In January, I sat down with American philanthropist and Midwestern farmer Howard Buffett, eldest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Named after his grandfather, Howard grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and has been active in business, politics, agriculture conservation, photography and philanthropy. Without question, billionaire sons might have mammoth expectations placed on them, and certainly reading his bio can make one get “credentials fatigue.”

And you always wonder, how grounded can one be growing up in the rarified world of not just a success story, but an exceptional one? Well, I can answer that. Howard Buffett is solidly grounded and certainly focused on his passion, farming.

I even discovered a man with an offer to Arizona farmers: Present the right experimental idea with broad benefits and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation will consider supplying the resources. “About a year ago, one of the local guys said, ‘a lot of people have come and gone from Willcox.  There’s an old saying… when in Rome do as the Romans do,’” explains Buffett. “Then I said, ‘yeah, well, okay I’m getting it.’ In other words, when in Willcox do as the Willcoxians do. Look, we’re going to do all sorts of things here in Willcox that people will think is crazy.

“Here’s the thing: If any farmer wants to try something here but they can’t because of the economics of it, tell us and we’ll try it. We don’t know how to grow cotton; we don’t have the equipment to do cotton. But if there is something you want to do with cotton; we’ll get somebody who has the equipment and we’ll use our land; we’ll put our effort into it.”

A member of Arizona Farm Bureau under Sequoia Holdings, LLC (the Willcox farm), Buffett farms 1,500 acres in Illinois. His son, Howard W., farms 400 acres in Nebraska. These represent their personal farms. Designed and developed for agriculture-based research, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation farms include 9,200 acres in South Africa; 3,000 acres also in Illinois and then 1,400 acres in Willcox.

Buffett is an advocate of no-till conservation agriculture and believes we should be able to do it just about anywhere. And while he acknowledges that about one third of U.S. farming employs no-till, he’s amazed how little no-till is done in the Willcox valley. “I guarantee you, you can do it,” he says. “We did it last year. We may learn some things that we need to adjust. Pinto beans, for example, are more difficult to no-till. We no-tilled them into alfalfa this year to see what kind of disaster we would have and we had a bit of a disaster but we’re trying to learn.”

As president of the Howard G. Buffet Foundation that gives away tens of millions of dollars annually, Buffett has traveled all over the world to document the challenges of preserving biodiversity, yet providing adequate resources to combat hunger and poverty. The Foundation’s projects cover agriculture, nutrition, water and conservation especially in Africa and Central America. One of the Foundation’s more recent projects was to launch the Global Water Initiative with several other organizations to address the declining fresh water supply and provide clean water to the world’s poorest people. At its core, Buffett is trying to help small farmers increase yields without increasing costs for the world’s poorest people.

His camera lens has brought him up close and personal to devastating poverty. About his photographs of suffering children, he’s been quoted saying, “It becomes a set of circumstances; not just an image.”

On his agriculture perspective, one might conclude that Buffett doesn’t feel American farmers are moving fast enough with their conservation practices. But, he does agree that American farmers are the most productive and efficient at what they do.

Arizona Agriculture: Why Arizona; Why Willcox?

Buffett: Every year for about 10 years we came to Arizona and spent time with the Border Patrol to work on immigration issues. I got familiar with Arizona that way.

In the meantime, the 9,200-acre farm in South Africa that we’ve had for a long time is where we do a lot of research. We did some regular farming to get an idea of what costs were. After 15 years, we decided there are things we could do easier and more cost effectively here than over there. We looked for an area we could have drought and heat stress; primarily drought stress. We have water so we could have our benchmark fields against drought tolerance.

We’ve set up test plots designed to mimic small production in Africa and we’re working with a large agriculture manufacturer and seed company to put together a conservation agriculture system. We develop and test everything here and then we’ll migrate it to the other countries.

Ultimately, that’s what drove us back here. Where could we find an area in the U.S. that would mimic some of what we want but would be so much easier to do? Flying to South Africa takes a while.

This one [Willcox Farm] will actually be a hybrid. Besides mimicking small farms in Africa for that reason, we will have all of the precision testing equipment for Purdue and Penn State and we think Texas A&M will eventually be down here too. We’ll have precision planters, precision combines, everything. We’re setting up an 80-acre drip field too.

Plus, we’re doing a little bit of our own stuff; water tests on 10 acres. Some larger research will be alley cropping with corn and beans which will take a whole pivot. We’re looking at yield differences.

The truth is eventually we’ll need more ground out here. We’re just getting started. We’re building a 60x90-foot lab. The lab will do tissue sampling, root sampling, plant sampling, and all sorts of microscope stuff that I don’t even know how to describe. That’s primarily Penn State and Purdue.

