A Follow-Up Conversation with a Humanitarian: Howard Buffett
In 2013, 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. Knowing the interesting things he was doing with research on the Willcox farm, I reached out to him once again.
A member of Arizona Farm Bureau under Sequoia Holdings, LLC (the Willcox farm), Buffett oversees 1,500 acres in Illinois and farms 400 acres in Nebraska. These represent his personal farms. Designed and developed for agriculture-based research, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation farms include 4,400 acres in Illinois, 4,170 acres in Nebraska, 1,050 acres in Willcox and HGBF previously operated a 9,200-acre research farm.
As chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett 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 food security, water resource management, conflict mitigation, public safety, and conservation especially in Africa and Central America. At its core, the Foundation 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, Buffett has been quoted saying, “It becomes a set of circumstances; not just an image.”
What fascinates me is the myriad of activities he’s engaged in to feed a hungry world as reflected in his most recent book, Forty Chances, Finding Hope in a Hungry World, while at the same time doing research regarding modern-day farming practices to help the industry get better and better. Howard Buffett’s heart-felt agriculture philosophy (quoting from his book Forty Chances): “Sometimes in life someone makes a statement that changes your thinking, maybe even your direction in life. I had it happen to me in 1992. Up until then I had focused my philanthropy on conservation initiatives such as cheetah preservation and mountain gorillas. But when Dennis Avery and I started discussing the perceived conflict between intensive agriculture production and conservation, Dennis said to me “no one will starve to save a tree.” It was a clarifying moment, I started to see how large-scale farm production could save millions of acres of important bio-diverse habitats. Of course, it isn’t that simple. It depends on policies, infrastructure and most importantly, the farming techniques used. However, I started to understand that when we maximize agricultural production on well-suited land, we can meet the food needs of people while preventing the conversion of important ecosystems into farmland.”
Arizona Agriculture : In 2013, you and I chatted about your Willcox farm and the efforts you were engaged in to improve farming for third-world countries. Give us an update on your efforts on the Willcox farms and what you see as the next big outcomes with some of the research farming you’re doing.
Buffett : We continue to focus on making the economic case to farmers – whether they are here in the U.S. or in the developing world – for conservation-ag farming practices that improve soil health and water-use management. The longer we do these studies, the stronger the case we can make. We continue to do our water conservation study comparing center-pivot irrigation versus sub-surface drip versus furrow/flood. We are also comparing no-till with cover crops versus no cover.
Another experiment we are doing compares using different winter cover crops in combination with shorter season corn and tracking the return-on-investment to demonstrate the viability of certain cover crops that have good N-fixing capability. We have recently published our preliminary research findings. We look forward to updating those as we get more years of data to compare.
Ultimately, our goal is to make sure we aren’t doing too much that is new, and instead focusing on building a long-term, evidence base for the value of conservation ag practices. A good portion of our cover crop, irrigation, and tillage research is ongoing. We are, however, preparing to start a new experiment this year where we will be investigating more viable ways to use compost to restore soil biological activity and functionality.
COO Doug Oller and Howard Buffett discuss water use on their Willcox farm where research on crop efficiency and more is being conducted.
Arizona Agriculture : You mentioned in our last interview how research and knowledge transfer to farmers don’t always translate because sometimes the research being done isn’t applicable to the everyday farmer environment. Have we gotten any better at this at least with research on the global front?
Buffett : We recently published a summary of the farm research we or research partners we funded have conducted on our own farms or in other real-world contexts so that we could share with farmers what we’ve learned from “real-world” research. Because this is not an academic paper, we believe the lessons we’ve learned and shared are practical and will be helpful to U.S. farmers, with relevant applications for the developing world. People must understand research and the implications for farming as it relates to the world they live in if we want them to adopt different practices. This is the standard more people and organizations need to use if they want to influence farmer behavior.
Outside the U.S., we have been working for the last five years to create the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture ( www.rica.rw) – a higher education institute in Rwanda that will have a hands-on training approach to education about agriculture. Young people interested in careers in agriculture, whether that be as a farmer or working in agribusiness or as an ag-policy maker, need to understand and experience the link between education, research, and real-world farming. Every student at this school will have their own smallholder farming experience during their first academic year, learn about value-added agribusinesses that are national priorities for development, and stay closely connected with and work to solve the problems local farmers face in improving their productivity and livelihoods. This kind of hands-on training and first-hand experience forces students to confront and address real-world problems in a real-world context, not in a lab setting. We think this kind of education model will help shape how we do ag education not only in Africa but in the U.S. Our first 84 students, individuals we think will be the future leaders in agriculture in Rwanda, start school in September 2019. It will be many years before we can see how well this kind of training model influences future ag development in Rwanda (or the region) but the feedback we’ve had from educators in both Rwanda and the U.S. is that this is really the future of ag education and how we better prepare young people for solving problems in the real world.
