Five years ago, Howard G. Buffett was at a meeting of an international food aid agency when he was told that feeding the millions of starving people in Africa was simple.
Just give them better seeds, someone said.
That advice might work on some philanthropists. But Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, happens to be an Illinois farmer.
“This guy was explaining to me how to farm and he’d never been on a farm in his life,” he said. “So it really kind of irritated me. I came home and said, ‘OK, I’m going to have data to show these guys.’”
So Howard Buffett, a blunt pragmatist, built farming into a well-endowed foundation, giving away tens of millions annually to global hunger causes while keeping it geeky with hands-on research into soils, irrigation and seed science.
The research is taking shape at his 1,400-acre farm in southeastern Arizona, where the climate mimics that of Africa; on plots at his 3,200-acre home place in Illinois; and at another 9,200-acre farm in South Africa.
Backing up the dollars with data has helped Buffett establish a humanitarian program that teaches African farmers how to be resilient, he said, which is the key to feeding the estimated 870 million people in the world who don’t have enough to eat.
“Probably one of the biggest disconnects when I hear people talk about agriculture in Africa (is) they don’t farm for profit. They farm for consumption, and that changes everything,” Buffett said. “We don’t even know how to do that here.”
At his farm in Arizona, which he bought two years ago, research is catered to the African farmer. It’s small-scale and takes into consideration things very unlike the U.S. system, such as a lack of government subsidies. He’s even got two oxen here — he had to go to Colorado to get them — studying how the animals can pull farm equipment.
Half-jokingly, Buffett calls the Arizona research his “Non-Green Revolution for South Africa.” He’s testing a mix of irrigation, fertilizer, genetically modified seed and conservation efforts, like no-till practices that help prevent soil erosion. He calls it “biological farming,” using Mother Nature and man-made resources to a small farmer’s benefit.
“You take the best of an organic system and you take the best of a high-production system and you figure out how to put those two together. And you figure out how to do that for a guy farming two acres,” he said.
Buffett dreams the three labs being built here will soon be full of students from six schools, doing world-class research — what his father might call an investment.
“I consider everything we do an investment,” he said. “It’s either an investment in people or ideas.”
This seems like a natural role for a guy who grew up in Omaha playing in the dirt and loving Tonka trucks but certainly not as likely for the oldest son of one of the world’s richest men.
Buffett, 58, started farming in his home state of Nebraska in the early 1980s, his famously frugal father charging him rent, and graduated from bulldozers to 400-horsepower tractors. He moved to central Illinois to work at ADM Co., the huge food processing conglomerate, and established his corn and soybean operation near Decatur.
His interest in Africa began as a wildlife photographer but he soon realized that the first step to protecting the country’s animals and environment was to combat its rampant food shortages. He combined his passion for agriculture with a sense of charitable giving he and his father have attributed to his late mother, Susan Buffett.
The Buffetts gave their three children the wherewithal to be charitable —through what Warren Buffett calls “the ovarian lottery.” In addition to the millions Susan Buffett left to them when she died in 2004, Warren Buffett announced in 2006 that he would give a fraction of his fortune to his kids. But when the fortune is worth $40 billion, that slice still adds up to $2 billion to each of their foundations.
Howard Buffett tells his story in his soon-to-be-released book “40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.” The title references an “aha moment” Buffett says he had in a farm equipment store in Assumption, Ill., a tiny town south of Decatur.
One winter day in 2001, Buffett attended a planting workshop and heard the speaker question what many consider the predictability of farming. Each season, a farmer has a chance to improve, to learn from mistakes, and if he’s lucky, he’ll have 40 seasons to perfect this process, the speaker said.
“If I have 40 years or 40 chances to try to figure some of these things out, every year knocks one off. You better have a sense of urgency. And you can’t screw around,” Buffett said. “You can’t look and say ‘Oh well, we’ll do it next year.’”
Buffett is also working to help fight hunger closer to home. He has established a national program called Invest an Acre, which encourages farmers to donate an acre or more of crop profits to help feed people in their communities.
Buffett’s donations have allowed the Central Illinois Foodbank to move to a larger facility with better storage, said Kaleigh Friend, a spokeswoman. Each summer Buffett also donates several thousand pounds of sweet corn from his farm, which Friend says helps feed the one in four children in the area who have problems getting enough to eat.
“Things like Invest an Acre and people who have community gardens or farmland where they donate some fresh produce, that’s what really makes the difference in the long run here in central Illinois,” she said.
Buffett’s book, “40 Chances” will be published in October. That same month, he will be with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the World Food Prize Ceremony in Des Moines.
Those appearances will eat into harvest time, of course. The farmer philanthropist, who planted late like many in the Midwest because of a wet spring, could still be up in his combine.
"I'm extremely nervous!” he said. “I may pick corn in November for only the second time in my life!"