We do hope to connect efforts with the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, eventually. We actually know good people at ASU that we’ve had a long relationship with. We’ve worked a lot with ASU on immigration issues.

Arizona Agriculture: What’s your philosophy behind all the research you’re doing?

Buffett: I had two experiences that really irritated me. The first one, I was in Mozambique, probably 10 years ago. I was at the research center talking to the person in charge. Of course, they call corn “maize” over there. He said the maize yields were over 6 tons to the hectare.

I said, “Well, what’s the average for the country, you know for the normal farmer?”

“Less than a ton a hectare,” he explained. 

It drives me nuts the amount of money that is spent on research that never transfers to farmers. We have the problem here too in the United States. It’s a big issue.

We farm; we should be paying more attention to this and figuring out how to transfer knowledge. Or, do we need to do some things differently in the research so that what we study transfers to real agriculture production.

On another occasion, I was sitting at the state department talking to a USAID [United States Agency for International Development] person about 5 years ago. We started discussing what would work in South Africa. He suggested synthetic fertilizers and seed, that’s all we need. This was said with no knowledge of how important soil was and no knowledge of the degradation that’s already taken place in other countries and how you build that back up.

He asked me what kind of data I had to support my claim. At the time, I thought well, I can look some stuff up but it was kind of irritating to me that a guy that’s never farmed in his life was telling me how to do it. Even the best stuff does not work the way you want it to.

So, in the last five years we’ve been doing three or four things in South Africa, Illinois and Arizona looking at different ways of documenting the impact of synthetic fertilizer versus cover crops, versus yields and so forth. So that when people talk to us we can say, yes, we have data and this is how we got it and what we did to get it. In some circumstances it might be for small farmers in South Africa or Central America; in other circumstances it’s for large farmers in the United States. We do a lot of no-till, strip till, nutrient management, and cover crop work.

Arizona Agriculture: What was your inspiration to farm and ultimately do so much ag-related work with poor countries?

Buffett: My mom always told me I didn’t have enough Tonka toys when I was little. I just like playing in the dirt. That’s how I got started.

I like doing stuff that’s physical, the environment and I love equipment.

The big epiphany, the real passion, came through with my photography when I found myself photographing children that were suffering so much. I photographed children that have died of malnutrition within two or three days after being photographed. Those were difficult photographs.

What really changed things for me was when I had the opportunity to establish the Foundation at a different level with more resources that included a staff and partners and things we couldn’t do individually. That’s what drove what we’re doing today. We do realize that there is a lot to learn. We’ve brought a lot of people to our farm in Illinois, put them on the combine, talked to them and walked about. They’ve discovered what it takes to do things and also come away understanding why certain things won’t work in South Africa.

The farms are the best education tools we’ve got!

Arizona Agriculture: You point out obvious hunger in other countries. It’s a bit more hidden in the United States. What’s drawing you to help here in America?

Buffett: It was not a conscious decision. Two things happened simultaneously. One, we’ve been working on agriculture productivity for small farmers all over the world, especially Africa and Latin America; at the same time it leads you to deal with hunger issues.

What first got me thinking of hunger in the United States were farmers. We can improve productivity for all these small farmers in other countries but we’re still going to need a really productive United States to meet all the global food security needs of the future. This led me to start thinking about who can we partner with; Feeding America came along. [ is the nation’s largest charity focused on hunger relief at home. Farm Bureaus across the country this last year raised just under one million dollars through their “Harvest for All” program in partnership with Feeding America.]

I started learning a lot more about food insecurity in America at the same time I was learning a lot more about agriculture in America and really shifted my thinking on both issues. What we want to do in America is use our resources in such a way that we’re not duplicating efforts. So, for example we have the Map the Meal Gap, used to show what hunger looks like in the U.S. Plus, the Invest an Acre program enlists U.S. farmers to donate the proceeds from one or more acres to feed needy people in their own communities.

You’ll find hungry Americans not because there aren’t enough farmers or food, but because they don’t have access to the food or they simply can’t afford it. Outside of the United States, it’s different. Other countries are not growing enough food for their own people.

Arizona Agriculture: Does America retain that lead position in trying to feed the world and do we bring other countries up to take a lead position?

Buffett: I think the U.S. will remain overall number one for many years because we have a lot of advantages that we’ve developed over a couple of hundred years from research to infrastructure to technology.

Arizona Agriculture: What can we be doing better? What should we be doing?

Buffett: Water management. The Foundation is looking at our three major U.S. water sources for agriculture: The Colorado River, Ogallala Aquifer and Mississippi River. [The Ogallala Aquifer is part of the High Plains Aquifer System, a vast yet shallow underground water table located beneath the Great Plains in the United States. One of the world’s largest aquifers, it covers an area of approximately 174,000 square miles in portions of the eight states of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.]

