Playing In The Dirt

Human Concern Blossoms Into Foundation To Curb Hunger

(Last of a Four-Part Series)
MidAmerica Farmer Grower

   The entrepreneurial spirit and human concern fostered in him in childhood spurred Howard G. Buffett of Decatur, Ill., to set up the Sequoia Farm Foundation to help the poor and needy throughout the world.

Buffett, with an entrepreneurial spirit and human concern fostered in him in childhood, set up the Sequoia Farm Foundation to help the poor and needy throughout the world.
Photo by John LaRose, Jr.

   “I don’t know that anybody could feel more fortunate than I do, to have the opportunity and the kind of resources that my dad has given all of us three kids to tackle some pretty big problems,” he said. “We grew into it. Back in the 1980s my father, Warren Buffett, set-up a small foundation and each of us children gave away about $100,000 a year. That was a great learning experience. The first thing I learned is you have to say no a lot, and it actually helped to have a small amount of money. That makes you think about what you want to do and if you make bad decisions you’re out of money really fast. So you just have to learn to say no and you have to learn how to focus. It forces you to focus on what you really want to do. Those were good early lessons.”
   Then in 1999 his parents set up bigger foundations for each of the Buffett children.  By then, Howard was doing a lot of conservation, a lot of photography with wildlife, but he learned he couldn’t be successful in conservation without helping others.
   “Someone said to me ‘no one will starve to save a tree.’ That just hit me right between the eyes,” he recalled. “So when I started traveling around the world I made a point of looking beyond the animals and habitat and talking to villagers. I saw their living conditions and I recognized a direct linkage between extreme poverty and conservation.”
   In time, with a little more money, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation began to grow. Howard started soul searching, studying how to deal with hunger, how to deal with water shortage, and then he got into various conflict areas which he is involved in today.
   “This has probably become as great a thing for us as anything,” he said. “I feel like we’ve learned a lot, but we have a lot to learn. We typically work in agriculture development, coming up with ways to teach people to help themselves to address hunger.”
   He finds the greatest thing about having a private foundation is there is a huge amount of flexibility. He sets his sights on going where he thinks he can have the most impact. “The flexibility is very positive, and it lets us try many different things. It allows us to have a campaign about how farmers can improve the impact on soil quality, water quality and our overall environmental footprint. We don’t always have to have hard measurements. We can try it and then we can start to figure out its impact,” Buffett said.
   He wants to instill more urgency in farmers as stewards of the land. “We’ve lost more soil in this country since 1970 than we lost during the Dust Bowl years,” he notes. “However, there are many ways to cover up our mistakes. It goes beyond doing what’s convenient; we really have an obligation, and as time passes farmers are going to be held more accountable.
   “I may own the farm but I have an obligation to protect and preserve that farm for future generations,” Buffett said. “That is going to be a bigger challenge in the future. So one thing we’re trying to do with our foundation is talk about practical, real-world solutions for preservation. Let’s find them together, and do this as a team. We’re all in this together as farmers, so let’s find our solution, our way of doing it.”
   He has found that solving problems here in the United States doesn’t transfer so well into Africa and Central America where he does most of the development work. He learned that the hard way. “First of all, farmers in this country don’t consume what they grow, they sell it. Most every other farmer we deal with outside of this country, they are growing to consume, and they have very little or often nothing to sell after that. So, based on that, they are a very different profile and the western ideas will not transfer to solve their problems.”
   Most farmers in this country are in “the fertility belt.” The majority of the crops are grown within this temperate climate of the fertility belt which is between 30 degrees and 45 degrees north latitude. Farmers here grow 65 percent of the cotton, almost 60 percent of the corn, 46 percent of soybeans, 45 percent of the wheat, 33 percent of potatoes, 28 percent of barley, 22 percent of sorghum and 21 percent of rice.
   “That is an amazing set of numbers,” he said. “What we are doing here will not transfer down to sub-tropical, tropical and arid environments. You have to come up with different ways to deal with those farming systems and you have a whole different farmer profile. So the biggest mistake we’ve made in the last 50 years is thinking that we know what works for somebody else.”
   He has learned that farmers in other countries want to know how to be more productive and more profitable. They face some of the most significant issues that are out of their control. Most cannot afford improved seeds even if they could access them, which is itself a challenge. They have little visibility or connection to markets.
   In the United States, there are a lot of options that farmers in Africa do not have. Many things are totally out of their control, and obviously weather is the biggest one, as well as pests, disease and weeds. Also, farmers in Africa need to learn to be good businessmen; they need to understand their business.
   While there are about two million farmers in America and each feed about 155 people a year, globally there are about 1.8 billion people that feed the rest of the world; and most of that billion are very poor, smallholder farmers.
