“I’m into big iron and I love operating large, high-tech equipment,” admits Howard G. Buffett, farmer, conservationist and philanthropist. “But big iron can be a barrier to conservation tillage. Still, you can get that big-iron fix with today’s technology, farming more sustainably.”
Soil conservation is one of his biggest concerns, since cultivated soils erode slowly enough to be ignored in a single lifetime, but fast enough over centuries to curtail entire civilizations.
In 2010, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation funded $57.2 million in agronomic and water-use research, and programs for crop-nutrient management and conservation agriculture in 37 countries.
“Feeding the world’s hungry and conserving soil is a moral issue, but it doesn’t take an economist to tally savings of $30-45/acre from conservation tillage,” Buffett says. “No-tilling has cut my machinery use in half, besides doing what’s right for the soil. Argentina’s proven that it’s profitable and doable.
“If the U.S. channeled today’s $5 billion in farm payments into conservation measures and tools, it would be such a huge positive for our resource base.”
Buffett dug into farming in his early 20s with a bulldozer and an excavating business. Soon, he was piloting an old John Deere 4020 across 400 acres near Tekamah, NE. Rented land was hard to find in 1981, but he paid market rates to his father, the world’s third-wealthiest person, Warren Buffett.
Thirty years later, Buffett no-tills 1,270 acres of corn and soybeans near Pana, IL, and another 2,450 acres of Howard G. Buffett Foundation ground hosting Southern Illinois University (SIU) crop-productivity and sustainability research.
“Howard’s a farmer first and a philanthropist second,” says SIU Professor Bryan Young, who leads the university agronomic research. “He sees the need to be both profitable and sustainable. And he views future regulation from a farmer’s perspective.”
Although Buffett has visited more than 100 countries through foundation work, he plants and harvests his own crops and documents 20 years of changes in soil organic matter and CEC data on his Illinois farm.
In South Africa, his foundation farms another 9,200 acres with 22 center pivots devoted to research and cheetah habitat preservation. Agricultural productivity and wildlife preserves are related in Buffett’s grand scheme of global-resource optimization. “You can’t save cheetahs unless you help people to feed themselves,” Buffett says. “No one will starve to save a tree.”
We need to channel the world’s most productive farmland to feed 75 million new mouths each year so that virgin ecosystems aren’t razed unnecessarily, he says. “Every acre of high-productivity U.S. farmland offsets four or five less-productive acres elsewhere to achieve the same yields, often converted from virgin terrain.”
Resource conservation and world hunger are also linked to biodiversity, Buffett says. “Biodiversity is nature’s technology reserve, by which nature engineers survival,” he says. “For example, when southern leaf-blight fungus attacked the southern Corn Belt in the 1970s, the reservoir of native resistant varieties ultimately saved the day. Fewer than 20 plant species produce 90% of the world’s food supply.”
In his 1996 Harvard publication, Buffett designates the most productive global farmland to feed a growing world, sparing endangered species’ habitat conversion into less productive farming.
“High-yield ag has preserved much of the remaining biodiversity,” Buffett says. “We would have plowed up another 6 million square miles since 1950 to feed today’s population if we hadn’t already adopted current productive farming methods. Today’s farmers feed the world on that same land base, when there were half as many people. Without hybrid seed, commercial fertilizer, irrigation and modern technology, we would have added 21 times the U.S. land base,” Buffett says.
“We can only be successful if farms of all sizes operate at peak productivity and sustainability. That’s why our foundation tests oxen-powered systems alongside RTK and the latest variable-rate technology.
“The U.S. ‘grow it and ship it’ policy may help feed China and India, but how do we help the 400 million rural Africans – on two acres of land and five hours from a market – who cannot afford or access U.S. crops? We need to help them improve their self sufficiency,” Buffett says.
In the U.S., his newest farmer-education campaign advances reduced-tillage methods, cover crops and nutrient management.
Buffett is convinced that, “if we don’t implement more sustainable farming practices soon, regulators will.”
“I bet Buffett knows something about this that most of us don’t,” says no-till advocate Brian Lindley, referring to Buffett’s strong Washington policy connections. Lindley is executive director of No-till on the Plains, an advocacy and education group.
Howard G. Buffett and his grown son Howard W. Buffett, a former White House aide and USDA employee who farms his family's 400-acre farm north of Omaha, philosophize about another approach to cutting soil loss and resource depletion: assigning a concrete economic value to it. “If we show that a 1% increase in soil organic matter increases crop yields by 12%, we might view conservation more seriously,” Buffett, 56, says.
This kind of formula or economic index would tally gains and losses from erosion, conservation, soil-carbon storage, water quality and other resources. “But it would need to be devised by a farmer,” Buffett says.
“My farming life really changed with the advent of Roundup and the John Deere 750 no-till drill,” says Decatur, IL, farmer, conservationist and philanthropist Howard G. Buffett. He hasn’t looked back since.
He farms continuous no-till corn and soybeans with a John Deere 1770 no-till planter with trash cleaners and no-till coulter in front, Keeton seed firmers, spiked closing wheels and a drag chain behind. He applies a 7-24-7 starter at planting, and used a growth regulator for the first time this year. For beans, he uses a John Deere 1990 air drill, wheat rotation and cover crops.
About half of his nitrogen goes on in the fall as anhydrous ammonia with a John Deere 2510 H toolbar. In the spring he applies 30 lbs. of 28% N with his chemicals. He sidedresses the balance using a John Deere GS-2 RTK system, “which really makes a difference,” Buffett says.
“Soil is what stands between us and starvation,” says Decatur, IL, farmer and conservationist Howard G. Buffett.“Depleted soil is the documented legacy of many failed civilizations, including the Middle East, Greece, Rome and Mesoamerica. Half of the U.S. native soil organic matter’s been lost to tillage in the past 200 years (see Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, and Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David Montgomery,for example).
“The good news is that no-till and strip-till have increased by 17% and 63%, respectively, since 1982, halving domestic cropland soil erosion,” Buffett says.
“Most of our soils have lost half or more of their organic matter reserves because of historic land misuse and soil mismanagement, says Rattan Lal, Ohio State University professor of environment and natural resources.
“Compare your soil’s organic matter to Mother Nature’s,” advises Brian Lindley, executive director of No-till on the Plains, a no-till advocacy and education group. “If native habitat is balanced at 6.5% soil organic matter and your farm is at 4.5%, your soils are degraded. Surely 4.5% is far better than 3%, but they’re still not fully healthy. Even conservation-tillage practitioners still lack the proper amount of crop residue and cropping intensity to significantly build soil organic matter and profits. The U.S. must practice quality continuous no-till, not rotational tillage. Otherwise we’re simply advancing our soils’ demise.”
We have made progress, Buffett adds, “Since 1987, each U.S. bushel of corn has required 27% less irrigation water, 37% less energy and 30% fewer total emissions to produce,” he says. “U.S. farmers produced more food on less land with 2% fewer inputs, from 1950 to 2008.
“Unfortunately, the 1970s grain embargoes on the former Soviet Union prompted former customers to rapidly till less-efficient land overseas. In the 1980s, the U.S. idled nearly 37 million acres, and that was offset by 41 million new-crop acres elsewhere, often at the expense of wildlife habitat, marginal soils and virgin forests.
“Focused, efficient food production on the most appropriate land prevents destroying other land with higher ecologic value,” Buffett says.