“The number of hungry people in the world continues to increase, food security in poor nations is definitely more volatile today than it was even five years ago, and technology is going to contribute to those solutions.”
— Howard G. Buffett
In this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators podcast, brought to you by Source By Sound Agriculture, listen back to a presentation on feeding the world with no-till farming by Howard G. Buffett from the 2010 National No-Tillage Conference.
A champion of no-till farming, Buffett manages a 1,500-acre family farm in central Illinois and operates a 400-acre farm in Nebraska. He also oversees multiple research farms in Arizona, Illinois and Nebraska totaling 9,500 acres.
In part 1 of this 2-part podcast, listen to Buffett talk about the important obligations that farmers have to feed our world, plus hear some of his stories from traveling to over 150 different countries in his lifetime. And stay tuned for part 2 coming in the first week of March.
If you are interested in more no-till history, you’ll find great stories like these and many more in the newly released 448-page second edition of From Maverick to Mainstream: A History of No-Till Farming that includes 32 more pages than the first edition.
No-Till Farmer‘s No-Till Influencers & Innovators Podcast podcast is brought to you by SOURCE®️ by Sound Agriculture.
SOURCE from Sound Agriculture unlocks more of the nitrogen and phosphorus already in your fields, so you can rely less on expensive and hard-to-find fertilizer. This foliar applied chemistry has a low use rate and is tank mix compatible, getting a free ride into the field. Check out SOURCE — it's like caffeine for microbes. Learn more at www.sound.ag.
Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators Podcast, brought to you by SOURCE by Sound Agriculture. I'm Mackane Vogel, assistant editor of No-Till Farmer. In this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators Podcast, listen back to a presentation on Feeding the World with No-Till by Howard G, Buffett from a previous National No-Tillage Conference. A champion of No-Till, Buffett manages a 1500 acre family farm in Central Illinois and operates a 400 acre farm in Nebraska. He also oversees multiple research farms in Arizona, Illinois, and Nebraska, totaling 9,500 acres. In part one of this two-part podcast, listen to Buffett talk about the important obligations that farmers have to feed our world, plus hear some of Buffett's stories from traveling to over 150 different countries in his lifetime, and stay tuned for part two coming in first week of March.Howard G. Buffett:
It's an honor to be here. This is a group of men and women that, in their own way, have served this country, and I'm going to talk a little bit about how important you are in the global scene tonight. But it's also pretty amazing, I think, that even as many more people here are much more educated than I am on No-Till and a lot of the subjects that get covered, but still, I think most of us come here and we walk away and we've learned something, and that's a pretty great thing. Now, I do want to tell you, I learned one thing from my dad a long time ago. He used to always tell me, when he gets done speaking, he is usually offended almost everybody in the room. I counted nine sponsors when you listened to them that I'll probably offend the night, so get ready. And I think it's very unfair for you to put Dan Towery up here because I see there's a salad next to him with tomatoes in it and he can hit me from here. So Dan, yeah, I see that. I do. Mushrooms and other stuff.
Well, somebody earlier asked me what I did as an ambassador for the World Food Program, and I get to ask that once in a while, but I never have a good answer. But I kind of heard my son, who's here tonight, he was explaining it to somebody, so I thought I'd use his example or a little story to tell you what an ambassador does. So the story goes like this:
There's a gentleman who wanted to buy a parrot, so he goes down to this reputable pet shop and he goes in, he finds a salesperson, and tells them what he wants to do, and that salesperson takes them back to the back of the shop, where the parrots are, and starts explaining all these different parrots. And this guy says, "No, I see there's three over here," and the salesperson tries to talk him out of those three and he says, "No, no, no, no, I want to know about those three." So he says, "Well, they're kind of expensive," he says, "Well, what's the first one cost" and he says, "Well, that parrot is $2,500." He says, "Oh, that is expensive. What do you get for a $2,500 parrot?" He says, "Well, he farms using No-Till. He analyzes genetically modified enzymes, and it trades derivatives," and he thought, "Wow, that's a pretty impressive parrot."
So he says, "I see there's another one next to him," he says, "Yeah, yeah, let's just not even go there." And the guy says, "I want to know what that parrot does," he says, "Well, that parrot, he does everything the first parrot does, plus it advises farm credit services. It reads No-Till magazine, has produced a thesis on sustainable agriculture, has a master's in soil science from the University of Nebraska." And the guy says, "Wow, that's an amazing parrot. How much does it cost?" The guy says, "$5,000," he says, "Wow, that's a lot of money for a parrot. What about the third one?" He says, "Now, I'm not... You know what? I'll just tell you right now, that parrot costs $25,000. He's out of your league." He says, "Well, wait. What's he do?" And he says, "Well," scratches his head for a little bit and he says, "I've never seen this parrot do anything, but the other two parrots call him Mr. Ambassador."
