Top Producer Seminar attendees hear Howard G. Buffett’s views on farming, immigration and hunger.
Farmer and philanthropist Howard G. Buffett joined Farm Journal Editor Charlene Finck on stage at the Top Producer Seminar in Chicago for a conversation around farming, food and policy. More than 700 farmers from across the country attended the Top Producer Seminar and heard Buffett’s views on agriculture progress, immigration and conservation, as well as some personal lessons learned through his farming career.
In addition to being Chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Buffett is a farmer, businessman, former elected official, volunteer deputy sheriff and world-class photographer. He farms in Illinois, Nebraska, Arizona and South Africa.
The following is a recap of the conversation.
Finck: What have you learned from your famous father, Warren Buffett that helps you be a better manager?
Buffett: He told me farming is the worst business in the world! Primarily, it’s because you can’t control a lot of the factors that influence your farm. He always told me, when you dump your corn at the elevator, no one asks, “Is that Howie Buffett’s corn?”
When I got a little bit older, I used to sit and listen to his phone conversations so I could learn. He always told me to stay within your circle of competence. You know what you are good at, and you know your skill level. A lot of times the best thing you can do is hire people who are better than you in certain areas. It’s essentially understanding that you have limits, and don’t try to do what you don’t do well.
I’ve watched him all of his life invest in people more than organizations or institutions. You have to do that at the farm level too.
Finck: One thing that makes you unique is that you sit at an intersection of so many issues of the world: hunger, food, agriculture, nutrition. Given that you are used to setting an agenda and getting it done, what one thing would you make happen if you had a magic wand?
Buffett: I would try to change the way ag policy is made. I would have it be farmer led. That means they would have to engage in that process and take the responsibility. In this country we have a lot of farmer organizations that have impact on policy; but around the world that is not true at all. One of the biggest things that holds underdeveloped countries back from being successful is the fact academics who have never been on a farm in their life are making decisions about ag policy.
If farmers had more say in what policy turned into at the end of the day, it would allow us to do a better job.
Finck: You own a ranch in Arizona right on the Mexico-U.S. border, and you work as a volunteer deputy sheriff in that county. Tell us about your experiences.
Buffett: We bought a farm in Arizona to do some trials that would be similar to Africa. It has a similar soil with low organic matter, compaction and little rain. We can control that environment with irrigation and do a lot of trials to test drought tolerance.
I also serve as a sheriff assistant deputy in Arizona. Living and working in the county I get a chance to really see the poverty in this country. It’s amazing the things you see. It’s shocking. I still get shocked today. The way people treat other people’s property, the way people treat other people.
We also bought a ranch on the border that is 200 yards from the fence between the U.S. and Mexico, and recently we have had six drug busts on our ranch. We have had border patrol arrest drug smugglers within 100’ of our houses.
If you talk to ranchers down there about gun control, you are going to get a different answer than in other parts of country. It’s a matter of life or death in Arizona. Ranchers down there have to protect their life and their livelihoods.
But it’s not a good feeling for them. They constantly have a higher threat level. They worry about their wife at home and their kids. Our border is not secure; it won’t be secure under the process we have today.
I’ve also learned about the H2A worker program. The H2A process is a disaster. If you are operating a farm especially fruits and vegetables, you are almost forced under our system to hire illegal people. This is a program administered by the Department of Labor. So just think if you were going to sign up for your farm program at the Department of Labor. This program, which is geared for agriculture, is administered from the wrong place.
This country has the most diverse food choices and safest food. That’s because we have the ability to have labor come into our country and help us with that production. If that is not working well now, it’s only going to get worse unless we fix it. This is something our foundation has spent time and effort working on. It’s hard to make much progress. We have a $2.8 million project underway over five years in partnership with a major grocery chain and the United Farm Workers. We have done another farm worker program with an NGO in Mexico to experiment. It’s pretty hard to get the changes that are needed.
Editor's Note: Buffett also took questions from the audience. Those conversations are captured below.
Attendee: Our country has a lot of poverty and hunger issues. I would like to hear your advice to farmers for action to take.
Buffett: There is a huge amount of effort in rural America to fight hunger. We started the Invest An Acre program, where a farmer could come to their elevator with a semi-truck of corn, and designate 500 bushels to go to Invest An Acre, with the money going back to the food bank in your county.
