Playing In The Dirt

Philosophy, Determination Lead To Successful Farming Venture

(Part One of a Four-Part Series)

MidAmerica Farmer Grower

   Farmer, photographer, author, owner-operator of a private family foundation focused on agricultural development to improve the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people – perhaps these are among the best descriptions of Howard G. Buffett of Decatur, Ill.

Love of the outdoors and playing with Tonka toys as a child led Howard G. Buffett of Decatur, Ill. on his life journey of farmer, photographer, author, owner-operator of a private family foundation focused on agricultural development to improve the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
Photo by John LaRose, Jr.

   What’s even more amazing is much of it began as he played with Tonka toys as a child. The toys opened his eyes to the joys of operating equipment, “playing in the dirt,” as he says.
   “I love being outside, I like building or deconstructing something. I have as much fun digging a track or tearing down houses as I do building something. To me that’s fun,” he said.
   Today, this entrepreneur operates or oversees farms not only in Decatur, but in Nebraska, Arizona and South Africa.
   “We set up the Sequoia Farm Foundation out of our big foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation,” Buffett explained. “So with Sequoia we have 9,200 acres in South Africa with 22 center pivots; we have 4,200 acres here in Central Illinois and then we have 1,400 acres in Arizona with nine center pivots and one small pivot for experiments. The foundation owns a little over 700 acres in Nebraska; right now there are some ideas I have for that farm but I haven’t done anything with it yet. Personally I have 1,500 acres here in Illinois that I farm, my son farms 400 acres in Nebraska that he started farming about three years ago.”
   At first, the Tonka toys led him into the excavation business. He met an excavator, Bill Roberts, and asked how to get into excavation.
   “He says the first thing is you buy a dump truck, start hauling dirt, because people will hire you,” Roberts advised. “So that’s what I did and Bill hired me a lot and really mentored me; helped me learn.”
   He also credits his Uncle Homer who ran the Omaha Livestock Commission. Between high school and college, Homer taught him to drive an over-the-road truck.
   “It was a Cummins 335, a Road Ranger 12 speed. I was hauling live cattle between Nebraska and Colorado, so that’s how I learned how to drive a truck. You’re hauling live weight in a big truck going to cattle yards. I got good at that, so it was easy for me to jump in a dump truck and haul dirt around.”
   He really had the fever for big iron, so he bought an old 955K cat and ran it for a long time.
   “Then I learned how to dig a basement, mainly how to get the walls straight,” he said. It was quite a feat, but he learned by watching the pros. “I learned it very quickly and I could get the floor level without a transit.”
   He asked someone to build him a trailer to haul his cat around. “I never got the trailer but he gave me this Minneapolis Moline.”
   Soon the amp converter went out and repairs would have cost $3,500, more than the tractor was worth. So a farmer who lived about five miles away offered to fix it cheaper by welding some of the gears together.
   “I felt obligated to him, so I took a road grader down there once in a while and graded his road. Then one day he had me jump on a tractor and start disking and I thought this is better than digging basements. I don’t have to worry about getting the walls straight.
   “I would not be farming if it were not for another man, Francis Kleinschmit. He took all the time in the world with me and when you think of a good old farmer, that is Francis. This guy would give you his time, he never acted like he was giving anything up and he spent hours and days with me. I finally bought a 4020 and a four row planter and I was planting on some rented ground one Saturday morning, and he says ‘I’m going out of town for a wedding.’ I asked ‘what am I going to do?’ He said ‘you’re going to get on the tractor and you’re going to plant.’ I started protesting and he says ‘you’re going to learn how to do it. You’ve been watching me for a week so now you’re going to do it. If something breaks, figure out how to fix it.’ That’s how I learned.”
   Buffett admits to making mistakes along the way but none that were too big or really costly. The first four or five years he farmed the weather was great with good rains.
   “I had pretty good crops and I was lucky. If I would have had a drought or flood the first two years it would have been a problem. I learned one lesson early on. I had some grain bins on one farm and decided to turn the fan on in early December, not knowing how to go about drying grain or how to take care of it. I got up early in the morning and there’s this steam blowing out and I didn’t know what that meant but I knew that can’t be good. I had a whole bin of ruined corn, and I never forgot that lesson. So when I build a grain bin now I put a one horsepower fan on it so when I turn the big fan off, I plug the little fan in and never turn it off. It probably costs me $10 a month to run the fan and, for 30 years now I’ve never had another bin spoil. So I pay attention to how the grain goes in and I know how it is going to come out. Those are things you learn through trial and error and I had great people teach me things. I also did a lot of reading and studying, then transferred that into the field. What you read isn’t exactly how it works in the field, but you learn how to do it.”
   Today, with a total of 17,400 acres between the foundation, himself and his son, Howard W., there’s plenty of land to farm.
   Farming in Central Illinois is easier since he has no-tilled there for 20 years. With good black dirt and rolling ground with clay soils he has seen the organic matter go from about 1.5 percent on the lower end farms to over 2.5 percent.
   “I’m a real believer in no-till because I’ve seen it work and I’ve never seen a drawback from it,” Buffett said. “I’ve just seen lots of positive things. My fuel tank is full and my hours on my tractors are way less.”