So that's my hardworking job I have. Anyway, tonight, I'm going to talk about a few things that might not be normal conversation, certainly not around the round tables that we have here or at the conference in general, but there's also a few subjects I'm going to talk about that some of you here are experts on, which means I'll get myself in trouble, and I hope I can provide a little broader context of the role that U.S agriculture plays on a global scale and how important your contribution is to the world, both in helping to feed people and also setting an example of how important it is to be innovative, take risk, and challenge old assumptions because that's what almost everyone in this room has done, some of you for 30 or 40 years. To do that, I want to discuss three areas. I want to talk about the changing landscape of U.S agriculture, our role in addressing global food security, and then finally, our obligation to meet the immediate needs of hungry people.
First, I want to identify just a few things we can probably agree on to set kind of the stage of where I want to go. World population continues to increase, global protein demand is rising, world farmers are going to need to produce more, probably most of it from higher yields, I know my Syngenta guys like that. Number of hungry people in the world continues to increase, food security and poor nations is definitely more volatile today than it was even five years ago, and technology's going to contribute to some of those solutions. And technology is one I'm going to get into a little deeper in a minute because it's probably one that, I think, ought to be the best understood and probably, at times, the most debated. We also know, and you're going to know most of these, but I think it's important to repeat a few of them, to point out why the role you play is important.
But we know U.S farmers grow five times as much corn as they did in 1930 on 20% of the land. When you think about that, five times on 20% of the land, if you don't have it tonight, you don't want it because this book weighs nine and a half pounds. I wrote a whole book about that. That's a pretty impressive thing when you think about what we've done in agriculture since the early 1900s. Yields between the Civil War and the Dust Bowl, they stayed stagnant at about 24 bushels an acre through that entire time, and today, since that time, we're up to about 163 bushels an acre as an average. 20 years, productivity in the United States increased 40% for corn, 30% for soybeans.
Over the past 20 years, minimum tillage has reduced soil erosion by about half and saved probably about almost 500 million gallons of diesel fuel. And this is also quite a statistic, farmers grow 70% more corn per pound of fertilizer than they did in the 1970s. Now, those are amazing statistics. Somehow we don't tell our story very well because most people don't know many of those statistics and we're usually on the other end of the arguments. But U.S farmers can contribute significantly to meeting both the demands of a more affluent world and also feeding hungry people.
We've become more reliant on technology, technology has become more important, and that's including genetically modified crops. So I think when I look at my operation, I think about what are the things that... As a farmer, what do I need to think about and consider when I watch the technology develop and things change as fast as they are? I think one, I think how does it affect our future choices, and I think that's a big one and an important one. Does it contribute to best practices? How does it reshape the dynamics of our business? And finally, will it contribute to profitability, because that's not one that's always as easy to identify. The answers today look quite different than a few decades ago, especially in the seed business, both because technology developments have been driven by private companies rather than public institutions, and changes have developed very rapidly.
So these four questions become more important. One large reason is that seed technology developed by private companies, obviously, is driven for the benefit of shareholders, where public investments designed to benefit exactly what it says the public. So the flip side of that, of course, is that private companies only succeed if they provide the products their customers want or ask for. There's exception to this, which are those businesses that are regulated and those that are consolidated and really create concentration. And I personally believe the concentration that we've seen in different parts of our industry, could be one of the biggest threats that we face for our own businesses.
But the first question about choice has always been important to farmers, but it may be more relevant today. What are some of the choices we have? Well, all of you guys know these, but I'm going to go through them real quickly. And first, I have to give you this disclaimer that my wife has always said... She's never shy about this either, that kind of hurts my feelings sometimes. But she always says I'm low tech and high maintenance, and that's kind of true, unfortunately. But I have learned a few things.
And the other place I run into trouble is I get into spring, Howard comes back to help me plant, and I'm going to admit something that also is a little embarrassing, but I don't use a computer. I don't do my own email, it's job security for a couple people that are here with me. And so every time I start trying to learn how to do anything, they just take it away from me. I know how to turn a computer on and off and I know how to go look for my images that when I came back from my last trip, I can kind of hit one icon and find them, and that's about the extent of my knowledge. So I get in the tractor and I'm trying to set up my mapping because I've split my planter, didn't have any Syngenta seeds, but I had some planter in DeKalb.
