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“It's clear we have to use every option we have if we're going to feed more people, and an important component of U.S. farmers’ ability to achieve this goal is how the future of our farms look.”

— Howard G. Buffett

In this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators podcast, brought to you by Source By Sound Agriculture, listen to part 2 of Howard G. Buffett’s presentation on feeding the world with no-till from a previous 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 2 of this 2-part podcast, Buffett breaks down some of the statistics surrounding world hunger and offers advice about specific ways that no-tillers in North America can help fulfill their obligation to feed the world. And if you haven’t heard it yet, check out part 1, which originally aired Feb. 17.

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.

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Full Transcript

Mackane Vogel:

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, brought to you by Source, by Sound Agriculture. Listen to part two of Howard G. Buffett's presentation on Feeding the World with No-Till from a previous national no-tillage conference. In part two of this two part podcast, Buffett breaks down some of the statistics surrounding world hunger and offers advice about specific ways that no-tillers in North America can help fulfill their obligation to feed the world.

Howard G. Buffett:

The next couple of things I'm going to say are really important if anybody's really going to understand how to do something with small farmers that really need help in the world. Poor, small scale farmers, a net buyer of food. Now that is a complete, major, paradigm shift for US Farmer because according to USDA, we grow enough food for 163 people every year. That changes from time to time, but it's something like that. A farmer in Africa, most likely a woman, along with her family, suffers from hunger periods between harvest. That's another paradigm shift for everyone in this room because we have multiple grocery stores and we've never seen empty shelves in those stores. So if you think about, in this country, we spend over a trillion dollars a year on retail food. These families live and survive, oftentimes, on less than a dollar a day.

So you ask a mother, and I've done this, it's not an easy question to ask. Sometimes interpreters won't ask it. But if you ask a mother how she decides which child will eat and which one's going to go hungry, that's a pretty difficult question to ask a mother. And this is another paradigm shift for us, because all of us here have put our children to bed at night, but we've never, ever, night after night, had to worry about watching them just, their little bodies wither away. So it's a different world. It takes different thought processes, it takes different solutions. There's also a financial cost to all of this. The cost of hunger from medical expenses, lost productivity and lower education is estimated to exceed over a trillion dollars in a generation's lifetime.

These are farmers that have no access to inputs. They replant seeds year after year. I've talked to farmers that have replanted seeds for 30 years, okay? They farm small, scattered plots, maybe an acre in size, sometimes two acres. They have no extension service, they don't even know what a soil sample is. They don't even know what it is. If you think about our situation, they might even live, it could be a two-day walk to the closest market. That's the circumstances you're trying to deal with. Remember what I said earlier, 75% of the poor people in this world fit these circumstances. That's a lot of people. To get food security right, we need to reach out to those who live this challenge every day, to farmers who can tell us things that we don't know, that we don't understand, because we've never experienced them. We can't make the mistake to believe that we know how to solve their problems with our solutions, because if we do, we will fail and that means we fail them.

So what's precision agriculture to these farmers? Well, it's learning the importance of consistency, depth, seed spacing, row spacing, understanding plant population and density, the very basic agronomy lessons. It's having access to new knowledge and recommendations of how to improve their soil, something they've never had. Just as I saying this, I remember looking up a number for a meeting I had a couple weeks ago, where in Eastern Africa in today's world, the average yield for corn is 24 bushels an acre. That's less than what we average in this country in 1900. That's what the challenge is. The first priority, and this is something that took me a while to learn, too. The first priority for subsistence farmer isn't yield, it's risk aversion. And that is also a pretty big shift for us to think about. So to focus on technology is great for farmers who can benefit from it, but at leaves millions of farmers, literally millions of impoverished farmers, without any solutions.

Now our foundation's investing in technology. We hope it contributes to future solutions. One project we have is a virus resistant sweet potato that we're working on with Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. We have two projects we've co-funded with the Gates Foundation for drought tolerant maze for Africa. We also have 9,200 acres, it's up from Darryl said 6,000, I got carried away and bought more last year. We're up to 9,200 acres, 22 center pivots in South Africa. We're working with CIMMYT. Some of you guys will know CIMMYT, the preeminent world leader in corn and wheat research in the world. Penn State and the Rodale Institute are all there working. But these solutions won't reach millions of farmers today. Hopefully they will in the future, but the future doesn't feed people today.