“I’m a real believer in no-till because I’ve seen it work and I’ve never seen a drawback from it. I’ve just seen lots of positive things. My fuel tank is full and my hours on my tractors are way less.” Buffett said.
Photo by John LaRose, Jr.

   On the foundation farms, efforts are focused on proving various methods, particularly at real-world scale. Some crops are in large fields, but he also has an 80-acre field that is divided into 9-acre plots.
   “We have those divided into plots because what we do won’t matter so much to scale, so we don’t waste a lot of land on it,” he explained. “But we have a lot of fields that are 80 acres, some that are 160, some that are 320 where we’re doing tests. We want to do things at scale because, if you can’t show a farmer who is farming 3,000 or 5,000 acres that they can incorporate it into their system, they don’t care about it.”
   Buffett has found that modifying equipment can be economical. He has probably the world’s largest roller crimper. He convinced John Deere to sell him a 1770NT planter bar with just a hydraulic and electrical package. Then he sent it to a man in Pennsylvania to make into a roller crimper.
   “What we wanted is something that would fold to 12 feet to go down the road just like your planter, then unfold to 60 feet to match up with your 24-row planter,” he said. “You can use that on as many acres as you want; and now you can use a cover crop, you can kill without chemicals and you can plant right in it and everything works as a system.”
Buffett has been doing that for a few years. He has some 30 footers for smaller plots and two five-footers.
   “We work with oxen on our farm in Arizona as well as South Africa. The oxen are used in Arizona to experiment with cover crops and in a small farming conservation system that hopefully, can be applied in South Africa. We have a person in Arizona as well as South Africa who specifically work on this research.”
   Buffett recalled visiting with Tim LaSalle, former CEO of the Rodale Institute, who now works for him in South Africa. LaSalle boasted of growing 220 bushel corn with no synthetic fertilizer, so Buffett visited to see how he did it.
   “LaSalle saved his last field to plant so he could show me the roller crimper, the planter and how they use them,” he recalled. “He showed me some soil that was amazing, this stuff is like potting soil, he’s got 40 acres of it. They’re doing something right there in terms of soil. So he’s giving me this long PowerPoint slide presentation and he keeps stressing organic, organic. Finally I stopped him and said, ‘Tim, I’m a corn and soybean farmer from the Midwest. When I hear organic I get a little defensive because I’m thinking of these guys who are against everything we do.’ They’ve got some little niche market so they can afford to be all high and mighty about what they do. So I said ‘if you’re going to talk to a farmer like me you’re going to have to come up with a different way of communicating.’”’
   Tim didn’t get defensive but he believes in this stuff. He just said, “I understand that, the key is to figure out what have we learned in a place like this that can help you farm better.”
   “So I said, ‘Tim, as long as you’re not trying to turn me into an organic farmer, I totally believe that, because clearly you’re doing some things better than I’m doing them.  The question is how can I do them better in the system I’m operating?’ We had a great conversation and we came away saying, ‘let’s talk about it as biological farming.’ I really do believe in biological farming.
   “Soil is your greatest asset; if you don’t have good soil you can give me the best hybrid, you can throw all the synthetic fertilizer on it, but if I have crummy soil I have limitations, so I need to care about my soil. To care about my soil I need to understand it, understand how to treat it and how to improve it.”
   Although there is much known about the soil, there is much that really isn’t understood.