And anyway, I split the planter, I'm getting all ready so I can map everything, and Howard was just sitting there, shaking his head, he has this disgusted look on his face. I said, "What?" I said, "This is cool stuff, and he says, "Dad, you always tell everybody you can't use a computer and you can't learn. You're up here, you're pushing all the buttons, you're programming everything. You're pathetic." So you know you've reached a new high when your son thinks that you're pathetic. But anyway, mapping, an amazing thing and I think of the field comparisons we can do today that we couldn't do before. It's a great tool.Mackane Vogel:
We'll come back to the episode in a moment, but first I'd like to thank our sponsor SOURCE by Sound Agriculture for supporting today's podcast. SOURCE by Sound Agriculture unlocks more of the nitrogen and phosphorus in your fields so you can rely less on expensive fertilizer. This foliar application has a low use rate and you can mix it right into your tank. Check out SOURCE, it's like caffeine for microbes. Learn more at sound.ag. Now, let's get back to the conversation.Howard G. Buffett:
Guidance systems. I got to tell you this story too. What, four or five years ago when guidance systems kind of started coming out, auto steer, whatever, that too, this is about then, I thought, "What the heck do I want one of these for?" And it makes me obsolete. I said, "Oh, yeah, I'm going to drive that tractor. That's what I do." So I was just like, "That's bullshit." Sorry Frank.
So two years ago, I got a new farm that we're going to go 120 acres, we're going to go out in February, and we were going to do the new perimeter map. Lucas Veale comes down from Sloan Implement, gets in the tractor, we're doing the perimeter, and we get to this corner and he says, "Howard, do you think that line's pretty straight south? I said, "Well, it should be." And since then I found that my lines are not straight anything. So as I planted corn into my neighbor's field, thinking my 180 degrees is right, who is this idiot? And I did.
I had to go to apologize to one of my neighbors and said, "I got a little [inaudible 00:12:20]." So anyway, he's in the buddy seat with his little GS2 screen and my screen and he's like pushing numbers, and hit that resume button, take your hands off steering wheel, keep them off steering wheel, let clutch out. Okay. I can't tell you if it was 20 feet or 30 feet, but I put the clutch in and I said, "Okay, what's all this stuff cost?" I said to him right there on spot, I said, "You know what? A guidance system to a farmer is like cocaine to a drug addict," I said, "This is unbelievable." And there I was, hooked. And how can you go back? I mean, you can't.
But anyway, row command clutches or new planter. How amazing is it that you can have this planter? I'm only a little guy with a 16 row, I know a lot of guys are 24 row planters. But that's a pretty amazing. And there's value in this, that's the neat thing about it in the end is you're not picking silage on the in rows and you're buying a few less bags of corn that are a little expensive these days. So when you think about what we can do today, and then add on to the seed traits that are going to be coming along with drought tolerance and continue improvement and disease and pest... I mean, it's pretty amazing technology. So to me, I get excited about it, even though I'm not very technological. I see it as really bringing true precision agriculture, creating more efficiency and more opportunity.
But the thing I think we have to be careful about is technology can't solve everything, in fact, it can fail. Three years ago, when I planted Bt corn, I had some fields that suffered pretty poorly, quite a lot from corn bore, and there was actually articles about how a lot of guys in Illinois had that problem. And I don't know what happened to it, but I can tell you one thing, I never got reimbursed for the technology I paid for, and I never got a good explanation about why it failed or what happened. We all know when a herbicide fails, it's pretty easy to grab your guy from the FS or [inaudible 00:14:31] or where we do business and grab him by the collar and take him out in the pickup truck and say, "You guys screwed up." And we get something for that, typically, at least if you whine enough, you do.
But it's pretty hard to know when a trait in a seed corn hasn't really worked and what you've paid for. It's going to get challenging going forward because we've gone, what, from $70 to $300? It depends on what you're buying and everything else, but a bag of corn, the last five or six years ago, it was under a hundred bucks. And so it's going to be a challenge to know that we're getting what we pay for, and I think that's going to be something that we're going to have to all wrestle with. Talking about technology, this spring, I downloaded all my data as I planted, and in the fall, I went to get my variety locator and make everything work, and it turned out that on almost all my soybean acres, for some reason, the variety locator just wouldn't work.
So obviously as a result, I couldn't get that information, thank goodness on some of the corn ground, it did, but you lose all that data and you paid for this system and you invested in this system, and that's one of the reasons you invested. This Fall, obviously, everybody knows this story. There's no technology that could have helped us get in or out of the field with the rainfall we had. Technology's absolutely no match for Mother Nature. So don't get me wrong, I think the technology is amazing in what it's going to offer, but I think you have to recognize its limitations, and what we all have to be concerned with is the assumptions that come from any kind of an attitude that technology is going to overcome all obstacles because it won't. The human factor is still there and Mother Nature's still there.
