Feed the World

On his Willcox test farm, philanthropist Howard Buffett is studying soil and conserving water, hoping to find a way to grow food better.

September 1, 2014

FeaturesIssue 8: September/October 2014

Howard buffett owns the largest roller-crimper in the world. Howard Buffett wears a red Nebraska T-shirt tucked into navy cargo pants and drinks Coca-Cola at 8 a.m. Howard Buffett, son of Warren, is the future CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, the fifth largest company in the world. Howard Buffett doesn’t flood irrigate; he doesn’t think anyone else should, either. Howard Buffett hasn’t used a pesticide in his life—but he doesn’t believe organic agriculture will feed the world.

And above all, Howard Buffett wants to feed the world.

“The first thing I’ve learned in Africa, which would apply here, is that if you don’t take care of your soil, you will not be able to use your land. If you don’t take the right precautions for water conservation, you’ll run out of water,” says Buffett. “That means you won’t be able to have a viable food system to support this country.”

“The first thing I’ve learned in Africa, which would apply here, is that if you don’t take care of your soil, you will not be able to use your land. If you don’t take the right precautions for water conservation, you’ll run out of water,” says Buffett. “That means you won’t be able to have a viable food system to support this country.”

This mission has taken him to more than 130 countries. It’s taken him to South Africa, where the Howard G. Buffett Foundation owns a 9,300-acre test farm; to Mozambique and Kenya; El Salvador and Guatemala; and back home to his farm in Decatur, Illinois, where he lives most of the year. In 2011, it brought him to Willcox, to a 1,400-acre test farm where he hopes to learn how to how farm better crops, with more efficient yields, on drought-stressed land. In Arizona, Buffett says, “You don’t buy land. You buy water.”

When, in 2006, Warren Buffett announced he was leaving most of his fortune to philanthropy, he tasked his middle son with the challenge of spending $3 billion dollars to “accomplish something great in the world.” Howard Buffett chose an issue that had troubled him for years—how to feed the nearly billion people across the food who don’t have access to safe, healthy food.

“You can get into details about what you like and don’t like about our food system,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, agriculture is just as important as defense. You go to countries where they can’t feed themselves—they don’t care about guns, they care about food. They’ll give up the bullets so they can eat.”

The buffett arizona test farm is a sweep of green in a dusty plain south of Willcox. Ed Curry breeds chiles for most of New Mexico at his farm a mile down the road. Farther south, Dennis and Deb Moroney raise Criollo cattle on the 25,000 acres of 47 Ranch. To the east, the Chiricahua Mountains border an arid, grass-covered rectangle known as the Sulfur Springs Valley. The soil here is alkaline, low in organic matter, suited more for wild grass than corn.

In 1913, the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension bought 160 acres of this hardscrabble land and established the Sulfur Springs Valley Dry Farm. As the 1916 annual report of the Agricultural Experiment Station reported, area farmers needed information with “immediate, practicable application.” The farm filled with fields of alfalfa and sorghum. They tested tillage on 60 kinds of corn; planted seeds at different depths, on different dates; measured yields of three dozen varieties of beans. Farmers studied an extraordinary diversity of crops, including an array of soil-holding legumes; in 1916, the annual report of the Arizona Experiment Station reported, “In the light of experience to date, the most successful dry-farming rotation for the Sulphur Springs Valley is one consisting of grain sorghums, corn, Sudan grasses and beans.”

Buffett is a man that likes his machines, as evidenced by an open-air shed holding two-dozen assorted tractors, trailers, crimpers, and planters.

Buffett is a man that likes his machines, as evidenced by an open-air shed holding two-dozen assorted tractors, trailers, crimpers, and planters.

Today, Howard Buffett is working nearly the same land (seemingly unaware, it is worth mentioning, of its historic precedent). He’s growing corn, pinto beans, and soybeans, with other grains and legumes in rotation, and comparing yields across fields amended with synthetic inputs like nitrogen. He’s watering test plots by drip irrigation, flood irrigation, and center pivot. He’s modifying John Deere planters to accommodate the narrow rows on small African farms—and testing the pulling capacity of the farm’s two oxen, Ike and Earl.

After a decade working with both small and commercial growers in Africa, Buffett shifted his focus to Arizona. Southern Arizona’s low organic soils appealed to him, as did the drought-stressed landscape. He wanted a farm that would mimic conditions in Africa but would be easier to manipulate and control. (And, as he told the Arizona Farm Bureau, “flying to South Africa takes a while.”)

“We really want to stress the productivity of different crops,” he says. With so little rain, “you can really control the impact of water here.” The farm’s 4,200-foot elevation creates a slightly shorter growing season than he’d like—but it mirrors his South Africa farm’s 4,000-foot elevation. In Willcox, Buffett says, “We’re doing some things we think about in Africa, some things we think about in the U.S., and some things we think we could apply to both.”

Howard buffettwaves like a Midwesterner. As we drive around the farm, he toots his horn and offers a friendly nod to everyone we pass. Tractors rumble along dirt roads. Field workers return to the shade of a corrugated-tin shed for lunch. Graduate students haul buckets full of root samples into air-conditioned labs. It’s a bustling landscape, a little Buffettopia.

We pull alongside a furrowed field of corn. Invisible to us, drip irrigation lines run six inches below the soil. This is one of three test plots testing how irrigation affects crop yields. The corn irrigated by center pivot is noticeably shorter than this drip-irrigated field—a nice finding, as drip irrigation requires significantly less water than center pivot.

“We had something mind blowing happen here,” Buffett says, switching gears from water added to nitrogen withheld. “The plot we planted with zero nitrogen yielded only 10 bushels of corn less than the plot that had 50 pounds of nitrogen.”