   On top of that, few of that billion have the ability to make a profit on their one acre of land. They don’t have the tools for that. “If you take farmers in the United States, Europe and Brazil and some other countries, they have the tools, access to extension, research, and a very high percentage of them are reasonably good business people making the best decisions they can make,” he reported. “If you take farmers in the developing world, most of them don’t have the tools, have little support, little access to information or research, and aren’t focused on profit; they are focused on feeding their families. We will come close to pulling 50,000 farmers in Central America permanently out of poverty by next year. We are doing it through the World Food Program (WFP).
   “Let me tell you what that entails,” Buffett said. “The first thing you have to do is educate these farmers on what a contract is; the value, the risks and the obligation of that contract. They have to understand quality. They have to learn to bring us the quality we demand. It’s training and education and training and education all over again. Bottom line is you have to advocate for the right policies and then you have to help those farmers understand how they can work themselves into a market system.
   “The great part about being a partner with the World Food Program is they buy huge amounts of commodities for school feeding programs and emergency relief and those things,” Buffett explained. “So if these 50,000 farmers we’re working with can meet the quality and the delivery times, certainly then they can sell to somebody. And that’s success! That’s what the whole idea is about! If you can do that then you can permanently pull that farmer out of poverty, ensuring that the farmer can feed his or her family and they don’t need help anymore.
   Recently, Buffett, along with his son, Howard W. Buffett, published a book, “40 Chances,” on finding hope in a hungry world. He explained the theme of the book.
   “40 Chances is about the fact that farmers have about 40 good seasons in their lifetime to plant a crop before the farm passes to the next generation. I learned that lesson farming and I saw how it applied to life in general; so by the time you get through college and get a little experience you have maybe 40 really good years, your prime years to make a difference.
   “We think 40 Chances isn’t just a book, it’s a mindset and that mindset is ‘I am going to do everything I can in those 40 prime years, and I’ve got only 40 Chances to do it.’ Realizing this helps me act with greater urgency, to be more focused. I’m going to take more risks, I’m going to be more willing to fail, and I’m going to use all of those things to make a bigger difference and be more successful. So it really encourages people to act with more urgency and purpose.”
   These ideas came from farming because one season blends into the next season and the next season. “If I think I’m only going to plant five more crops or seven more crops in my lifetime, that’s pretty finite, that’s pretty scary,” he reasoned. “If I focus on what I want to accomplish during my 40 Chances I’m inspired to proceed toward my goal in that timeframe. If I don’t, I’m going to run out of time. I don’t have forever to do it. It’s too easy to stay in a comfort zone and do what you feel good about doing and not allow yourself to make a mistake or be challenged. So, 40 Chances is really about breaking out of your comfort zone. Doing some things that will help you get better, but they’re only going to help you get better because you’re willing to take that risk. So that’s really what the book is about; it uses a long history of travel, of meeting different people and of programs that we’ve funded, and people we’ve supported to tell that story.”
   His son, Howard W. Buffett, is a contributing author. He started traveling with Howard G. to Africa when he was 13. “I took him off to Afghanistan a few years ago for a trip and he was offered a job as a result of that with the Department of Defense,” he explained. “So he spent a year working for them over there, off and on. Also, for 15 some odd years we’ve traveled together and spent a lot of time thinking about ideas and so it was a natural thing for him to contribute to it. He has four chapters in the book that he wrote, and I couldn’t have written them, and I think they’re important chapters and make some of the points we want to make. So it was a great experience.”
   Working together, the two never really disagreed on content.
   “No, we’re pretty aligned on what the message was and what we wanted to do,” Howard G. said. “He has some great ideas, ideas that I just never would have had in terms of how to advance the message.”
   “We have four big things we’re doing to support innovative thinking around hunger. We’re doing a program with Arizona State University to support innovative nonprofits,” he said. “We’re creating fellowships for entrepreneurs in African countries who are working on hunger issues – we selected the countries based on where Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative is working. We’re paying all their expenses and giving them a stipend.
   “We are partnering with NFTE to encourage high school students to figure out how to improve our food system. And then we are working with the University of Wisconsin and the USDA to support college students with the best ideas to improve the agricultural sector. So we have the farming community, the high school community, college students, entrepreneurs and also just organizations out there, so we try to really push the whole theme out and put some resources behind it and those are all his ideas. I mean he had a lot of great ideas.”
   Buffett’s message to U.S. farmers is both a pat on the back and a push to strive harder: “I would just say that we’ve done a phenomenal job in terms of producing for the world; no one has the legacy we have, but we can’t think because we’ve done well that we don’t need to do better,” he said. “We can do better with the tools we have, and it’s our obligation and responsibility to do it because we cannot allow ourselves to fall behind. We’ve got to be the leaders and I think we have to work harder on doing better.”

A pat on the back and a push to strive harder is a message from Howard G. Buffett of Decatur, Ill. to U.S. farmersin the phenomenal job they have done producing food for the world.
Photo by John LaRose, Jr.

   Farmers who love “playing in the dirt,” can easily do that!∆
   BETTY VALLE GEGG-NAEGER: Senior Staff Writer, MidAmerica Farmer Grower
MidAmerica Farm Publications, Inc
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