A related project, and where much of RICA extension efforts will take place initially, is our NASHO Irrigation Cooperative Project. We put in place 63 center pivots -- and built a solar farm to offset electricity costs -- on land owned and operated by 2,000 smallholder farmers in the Eastern Province of Rwanda, an area prone to drought. NASHO is a real-world experiment in transferring improved practices to farmers. It’s not been easy – there have been many problems that we are still working through. Despite these challenges, farmers have more than quadrupled their yields for maize, while increasing their revenue by five times; bean productivity has been less dramatic – 80% improvement over three years – mainly due to lack of availability of soybean seeds. We are testing seed multiplication at the site on several pivots to address this problem. It’s a good start but we know we have plenty of work to do – despite these gains, our demonstration pivot is outperforming area farmers by nearly two times on every measure. But we’ve been pleased with how the farmers have responded to this experiment, and it’s been really interesting to see certain farmers stand apart as early and committed adopters of improved farming practices. Their results in the field make it much easier to get the rest of the farmers to then follow them. We will have a lot more to share and say about NASHO in the coming years.
Arizona Agriculture : Any new perspectives about farming in Arizona?
Buffett : The types of challenges we face farming in Arizona have not changed, they just keep getting more difficult to manage. Water, heat, extreme weather events – these are variables that are not in our control, even when we have the best management practices in place.
Arizona Agriculture : One of Arizona Farm Bureau’s priority issues is water. That happens to be yours also. As technology improvements help us lower our water use in agriculture, we also know that in certain regions of the country we’ll be constantly challenged to use this limited resource, certainly the desert southwest. What’s your latest assessment of water use in agriculture and are we moving fast enough to continue preserving an adequate water supply for the future?
Buffett : Water is precious, and we continue to see it decline here on our farms in Arizona. We monitor our irrigation wells bi-annually and water levels are dropping in the static level. It continues to be more expensive to pump water from the depths where it still exists. We constantly challenge ourselves on different conservation agriculture methods to aid in water conservation. But we are not collectively moving fast enough, certainly not here in Arizona.
We need more farmers to recognize that we all must work together to address water use management, because my neighbor’s water use affects my water availability, no matter how efficient I am in my own farming. Arizona’s water-use policies where we are farming are not sustainable – we will all run out of water, it’s not really a question of if, it’s more a question of when.
Arizona Agriculture : From your perspective, what else should we be talking about in agriculture?
Buffett : There’s a lot that should be keeping everyone working in agriculture up at night that we need to be talking about more:
- We have a population of aging farmers – how do we get young people back to the farm? Agriculture needs to rebrand itself for a new generation that will be compelled more by the science, technology, entrepreneurship, and mission (feeding our country, helping to feed the world) aspects of farming than by just the tradition of farming. We’ve worked hard on rebranding agriculture to attract applicants for our school in Rwanda for these same reasons – most young people there think of agriculture as working in the fields for a subsistence existence. We are working to attract the country’s best and brightest to engage in agriculture to help address the challenges we face feeding the country and the world in the future. I would say we’ve had some early success: we had 7,000 applicants for our first 84 student slots at RICA.
- Related to the above, and exacerbated for years by our broken approach to using foreign labor , we face a real farm labor shortage in the U.S. I used to advocate for improving our H2A guest worker program and that remains an important tool, but I’m less optimistic that we can get productive solutions out of Washington, D.C. We really need to see how we can expand the use of mechanization in fruit and vegetable farming, so we are less reliant on manual labor.
- Absentee ownership continues to be a problem because owners tend to value the short-term (yield) over the long-term (soil health) . We need owners to value and demand the adoption of improved farming practices the same way they value production output.
- World phosphate reserves are finite and concentrated outside of the U.S . We should be viewing the availability of and access to this critical and constrained input to agriculture as a national security imperative. And we should have a Plan B.
Finally, we need global thought leaders who have the ability to influence policymakers and farmers in the U.S. and around the world to be smarter about making the connection between bad practices in agriculture and the long-term effects on our ability to produce. I recently read a piece by a well-respected philanthropist working on agriculture issues in the developing world who was celebrating the invention of the plow as a symbol of progress in agriculture. This individual also works to address climate change but made no connection between how his statement of support for tillage undermines his work on climate change. As Ohio State University Professor Rattan Lal has noted: “"between 1750 and 2017, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere [due to soil disturbance] in carbon equivalents was 235 gigatons, plus or minus 95 gigatons. This is almost half the amount emitted by fossil fuel burning and cement production, which was 430 gigatons, plus or minus 20 gigatons."
We cannot continue to operate the way we have in the past. We hope that our research will provide support for a wider range of adoption of conservation practices.
Editor’s note : Ultimately, in listening to Mr. Buffett, I’d describe his philosophy of farming as high-yield agriculture production combined with precision technology and no-till with cover crops. As a member of Arizona Farm Bureau, his COO, Doug Oller, and Buffett are fully engaged in the future opportunities of American agriculture. With updates, this article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Arizona Agriculture.