So I think we have to be careful of that. We also have to make sure... This is where I'm not very good. We have to make sure our investment technology has real financial benefits. I used to, in the early days, be really proud of this. Now, I'm kind of hanging my head, but I go up to my John Deere dealer, Tom Sloan, and he said to me once about nine or ten years ago, he says, "Howard, you should know one thing." I just think about this when I say this. He says, "You're my best customer per acre," and I thought about that, I thought, "Don't tell my wife, please. That's just a killer." We have to make sure... I shouldn't say this because I don't qualify because I'm going to be hypocrite, but we do. We need to do the best we can to make sure that our investment is a financial investment that's going to return something that we need.
I want to return real quickly to a couple points I outlined earlier about a growing population of reduced food security and a need for farmers to produce more. How will farmers meet this challenge? Well, technology's, it'll provide some of the options, but it's amazing to think about what has been discovered. And just recently, they announced scientists that mapped the genetic code of corn. I imagine that's going to hold some pretty exciting opportunities as well. However, it's going to take more than U.S farmers and our production here at home to solve the challenge of food insecurity, malnutrition, and chronic hunger. When you look at the barriers of feeding people worldwide, lack of infrastructure, widespread corruption, poor distribution, limited institutional capacity, and I could go on with 20 other items, we can't do it all from here. In fact, oftentimes access really prohibits our help regardless of what our intentions are.
So if you look at the FAO, they estimated that it's going to take $83 billion of investment every year for the next four decades. That's $3.3 trillion to feed the projected population of 9 billion in 2050. So what are some of the answers? Well, before we know the answers for farmers in other parts of the world, especially for small, poor, resource-limited farmers, we need to be able to understand their environment, their culture, their constraints, and all those things are different, and they're very different from what we face here at home. And then there's other circumstances. To me, one of the most staggering statistics that I learned when I started getting educated on hunger a while back was that 60% of all the hunger in Africa is caused by conflict. Now, those are difficult, complex problems, not easy to solve, and I'll tell you, it's also a different part of the world.
When I was negotiating with four pensioners to relocate from our property in South Africa, well, they accepted our offer. The Land Affairs agency from the South African government had agreed to it. That took two years. We transferred money to their bank accounts, thought we were all done, went over there with our lawyer to meet the four guys again and kind of cleaned it all up, and they get in this kind of heated argument, and my lawyer looks at me, who's very respectful all the time to me, and I go, "Franz, what's going on?" He says, "Shut up." I thought, "Whoa, this is bad. And I thought we had a deal. What's going on?" Finally, he gets done and he to turns me, he says, "Well, we have a problem." What's the problem? Which doctor said they can't move? There's no class in Harvard that tells you how you deal with a witch doctor or at Iowa State, okay?
So when you're dealing in geographies and different cultures, it does create unknown hurdles. Now, we talk about precision agriculture here at home, I've already said why I think we see a really exciting world, but what is precision agriculture to a poor farmer? 75% of all poor people in the world are resource-limited farmers. In Africa alone, that affects 400 million people. It's a sizable number. So how can they contribute to increasing their own food security? For these farmers, access to almost everything and anything has some kind of barriers. Everything isn't always evident, but just to highlight a few things to make you maybe focus on it.
You'll see immigrants migrate because they can't produce enough food on their small farm to feed their family, and a lot of them die trying to get here. Boy will be sniffing glue, trying to dead the pain of hunger. This particular boy, if you catch it in the DVD, you'll see a sewer down to his right-hand side, he lives in the sewer, in Bucharest, Romania. A refugee survives because of donated food from the United States to the World Food Program. Children get their only meal during a day through a school feeding program, and it probably is for many millions of children, the only meal they get. Child lies dying from malnutrition. Well, if that child was here in the United States, she would live.
A person with HIV/AIDS can get the antiviral medicine that they need, but they can't get the nutrition that their body requires to support the medicine. Group of people leaving a Food for Work project or building a new irrigation system to improve yields while receiving food for a Food for Work program in the middle of a two-year drought. When food is so basic, you'll find it touches many aspects of life, might not be so obvious.Mackane Vogel:
That's it for this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators Podcast. Thanks again to our sponsor, SOURCE by Sound Agriculture, for helping to make this series possible. You can find more podcasts about No-Till at no-tillfarmer.com/podcasts. A transcript of this episode will be available there shortly. For our entire staff here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening. Keep on no-tilling and have a great day.
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