The first two are about water management and conservation and the third one is about runoff and pollution. We’re focused on how to look at these three watersheds from an agricultural perspective, not from the EPA, USDA, not from the regulatory side, but how do we do a better job and maintain our flexibility as a farmer and our productivity. Interestingly, the Colorado is the one with the biggest wins if you implement improved conservation strategies. We have the greatest potential for maximum use with the Colorado River.

Arizona Agriculture: Are we going to feed ourselves globally by 2050? What’s your confidence level?

Buffett: Not real high. I mean there’s a difference in feeding yourself with a minimum caleric intake of 2,000 calories a day and feeding ourselves the way we’re used to eating in this country. I think if we take care of our soil and water resources, we’ll be able to feed ourselves in this country in 2050. I’m not too worried about that but it does require a lot smarter use of resources.

When you look at where the population growth is, it’s not in this country. And you look at scarcity of water that’s going to be there and you look at the abuse of soils that has taken place globally there’s going to be lots of wars fought over water and food in 2050. I say wars, I say conflicts; there will be regional conflicts.

Arizona Agriculture: Is that part of what drives you?

Buffett: Well, I don’t think we’re going to change the world. But, a huge part of that is education and in a country like this we’ve had success. In contrast, the people of Eastern Congo, where we’ve done a lot of work, are not worried about water resources or their soil. They’re worried about whether they’re going to eat this week. Dennis Avery from the Hudson Institute in 1992 said, “No one will starve to save a tree.”

At the time, we were doing a lot of work in conservation and it didn’t quite soak in. So, when I started going around looking at our conservation programs especially in Africa I’d say, can I go and talk to those guys in the village next door. When you do that you find out there’s lots of conflict with Cheetah management or land management. All of a sudden it was a whole different world. I started realizing, you’re right, no one is going to starve to death to save a tree. People have to eat first; then they can manage their resources to continue supporting their family. That was a big shift for us to start looking at things differently.

On a global basis, there’s going to be a serious challenge with food and water by 2050.

Arizona Agriculture: A disconnect exists with the urban foodie often insisting on exclusive urban/local farming to the exclusion of large production agriculture. As key influencers does this put agriculture at risk?

Buffett: It’s a big problem; a huge problem. They don’t connect well at all. I’m going to start to answer that question with something that’s very close to Arizona. Outside the agriculture community, this country has zero understanding of the importance of migrant labor. You can talk to guys in Yuma, Arizona that have moved their operation across the border to Mexico because they can’t get labor. This is going to become a big factor for agriculture if we don’t get it right. Without migrant labor you’re going to have very expensive lettuce, strawberries and everything else. And you’re going to have an availability problem ultimately including safety issues.

People need a basic understanding of how they get their food. That can be production out of Yuma or Fresno or elsewhere. Foodies don’t get that. They’re so far removed from [agriculture] and it’s so easy for them and it’s so inexpensive and it’s so safe. So, all those things make it really easy to not worry about your food.

The truth is, organic food, grown organically the way a lot of people want to grow it can be as unsafe as any production system. A lot of biologists, farmers and scientists understand that but most people don’t. People have a huge misunderstanding of what it takes to feed a country.

If you have an e-Coli outbreak in this country and three people die, it’s the biggest news story you’ve ever heard. If you have 28 people die in France from bacteria from an organic farm you don’t read about it.

It’s great when you have a First Lady that wants to talk about gardens. Her focus helps people eat healthy; it helps people understand what it takes to grow food. The problem is when she, or anyone else, doesn’t understand agriculture as a whole industry. She projects the idea that your backyard garden is the solution. But it’s not the solution.

We can’t feed seven billion people today with the production we have and you’re not going to do that through gardens and urban farms. During a meeting with urban foodies, sitting there and listening to a crowd of 40 or 50 people talk I asked, “Who’s the farmer?” Nobody raised their hand. The group needed someone there that understood the effort from the production standpoint.


After the interview, I concluded Buffett has an endless list of things to do. He’s certainly on task. But it’s more than that. It even feels as if he’s running out of time. Not because he’s older, but the planet is desperate; desperate for answers about food and resource management.

A lot goes through your mind when you meet someone like Howard Buffett. You’re not surprised that he’s living a fascinating life; nor are you surprised that he’s got expansive plans for his farming and research.

I must confess for me, though, one well-known phrase kept cycling through the gray matter between my ears: “To whom much is given much is expected.” More specifically, Luke 12:48 says, “.... From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Much has been given, demanded and asked of Howard G. Buffett. And, yes, he is giving much; holding firm to the expectation.