So there are appropriate solutions and what are they? It's improved extension services in most places. Extension services don't even exist in these countries. It's farmer schools. It's use of cover crops, introduction of improved seeds, and honestly, it's the expansion of minimum and no-till techniques. Some of them are very low input type systems, but the benefit that we get here in this country from no-till is no different than the benefit they get. Some of their circumstances are a little more difficult to deal with. In a tropical zone, it's not the same as a tempered zone, but the benefits are there if you can find out how to do it. Inorganic fertilizers, they can play a role and they should play a role, but if the strategy becomes, and this is something that's happening today in some places, the strategy becomes to take the poorest populations in the world and create a dependency on fertilizers from fossil fuels, that's just not responsible.

At a project we have Mozambique and some of the guys that were, we got off track in one of our little meetings, the number 22 room on organic and no-till, these guys can fall asleep now, they're here because we got onto this subject. But at a project in Mozambique, we doubled our... We didn't, the farmers there doubled the yields in two years without a single new input. And they did it by changing their farming system to, it's kind of a pothole, no-till system that was invented or discovered or whatever in Niger. And it's very simple, but it's imaginative. So once we get it to that point and we believe that there are other options and we have worked on other options, think what happens when you can get that soil fertility improved and you can then at some point may provide improved seeds. It's pretty significant. There's a lot of potential there.

So I think it's clear we have to use every option we have if we're going to feed more people, we need poor farmers in developing countries to produce more to meet their own food insecurity needs and we need farmers in the United States to produce more to meet a growing global demand. They're certainly not in competition, I can tell you that. An important component of US Farmer's ability to achieve this goal, is how the future of our farms look. They have to look different if this objective's going to be reached. And I think, probably, there isn't, standing here tonight when I say what I'm going to say, I'm preaching to the choir, so I hope you'll bear with me a little bit.

But it is what I think needs to be said and then we have to figure out how do we get it done and how do we get it done the way we need to. But just like no-till involved from farmers who remain innovative and persistent, some people would say stubborn, by not giving up on making probably the oldest form of farming part of mainstream farming. And some of you guys are right here tonight, that made that happen. And there's guys like Jim Kinsella back in Illinois and others that have spent a lifetime, part of their profession has been to transform what agriculture looks like today. And I'll tell you what the progress today, and Frank will tell you, what does no-till conference look like 18, 19 years ago. What it looks like today, it's pretty impressive what's happened in this country. And those, and us, you, we're going to be the farmers that have to contribute those same ideas and solutions in this next generation.

20 years ago, here goes one of the offending comments to one of your sponsors, Deere didn't make a piece of no-till equipment. In 1990 when the 750 no-till drill came on the scene, I would say it changed the face of conservation agriculture in this country and many people have come along with that. And you now have incredible amounts of opportunities to add and change with manufactured equipment at much easier to get, much easier to repair, much easier to replace.

And I just purchased a 2510H, that's what it is, I had to think. 2510H applicator bar. And I know a lot of you guys don't use anhydrous, but for those who do, I think this is an amazing tool, as a no-tiller, for what I want to do in the future. It just gives me a completely different set of options and it's going to solve one of my real soil erosion problems, which is when I knife in anhydrous in the fall and I go down my eight inches and the frost is coming out and I get just the right kind of rain and I come and I can go around my field where I've got slopes, wherever that knife went, that's where my soil disappeared from. So this tool is going to help me solve that problem.

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 And now let's get back to the conversation.

Howard G. Buffett:

So it was about 20 years ago when there was a little revolution of some of you farmers out there, right here tonight, that really helped take from your workshop to mainstream agricultural manufacturers that something today has helped with carbon sequestration, improved soil fertility and significant reduction of soil erosion. The same has got to happen on the input side. And I don't believe we'll ever be independent of inorganic inputs, but we need to develop a system and we need to develop policies that allow farmers more flexibility and better options. Half this conference has been about cover crops, but you know what, how do we get cover crops to scale? I go home and I got a whole bunch of neighbors that think I'm a nut for what I do, just no-tilling. And when I start planting cover crops, growing radishes or whatever I do, they're going to think I've really gone off the deep end.