This is a significant achievement. If Buffett can acquire data that shows no-till farming and use of cover crops doesn’t negatively affect yields, he might be able to persuade both large farmers in the corn belt of America and struggling, small farmers in Africa to ease up on fertilizers and invest in cover crops instead.

Cover crops like alfalfa or clover—which fix nitrogen into the soil, prevent erosion, increase organic matter, and retain soil moisture—are the reason to have a roller-crimper, which is basically a large, heavy rolling pin with a raised pattern surface. Pulled behind a planter or two oxen, a roller-crimper flattens and kills cover crops, mulching the plant back into the soil just before planting a new season’s crop.

“A few years ago, I had a meeting with U.S. AID. This guy was telling me, all you need is fertilizer,” he says. “It’s like, OK, you do need fertilizer. But if all you do is give synthetic fertilizer to a small farmer in Africa, who really can’t afford it, it’s like hooking someone on heroin. Because they will get productivity, under most all circumstances. But you’re setting up a system that isn’t the system they need.”

Jimmy Burridge, a graduate student from Penn State, studies root architecture on harvested bean plants to determine which breeds grow well under drought conditions.

Jimmy Burridge, a graduate student from Penn State, studies root architecture on harvested bean plants
to determine which breeds grow well under drought conditions.

Buffett’s system is one of minimum inputs and zero tillage. No-till farming leaves soil undistributed and unturned from one planting season to another. Although long entrenched in farming doctrine, the unfortunate side effect of turning soil is that it dries it out, killing microorganisms that have latched on to existing root structures, and releasing into the atmosphere elements, like carbon and nitrogen, that should be in the soil.

“We’re going to run out of water and soil before we run out of oil,” he says. “And we’re going to run out of labor before we run out of any of those things.”

We drive past wavering green stalks, stark against the blue Arizona sky. Past tractors adorned with $2,000 wheels and John Deere planters fitted with custom-made roller-crimpers, stopping at a bright white shed full of gleaming stainless steel tables. Researchers from Penn State and Purdue University are housed here, their operations relocated from the South Africa test farm when Buffett invested in Arizona.

In the shade of a corrugated tin shed, Jimmy Burridge, a graduate student from Penn States, cuts and catalogues roots (and sometimes listens to The Roots while he works). “We’re trying to figure out what root traits are best for drought,” he says. “We’re looking at root architecture and ability to acquire water.”

Five or six clear plastic Tupperware containers contain bushy bundles of flat green leaves—common beans, he says, but they also work with tepary beans. A student to his left bundles and tags the roots. Later, genotypes grown under well-watered conditions will be compared to genotypes grown under drought conditions. “We’re working with a [seed] breeding program. We tell breeders, this trait is good, this trait is not good,” says Buffett.

Although Buffett disagrees with groups like Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA) on how to treat soil—“I call the emphasis on soil health the Brown Revolution approach,” he says—he’s aligned with them on seed. To help poor farmers increase yields, he believes they should grow “some kind of improved seeds.”

This stance has drawn him some criticism. “By dismissing the indigenous knowledge of seeds and soil gained after thousands of years of small farming in Africa, there’s a risk for his good intentions to be undermined,” says Carol Thompson, a professor at Northern Arizona University who has worked extensively with small farmers in Africa.

But because Buffett is a Buffett—independently financed and generally unconcerned by outside opinion—he’s inimitably able to shake things up. To question norms long established in big agriculture and dryland farming. He can say things that other people can’t—can declare that “there shouldn’t be a flood-irrigated acre in this country,” that “migrant labor and immigration issues should be managed under the USDA by people who actually understand agriculture.”

And in the midst of rambling anecdotes come sharply insightful comments about the future of food and agriculture in the United States. “We’re going to run out of water and soil before we run out of oil,” he says. “And we’re going to run out of labor before we run out of any of those things.”

He believes we should stop subsidizing crop production and instead incentivize innovative farming practices that conserve soil and water. “If you want to understand agriculture,” he says, “follow the money.”

Ike the oxen—or is it Earl?—keeps busy on the Buffett test farm, pulling modified John Deere planters and roller crimpers.

Ike the oxen—or is it Earl?—keeps busy on the Buffett test farm, pulling modified John Deere planters and roller crimpers.

Today, as budgets are cut and land grant institutions avoid investing in innovation, Buffett is the money to follow. “You have to be able to try and fail,” he says. “Most of what we’re doing here won’t work. But we can afford to try things that no body else can try.”

And he can afford to finance projects that others can’t. In early 2014, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation donated $1.2 million to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, via its parent organization, Feeding America, to build a food distribution center in Willcox. “This facility will give us a way to capture some of the produce that’s coming out of Mexico into southern Arizona,” says Michael McDonald, the CEO of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. The center is scheduled to open next spring; in the meantime, Buffett continues to donate most of the farm’s harvested pinto beans to the Community Food Bank.

“Howard really invests in what he considers are his communities, and he has decided to invest in this community,” says McDonald. “We know he cares about sustainable agriculture and food security, not just hunger—and these are things we care about, too.”

And Buffett is happy to keep investing. “I always say, if a farmer here, in this community, wants to try something new but they can’t because they have a family to support and can’t afford to risk the loss, tell us and we’ll try it,” he says. “The more options a society has, the better off you are. [But] success is when people don’t need us anymore.”

Read 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World (Simon & Schuster, 2013) for more information about Buffett’s efforts to fight hunger, or visit thehowardgbuffettfoundation.org.

Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona. Follow her on Twitter @megankimble.


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