—as mentioned last month about Mississippi's "Golden Triangle"—the surprising heavy-industrial boom in this part of the state. Our partners from Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal et al, are here in town to talk about the buffets to one of the poorest parts of the country, and the efforts of some determined local people to change their prospects. We spent this afternoon with one of those people, Brenda Lathan, and will go out tomorrow with another, Joe Max Higgins.

(By the way, if you're looking for heavy-duty footage of the steel-mill technology I wrote about previously, and that we'll visit again tomorrow, I suggest the video below. It's in German, but the pictures get the message across in any language.)

If you start at around time 2:00, you'll see some of the highlights. Thanks for this tip to Tim Heffernan, who usefully notes: "A trick for finding great industrial videos is to find the German word for the piece of equipment in question and use that as the search term. German firms really make an art of their promos!"


The journalistic-procedural reason for this post is yet another shift in the conventions of digital-age journalism. Twenty years ago, when the Atlantic launched its "Atlantic Unbound" site, we put things online mainly when we thought they would not stand the delay until print-magazine publication. That evolved into today's very popular Atlantic.com site.

When I shifted my own little home-made site to be part of the online Atlantic eight years ago, my main intention was to do what my then-Atlantic-colleague Andrew Sullivan described in his "Why I Blog" cover story. That is, to chronicle developments I found interesting or important—and, ideally, to engage an audience in an incrementally unfolding "thinking in public" exercise of refining views. As Sullivan explained, the incremental part was important: you experimented with observations, heard responses, and adapted. My friend and colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates is justly celebrated for applying this thinking-out-loud approach.

The momentum of Internet traffic is shifting—as everything in journalism and technology ceaselessly does. There's more emphasis, at all sites including ours, on the standalone post (or chart or list or video) optimized for social-media sharing, and vanishingly less assumption of any incremental or unfolding attention. This is inevitable, in a digital abundance/overload era in which there is more of everything than anyone could read. It may also return journalism to something like its fundamentals, in which writers constantly juggle the balance among: what matters to them, what they think should matter to the world, what will get the most attention, and what they think will get any attention at all. (I have an article coming up in the print magazine on the latest twists of this attention-shortage question.) But it's a shift to note.

As affects our current travels, this shift in internet styles means that my wife and I are doing less "here's where we are, and why it's interesting" incidental posting, and saving up for more concerted, "produced" pieces—in the magazine, via videos, using maps, with our radio partners—about the trends and places we've seen. Thus we've posted little or nothing yet about some of the truly impressive and interesting places we've visited, from Winters, California and nearby cities in the Central Valley, to Greer, South Carolina, to Caddo Lake on the Louisiana-Texas border, while storing up for bigger productions. Ten years ago, in the pre-prevalent-blogging age, this would have seemed natural: It takes a long time for things to appear in print. Now I'm sure it seems a little odd to people who have taken time to show us around.

This too may be journalism returning to its natural equilibrium: You ask people's attention only when you've produced a completed thought. That is how our magazine has operated through most of its time. (At various stages in its history, it did function as a kind of in-print blog, but that's for discussion another time. See, this is an incremental pointer!) Again, it is a shift, which I note, largely for myself. On to the factories tomorrow, and a radio report soon.

Previous post                                                                  Next post

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/05/what-mississippi-catfish-farms-look-like-from-above/361909/