So how do we do that? We know what cover crops provide to us in terms of soil fertility and organic matter and all the improvements that we get from it, but how do we do that so that the farming community in general has adopted that on the scale that's going to make a significant difference? They're not new ideas. In fact, many of them have been perfected from people here, but we've got to embrace it and we've got to figure out how to take it from an individual basis. And probably one of the best things about this conference is you sit down and you start talking to people, "Oh, you did that," or "You had that problem?" This is an incredible learning experience, but there's only 750 people here. There's a million farmers out there that we got to talk to.

So how do we do that? And I don't know, we have to do it because if we don't, our farms aren't going to be profitable in 30 years and our farms aren't going to be healthy in 30 years. I believe that. So we have to find out how we get rotations and cover crops of scale. And the things, worthy incentives. We've had incentives to do a lot of things in this country, but we haven't had them for that. The fact is we're probably going to be forced to do it at some point because three quarters of farming's, never can say this, nitrous oxide emissions result from man-made fertilizers. I will stand here today and tell you we've built, in this country, one of the most dynamic, reliable production systems in the world, and we've done it by using inorganic fertilizers. I'm not ashamed of that, but I will tell you that the status quo won't work and it's coming faster than you think, because it's not going to be adequate to meet the future environmental regulations or sometimes, at some point along the line, consumer requirements or demands.

In fact, US agriculture has critics in new places, but I'll tell you one thing, all those critics have full stomachs and somehow we got to get that message across. We see Ag getting hit by energy, climate change, food safety, obesity, animal production, human health, animal welfare, water quality. And then, and I'm not picking on the USDA, but they have their own initiative: know your farmer, know your food. Well somehow that implies to me kind of a negative connotation about us, because it makes it sound as if we're, number one, responsible for the end product, which we're not and number two, that local food is better than the existing alternatives. It isn't about what's good or bad, it's about what's practical. And local food is fine, that's great. And I know a few guys who've been very successful at that and it's a few guys and not many of us have that option.

Most of the movement today in production agriculture isn't going to take you that direction. I'm not against it, I'm all for it, but it's got to be practical, it's got to work. So change in innovation isn't anything new for US farmers. And I picked an example, and again, I hope maybe a few of you don't know it so you won't fall asleep on me, but if you look at history of the soybeans, 1804 Yankee Clipper comes back and forth between China. What do they have in it as inexpensive ballast? They have soybeans. When the ship gets to the US, they dump the soybeans. That's what they do. Then in 1829, there's probably some crazy no-till farmer who decided to try planting soybeans. And if you try to tell me that somebody was here, Frank, that was back then, I'm not going to believe you, so forget it, you can get another corn hat.

So they started planting them in 1829. In 1919 there were 112,000 acres of soybeans planted in the United States and in 2009, the number reached 76 million. Production in 1919 was barely over a million bushels, today it's 3.25 billion bushels. The value's gone from $4.5 million to $32 billion. Back in 1919, I'm not talking about the people sitting here tonight, but back in 1919 talking about planting soybeans was as foreign as talking about large scale cover crops for Midwest agriculture production is today. So we can do it. We've done it in the past. There's another a hundred examples of that, but we've done it and look at what a major crop soybeans are today. So it can happen, it can change. And a lot of you know, because you've been part of that change. End-processors, farmers, all through this system, many of us embrace that innovation and change, and I think we'll do it better in the future. We've done it pretty well and I think we'll do it better in the future.

So everything I've talked about now is going to take years, some of it decades, to get accomplished. So that means we still need to address the immediate needs of hungry people. So let me go through the same exercise I did earlier real quickly, because I think it's important that we can agree on a few things. We live in the wealthiest country in the world. You can always define that differently, but I think we do. We have one of the most abundant and safe food systems available. Now, I know everybody at Time Magazine might not agree with that, but I'll tell you, we do. All you have to do is travel outside this country and it's obvious. We have one of the most abundant, safe food systems available. We pay about the lowest percentage of our income for food than any other country in the world. We have more choices for food than almost anywhere in the world, and we have access and availability of all types of food.

