Buffett highlights continuous improvementWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Arlington, Va. – USDA’s 92nd Annual Agricultural Outlook Forum was held in Arlington, Va. on Feb. 25-26, built on the theme of transforming agriculture – blending technology and tradition.
One of the featured speakers was Howard G. Buffett, chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, a private, charitable foundation that invests in global food security and conflict mitigation.
Buffett encouraged forum attendees to put more emphasis on conservation agriculture, while acknowledging the challenges of changing human behavior.
Challenge of change
“Changing people’s behavior is one of the hardest things to do,” Buffett stated. “We have to get information out there, and then, people have to decide they’re going to try it.”
Producers should also give new techniques a chance, since they may take time to develop into fully successful practices.
“We all have challenges in everything we do, but we can’t just quit,” he noted.
Buffett continued, “Most of us don’t like it when someone tells us how we are going to do something.”
However, he encouraged producers to make choices about how things will change, before changes are forced.
“If we want to maintain flexibility, we have to determine what our solutions are going to be, and we have to show the world that we are willing to use those,” he explained.
Alternative practices can be difficult to implement and it takes some time to learn about new systems, for example, what kinds of equipment are necessary in no-till fields.
Transferring techniques between different scales of operations can also be challenging, since some practices will have to be adjusted.
“It is easier for someone who is just starting out. When I got into no-till, one of the biggest challenges was making a change in my equipment,” Buffett commented, adding that there is usually less equipment for a no-till system, so there should be a net gain financially.
“I got to be very good friends with the IRS. I found out that when someone auctions off all of their equipment, they pay a lot of taxes,” he remarked.
However, Buffett took advantage of his chance to start over, learning about what equipment was best and how to use it.
“Number one, we have to get set up right. If we do it right, we’re going to make more money,” he said.
To encourage producers to consider alternate options on their places, he asked, “If we use conservation ag in difficult times to save money, why would we give away money in good times?”
In good times, producers are not always forced to look at their operations critically to determine where things can be improved, but applying the same critical thinking when things are going well has the potential to make more money.
“There is nothing I have done in 30 years of farming that has been easy,” commented Buffett. “I don’t think no-till is any more difficult than anything else. It just takes the right equipment, knowledge and support.”
Through his organization, Buffett works with agriculture in many different countries, and he praised some of the programs available to producers in the United States. Although he acknowledged that university research can at times be bitter-sweet, he gave a lot of credit to the advantages of Extension programs and land-grant universities.
“There is no way the American farmer would be where we are today without the land-grant university system,” he stated.
Private sector research has also been beneficial, according to Buffett, who emphasized the importance of research related to agriculture.
He also noted that the USDA and government programs have an important role in the progress of agriculture because government support can provide the resources producers need to move toward better practices.
“USDA has to be a leader,” he said.
Buffett told the audience that USDA programs have set a new standard for conservation, and more producers are starting to understand that soil is a living ecosystem all by itself.
“If we treat it like dirt, that is what we will get,” he remarked.
Farms and ranches are ultimately businesses, and USDA also has the potential to contribute to the success of sustainability from an economic standpoint, Buffett added.
For example, many producers consider crop rotation in simplistic terms, such as alternately planting corn and beans because it is an economically viable combination from a business standpoint.
“It doesn’t work well economically to do the types of rotations that we really should do to protect our lands and our soils,” he mentioned.
However, with government subsidies and incentives, producers may be able to approach changes in their operations with a different attitude.
“If there are programs in place that allow farmers a different way to do things in terms of financial risk, I think a lot more farmers would transition from traditional farming to no-till, strip-till or even using cover crops,” he suggested.
Buffett also warned his audience against becoming too reliant on technology, explaining that although technology can provide useful tools, nature will not be changed.
“The more we understand nature and the more we appreciate it and incorporate it into how we behave and what we do, the better off we will be in the long run as farmers, land owners, conservationists and people who care about the world,” he said.
Maintaining biodiversity is underrated, he noted, explaining that it should be better incorporated into production systems.
“American farmers are the biggest conservationists in the world,” he stated. “We have saved tens of millions of acres of bio-diverse jungles and forests because we are efficient at high-production agriculture. We never get credit for that.”
However, he continued that doesn't mean producers shouldn’t continue to become even better at what they do.
“Farmers deserve a lot of credit, but we have to stop for a minute and ask what we can do better,” remarked Buffett.