America’s Most Famous Farmer Endorses Conservation
Although USDA’s dismal projections for grain markets and the farm economy got most of the headlines last week at the annual Outlook Forum in Washington, it may have been Howard Buffett who offered the most poignant take home messages. The global farmer and philanthropist shared the stage with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for a chat about conservation.
He leveled his sights, took aim, and fired a magnum clip of quotable Howardisms, telling the international audience that “Soil is an amazing, living ecosystem. If you treat it like dirt, that’s what you’ll get.” While none in the audience had more mud on their boots than did Howard, his place on the big stage allowed the USDA to raise soil conservation issues to the highest level. Addressing Vilsack, Howard said, “The greatest legacy you leave behind is that you put conservation on the map; and I hope it stays there.”
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will use $5-6 billion annually to avert the loss of soil and to promote high quality water with a myriad of programs. The conversation with Howard Buffett was the first time in memory that soil conservation was addressed in the opening session of the two day conference, and it pre-empted such important issues as diminishing trade and the weakening farm economy.
If policy makers were listening, and several Congressional aides were in attendance, the chat with Howard Buffett could have been a USDA masterstroke toward elevating soil conservation and farm environmental issues as the Congress begins work on the next Farm Bill. He offered many catchphrases in that direction, including, “If you give farmers the right opportunities for conservation they can do it, and they will.” and “Agriculture isn’t changing fast enough to avoid more government regulations.”
While many Cornbelt farmers are moving in the general direction of conserving soil, protecting water quality, and utilizing existing soil biology to boost yields, Howard Buffett is already there when he says, “When you see soil erosion, sedimentation, water quality and when you see effect of drought, then no-till and cover crops become easy.” And he added, “You can pay for cover crops when you see the difference of 25 bushels of corn per acre!”
While Howard has to be all business in dealing with the family’s business investments, he is applying those same principles to everyday farming, “From a business standpoint it was a smart decision to employ conservation practices. It doesn’t work well economically to do the kind of rotations we really should do to protect our land and soil. That’s the challenge. We need government incentives to get farmers away from a corn-bean rotation.”
The globe-trotting philanthropist has had the opportunities to see the impact of US agriculture on the rest of the world; and he is thrilled with the positive results; “US farmers have saved tens of millions of acres of bio-diverse jungles and forests because of efficient, high-yielding production agriculture.” Considering the alternative, in which farmers in many foreign nations have no conservation priorities, Howard says, “Biodiversity is underrated and American farmers are the best conservationists.”
As farmers head to the field this year to produce a crop that will cost more than it will return, Howard’s observations about his fertility practices will get some attention, particularly with high yields and half of the typical nitrogen application. He told the USDA audience that he raised 227 bushel corn on 160 acres applying just 100 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre. “I am very competitive with yields, but spend significantly less.”
Wherever he goes, Howard Buffett cuts a wide swath. And it certainly did not hurt when he said, “I learned a huge amount about farming from Nebraska Cooperative Extension, and couldn’t have done it without them. There’s no way we could be where we are without Land Grant Universities.”
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