Now, I have on the back window of my pickup, and I have for years, a sticker that says, "American farmers, we feed the world." I think a lot of us are proud of that, but what's it really mean? Does it mean that we export more corn than any country? Does it mean that we're the most efficient food production? Does it mean we have the highest yields per acre? I believe what it should mean is we have the moral responsibility to do exactly what those simple words say, "Feed the world." When I travel to different countries, I'm proud when I see USA oil cans and USAID food bags, to me, they're a gift of life. And to the people that receive them, they are literally a gift of life.

Can our system be better? Absolutely. Can it be more efficient? Yes. In fact, in a document entitled, and I only mentioned this and some of you might be interested, entitled, A Roadmap To End Global Hunger, and you can find it on the internet unless you're pathetic like me and you don't know how to look it up, there are a number of great suggestions on how to improve what we do. Obviously, I can't go through them tonight, but I'm going to make one point. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 is implemented and managed through 12 departments, 25 agencies and 60 government offices. How's that sound? Like a nightmare to me. It's USAID, it's Title II Food Aid Programs, it's Development Assistance, it's Economic Security Funds, International Disaster and Famine Relief Programs, the MCC Country Compacts, USDA's Food for Progress, McGovern-Dole Food for Education, Child Nutrition and there's even more.

So obviously, all these programs are going to have their own rules and procedures and it's a pretty inconsistent message to the world and it's a pretty inefficient way to do it. So we can do better, better coordination, more effective implementation. But regardless of our shortcomings, I'm pretty proud, the United States has provided over half of the global food assistance for 55 years. That's a pretty impressive record. I turned 55 in December, I'm getting pretty old, I can't remember anything anymore. But 55 years we've been a leader globally in what we've provided to help people that are hungry. So it means that we've done a good job in the past. It means we've helped millions of people in emergencies like in Haiti today. It means we've provided a lot of development assistance that have brought people out of poverty. It means that we've helped refugees and internally displaced people return home after conflict.

But there's still a lot to do. If you look at the 2007 number, the value of US food assistance the USAID provided globally, it's a little over $2.1 billion. That represents almost a $1,000 for each farm in the United States. And if you break it down and you take the farmers who claim that their principal business is farming, you get down to about, actually, under a million farmers, that's about $2,100 for each farmer, which is probably everybody sitting in this room, or at least most of you. So let's improve our system, but while we're doing it, let's not forget what we've done, what we've already accomplished.

The only part that kind of disappoints me is that it's pretty easy to put a Wall Street firm or car manufacturing company ahead of a hungry person. And there's reasons that's happened, I realize that. And we're dealing in a recession, and I don't make light of that. A lot of American families have suffered, but the families that rely on help from us for food, they're populations that will never experience a recession because they don't have a single possession to lose. And I think we need to remember that. There's a lot of farmers that help. I know them. There's a lot of people, a lot of farmers that make sacrifices or communities that make sacrifices to help.

But I believe we need to double our food assistance commitment to the World Food Program, US NGOs that deliver food on behalf of the United States. We need to provide additional options. Some of it's for cash for purchase, some of it's innovative programs like Purchase for Progress that I don't have time to explain tonight, but it's a pretty innovative program that WFP is working on in 20 countries where they establish a better network and marketing opportunities for small farmers to try to become part of the economy. It's what's got to happen eventually. And I never underestimate the impact of what new approaches can do.

Between 2004 and 2008, the delivery of in-kind food assistance to 10 Sub-Saharan countries took an average 147 days. Think of that. You're a hungry person, it's going to take you 147 days to get food. Local and regional procurement took 34 and 41 days respectfully, so we can do better. And if you're a child, that 100 days is a long time. If your child is hungry, that's a long time. We need to do more because we can't do enough when there's a billion people hungry and another 2 billion people suffering from either malnourishment or undernourishment. So I hope you'll seriously think about what can you do as a farmer. You're already doing a lot, but what can you do?

Mackane Vogel:

That's it for this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators Podcast. If you haven't heard part one of this podcast yet, be sure to check it out at Thanks again to our sponsor, Source, by Sound Agriculture, for helping to make this series possible. And 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.