   “You pick up a hand full of soil and there is a billion living organisms in it, that is mind boggling,” said Buffett. “But that ought to tell a farmer something. The healthier the soil is, the healthier the crop is going to be; and the healthier your farm is going to be and the more net profit you’re going to make.
   “The key is how do you put all those different pieces together to make that net profit the highest it can be? Can you do different techniques under a no-till scenario to produce less environmental footprint? Are there cheaper practices to help you cut back your synthetic fertilizer? The problem with all of these things is it takes a long time. There is nothing that counts unless we have done it for five, six, seven years to really understand what’s working; and 10 years is our threshold for really getting an answer.”
   The problem with some farmers is they say “I tried that one year and it didn’t work.”
   “Nothing works one year. You have to try it multiple years and then you have to learn how it fits in your system,” Buffett said. “Cover crops didn’t work well this year because it was wet, corn didn’t dry down well. Cover crops didn’t work well for corn planted late. My son flies cover crops on, I drill them. My drilled cover crops are planted later than those he flies on, but some years flying them on doesn’t work that well. So we’re still trying to figure out how do you do this; but there is never a time in farming that you can say ‘this is the perfect year’ or ‘if I do it once this way it’s always going to work.’ So it’s discouraging to hear farmers use the excuse ‘it didn’t work this year, so it doesn’t work.’ I can show you guys who have been doing it for 20 years and it does work.”
   Farmers need a mindset bent on solving their own problems. They need to focus on leaving less of an environmental footprint, solving water quality issues, curbing erosion.
   “If they don’t, somebody is going to regulate it and when they regulate it we’re not going to like it,” he warned. “It probably won’t work as well for us. A perfect example is that USDA has this Young Stewardship Program and it’s a great thing. But my son, Howard W., is in it and he has to plant his cover crops by a certain date and he has to wait to terminate them by a certain date. If you sow something like annual rye and try to terminate it as late as April 15 it isn’t going to work most years.”
   It becomes a great concept but isn’t always so easily applied.
   “It’s good to look at new ideas and try to find different solutions,” Buffett said. “We have some great guys working on it and we have the advantage of having four different locations, two different continents. We’ll do something in South Africa the same as we do here, just to see what happens.”
   One thing that important in Arizona is drought tolerance. “We bought the farm in Arizona partly because that is a water stressed area. The farm has the old 1960s, 400 foot wells that are running out of water. We’re drilling 1,300 foot wells and we’re putting 400 hp motors on them. We have unbelievable energy costs.  We’re learning right along with those farmers down there how tough this is going to be and we know for ourselves what those expenses are. A lot of farmers don’t want to share information and I don’t blame them for that. But because of what we’re doing, the way we’re doing it, we will share all our information with everybody. You can compare it to your own situation.
   “The thing is, if we’re going to be pumping water from 700 feet in a 1,300 foot well, that costs us a half million dollars with a 400 horsepower motor, then we have to cut costs in other ways. This is not economical. This is a chance for us to learn about water. We are also learning more about our migrant labor issues because we’re trying to hire labor down there to do certain things and it’s a nightmare. We have to do it legally, so it’s a big learning laboratory.
   “It’s fun to see it because sometimes you go ‘wow.’ You can’t believe something happened the way it did.”∆
    BETTY VALLE GEGG-NAEGER: Senior Staff Writer, MidAmerica Farmer Grower
    Editors Note: Watch for part 2, in next weeks issue #11, of MidAmerica Farmer Grower.
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