But we found one of the big impediments is we didn’t have enough elevator managers buying into it. We started with 20 elevator operators. Most said there is no hunger in our community. If you don’t think there is a problem, then you are not going to participate in solving it. I would suggest farmers visit “Map The Meal Gap” on the Feeding America website. You can go to your county and see how many hungry people there are, and the gaps to support the kind of meals that are required.
One thing you can do is volunteer for the Meals On Wheels program. It serves a lot of elderly. I go with those guys and it’s amazing how many people are veterans or widows of veterans. In rural areas, one of the biggest challenges is hunger and it’s partly because they don’t have access to food, don’t have transportation, can’t buy gas, etc. Often times the closest thing they can get to is a gas station, where they can only buy frozen pizza if they can afford it.
I have been involved in a couple of food distributions; most people are embarrassed that they are asking for help. I believe there is a core part of people who abuse our system, who don’t want to work, who will never work, who cheat the system. But there is a large group of people who are simply having a tough time in life. We went from 37 million people who are food insecure to almost 50 million in the past 5 to 6 years. The biggest threat to a country is when you start to undermine the middle class. That’s one of the reasons Africa cannot get traction –they struggle to build a middle class. Hunger is one of the first things I see in this situation.
So volunteer through your church, food banks or soup kitchens – there is a need in your community, and I guarantee someone is working on it. Volunteering is often needed more than money.
That’s easy to say when your dad gives you money to give away!
Attendee: How do you perceive the trends in ag education as education budgets shrink?
Buffett: I think there is a threshold in ag development in society and we have crossed over it. If you look at how quickly we built ourselves into an ag powerhouse, it’s amazing. We have the most extensive institutional knowledge and human capacity, but it‘s deteriorating. The land grant universities are what made this country great. We funded them, starting back in 1862, and they are the backbone of U.S. agriculture. One of the greatest disappointments I’m watching in my lifetime is that funding is eroding.
Attendee: What made you want to become a farmer?
Buffett: I ended up farming because I loved equipment. I had a Caterpillar 955K track loader and I started digging basements at 20 years old. Big iron is cool stuff, you know! My mom always said I didn’t have enough Tonka toys when I was little.
Later I got a Minneapolis Moline 5 Star tractor. The torque converter went out and I had to find a farmer to fix it, and in exchange for his labor he said to come down and visit his farm and work. So I’d go down and disk for him, and I fell in love with farming.
When I got into it, I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t do a 50/50 share rent deal because I didn’t know what I was doing; so I had to find someone who would cash rent me the farm. We had good government support programs then, but it was a fast learning process. It’s fun to grow things; it’s such a challenge though.
One of the things I love the most about farming is task completion. I can go plant 80 acres and I’m done; I like that feeling.
My son used to tell my wife: “I hope dad doesn’t get upset, but I’m not farming when I grow up.” Then I had to put him on tractor in South Africa for a few weeks to help. A few months later he called and asked if he could farm a farm we own in Nebraska. For him it was a fascinating experience, he loved the technology and the mapping. He said: “Dad, when I was little, if I was running a combine, you were always telling me what I was doing wrong.” Once I let go of that, it changed everything for him. He now farms 400 acres in Nebraska and he does all the business management. It’s been great to farm with my son.
It has been a negative and positive that I wasn’t born on a farm. I had farmers around me who were friends of mine and mentored me. I think it has helped to not have an ingrained approach that makes it difficult to change or try new practices or technology.
The farm in Nebraska is what convinced me I should no-till. What drives me nuts is someone will say: I tried that one year in farming and it didn’t work. Now how many things on your farm have you done that didn’t work in one year and you give up?
We have to look to no-till and other production changes that hold soil and nutrients in place. Remember water goes somewhere. I watch all that soil wash or blow away, knowing that 42% of all water for the U.S. drains into the Gulf of Mexico. So we have a huge responsibility for what has happened down there. But think about the impact on us, the wasted fertilizer and profitability from our production. We have to get smarter about conservation. We have to make the choice and do it, or someone is going to make the choice for us and regulate us into doing it.
What do you think of Howard G. Buffett's comments? Do you agree with his thoughts on poverty and hunger in the U.S.? Volunteering? Immigration? Let us know on the AgWeb discussion boards.