A Conversation with Howard G. Buffett

June 25, 2014 09:40 AM
A Conversation with Howard G. Buffett

Illinois farmer and world-renown philanthropist Howard G. Buffett shares his perspective on the need to adopt practices that can help feed the world’s hungry.

During the 6th World Congress on Conservation Agriculture in Winnipeg, Manitoba, farmers, other conservation experts and media were able to participate in a lively discussion with Howard G. Buffett. Known as a practical, no-nonsense farmer and visionary philanthropist, Buffett shared his perspective on the need to adopt practices and mindsets that can help feed the world’s hungry.

Since 1999, Buffett’s foundation has supported more than 100 agricultural projects in 34 countries and 22 nutrition projects in 20 countries in an effort to improve the standard of living and quality of life for the world’s most impoverished and marginalized populations.

Farm Journal Media’s Charlene Finck led the often entertaining and thought-provoking question-and-answer session. Here are some excerpts from the discussion.

Question: Being a U.S. farmer and having the passion that you have for conservation as a farmer, it would be helpful to have your perspective here at the WCCA on where you think U.S. farmers rank in the process of adopting conservation practices?

Answer: I would say it’s possible that U.S. farmers are getting passed up in certain respects globally, and they don’t like to hear that. One of these days, Brazil is going to beat us on soybean production, and we should be asking why and how are they doing it. I look at the percentage of acres committed by countries to conservation, and we’re getting pounded. Countries like Brazil and Argentina and Australia are, on a percentage basis, really beating us. The reason is because we have a mindset that’s kept us trapped in thinking like our dads and grandfathers. We haven’t changed our thinking nearly as quickly as we have changed our adaptation of technology.

To me, the biggest thing is our mindset. The thing that drives me nuts is when someone—a friend, good farmers—says things like 'I tried no-till for a year and it didn’t work.' There are so many variables to farming, there’s no way you can base a decision like that on one year. You can’t honestly say you tried something on a farm one year and that it didn’t work.

Question: What has been one of your biggest frustrations in adopting conservation agriculture, and would that parallel what you believe other farmers experience?

Answer: Management is a big challenge. Conservation agriculture can require equipment changes, different manpower demands. Everyone struggles with the management aspects, no matter who you are, and everyone manages their farm a little bit differently.

Question: In your opinion, what is at stake if farmers in the U.S. and around the globe don’t master conservation practices?

Answer: What’s going to happen is we’ll lose choices. The political landscape is changing in the U.S. and it’s not changing in favor of the farmer in any way, shape or form. Those institutions that have protected our rights historically are becoming less powerful and less influential. There’s going to be a collision course, and we won’t win. The biggest collision I see coming faster than anything is with water. When you look at what’s already happened in California, a bit in Colorado and what we’re seeing in Arizona, you can see the pattern. I’d love to be wrong about this but don’t think I am. Historically, all the legislative battles that have been supported by agriculture have been won by agriculture, but when you get huge urban areas with large populations that are demanding water, we’re going to lose those battles. The numbers always win.

Question: What should government be doing to keep us from going down the collision course?

Answer: I’ll give the USDA credit. It’s refreshing to me that there are some young guys in the USDA that really believe in changing how we farm in our country, though it’s a slow process. Government has to be a willing participant in change, so hopefully you have people in government that understand and will change with you. It gives me hope when I go to conservation conferences like this one and no-till conferences where there are people who understand and believe in this. There are way too few of us, but it’s a start.

Question: From a global perspective, you just returned from Ghana and you have an exciting project you’re working on there. Can you share a little about that?

Answer: We have some amazing people there in Ghana who we’re working with, along with John Deere, to develop small implements for small farmers. Not everyone’s going to own a tractor, but the way the way the ones who do can make it work is with contract work they do for other farmers. If you can get that balanced out right, it’s a great way to start introducing mechanization and getting small farmers started with conservation practices. John Deere sees this as an opportunity and a good thing to do. It’ll give us a model to work with.

The challenging thing is, we need to come up with ideas we can scale faster before things really get worse in Africa. Many parts of Africa are not well-suited to agricultural production, at least not high-yield crop production. You have 54 countries there, many different ecosystems. If we try to go in there and make it look like we look in the U.S. and don’t think this through, we’ll take a continent that’s already been disadvantaged in a number of ways and make things worse.

We need to be more flexible and inclusive. When you take choices away from farmers, especially ones who are poor, and force them to do things that aren’t natural to them, then that’s going to be a problem. It’s going to require all types of farmers to make positive changes there. If we aren’t more flexible and inclusive, we could have more hungry people in Africa in 40 years than we do now. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. If we’re more cognizant of the various cultures, respect and appreciate that, we can get this right.


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