Dylan Ratigan Unplugged: Ex-MSNBC Host Turns Hydroponic Entrepreneur

Bye, MSNBC. Hello, hydroponics. Dan Gross talks to the ex-journalist about his greenhouse-farming epiphany.

Donna Svennevik/ABC via Getty

Dylan Ratigan resurfaced this week.

After nearly two decades of climbing the New York media ladder—Bloomberg wire-service reporter, anchor at Bloomberg TV and CNBC, a self-titled show on MSNBC—Ratigan walked away from his show last June. On Wednesday, he announced on his blog that he has moved to Southern California to help a former Marine build a network of hydroponic greenhouses aimed at employing fellow veterans.

Cue the snark from the Twitterverse and the blogosphere. Many of us occupy a world in which having your own hour on a cable channel is an all-consuming goal and the ne plus ultra. Ratigan, who lived the dream, now inhabits one in which people don’t know what a “hit” is, men typically don’t wear makeup, and few people know—or care—what TVNewser is. “I don’t miss it,” he told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “I teach a class at the school on the farm with the veterans, and somebody will occasionally raise their hand and say, ‘Aren’t you the guy who did the crazy rant on YouTube?’ “

The crazy rant came in August 2011, a Howard Beale moment from a journalist who understood the financial crisis from the inside out, and watched in disbelief and rage as banks and financiers got bailed out while veterans returned home to a poor jobs market. Ratigan fleshed out his frustrations in Greedy Bastards, a book about the intertwined and corrupt financial and political systems. The show and bestseller were simultaneous jeremiads about the search for solutions. Aside from just talking heads and journalists (disclosure: including me) tossing around left-right talking points, his show featured people who were trying to make a difference, discussions of sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and jobs programs.

As a working journalist, Ratigan had long believed that “telling good stories and revealing not readily apparent truths have benefit—to the investment structure, or the culture, or the political construct,” he said. But by mid-2012, “I had lost any sense that that was true.” And so after the book launched, a frustrated and burned-out Ratigan walked away, seeking meaning and purpose in his life. “After 780 hours of political cable news, 6,000 hours of live financial television, 45 cities, two national jobs tours, 277,963 signatures to amend the Constitution, 245 pages of book, and a promotion tour for Greedy Bastards, I was exhausted,” he noted on his blog this week.

Many observers believed Ratigan’s next step (after a long vacation) might include a run for office, or a return to another platform—another program, another network. But Ratigan was spending more time with a couple he had met on his show, Colin and Karen Archipley. Colin is a Marine veteran of three combat tours in Iraq who had redefined his mission as building hydroponic greenhouses that can be run by veterans.

Last fall, at a U.S. Marine Corps ball, Ratigan hung out with Archipley and members of Lima 3/1 Company—a group of guys who had been through hell in the Battle of Fallujah. “And they weren’t resentful, and they weren’t petty and self-absorbed,” Ratigan said. Impressed by their strength, their potential, and Archipley’s leadership, Ratigan had an epiphany. “I had all my hesitations about my own assets and my own life. I was just like, ‘Fuck it.’ Understanding what they had been through, all I had to do was move across the country.” Ratigan sold his Tribeca loft on North Moore Street, sold the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, and rented a 1933 furnished log cabin near Dana Point, California. “The only thing I own inside of it is my clothing,” he said.

Ratigan has plowed some of the cash he earned from his New York media days into a new venture: a 30,000-square-foot “farm incubator” that can serve as the prototype for job-creating, water-saving, food-producing, veteran-led, hydroponic organic greenhouses.

In Ratigan’s prior life, “Basel” was the Swiss city where banking regulations are made. Today, it’s a cash crop. “Beyond the basil, which is sold in Whole Foods, we have kale and chard and bok choy and bell peppers.” The plan is to build a network of one-acre “farms” composed of hydroponic greenhouses. Each will create 10 jobs on the farm and 25 jobs elsewhere through the economy. The cost: $800,000 in more expensive areas in the northern part of the country, and $500,000–$600,000 in warmer parts of the country. Archipley has three greenhouses on his property outside San Diego. They hope to have sites up and running in Boston, San Antonio, Texas, and San Bernardino, California, by the end of 2013. “The idea is to create an investment fund that is ‘long’ the next farm,” said Ratigan, who occasionally lapses into the lingo of his finance journalism past.

With his connections, Ratigan could have gone to the White House, or gone directly to CEOs and foundations. Instead, he decided to start with the, um, grassroots. “I thought the idea of coming back to New York with a story of success that was self-generated by a Californian and his wife would be more compelling. The idea was ‘show rather than to tell’”—which is one of the maxims of Bloomberg News, where Ratigan got started.

It’s hard to imagine Ratigan, a high-energy presence on television, patiently watching vegetables grow. And he has the self-awareness to realize that his story is something of a cliché: guy approaching middle age after two decades in the big city has midlife crisis, goes back to the land and discovers valuable life lessons. But he’s upfront that his disillusionment with the New York media world has as much to do with changes in Dylan Ratigan as they do with changes in the news business. “It’s your relationship with what you’re doing that matters.”

Simply put, what’s he doing now matters more to him than tossing to Chris Matthews. “I miss everything about New York,” he said, and he still returns to the city every six to eight weeks. But the lights, the makeup sessions, the producers yelling in his ear, the teleprompters, and the ubiquitous car services? Not so much. The last time he was in a Town Car: “If you rule out the times I arrive at Newark airport, it was June 22, 2012, which was my last television show.”