Howard W. Buffett interview: How Warren Buffett’s grandson developed a passion for agriculture


Howard W. Buffett, Executive Director of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, waits prior to a panel session at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 27, 2012. (Laurent Gillieron/AP)
January 29, 2012

Howard W. Buffett, the grandson of Warren Buffett and son of Howard G. Buffett, has a passion for agriculture.

It may not be as heart-stirring for the average person attending the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, as, say, yachts, fine wines and shopping. But the junior Buffett would really rather talk about where your food comes from and why the way it gets to your plate needs to be changed.

Buffett was in Davos as a “Global Shaper,” the forum’s newest group of those between 20 and 30. Buffett, who has worked with the White House and Defense Department, is the executive director of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

An excerpt of our conversation:

You get to pair passion with access. What role does that play for you ?

I think that it allows us — and when I say “us,” I mean my Dad and me — to look for creative solutions that others might not have the opportunity to seek out and, as an example, we want to look to convert as many regular till farmers to no-till farmers in the U.S.

We’re able to say: What are all the key inhibitors — obviously the barriers for farmers to make this change, and one of them is a perceived cost of purchasing new equipment — of either adding or supplementing existing planters?

We want to go to someone who has a huge amount of capital. We mean much bigger than what the foundation has potentially. And we will put first-loss capital for anyone who wants to provide a fund that will provide low- or no-interest loans to farmers to convert over to no-till. This is a creative idea, but it’s also simple. And all it is saying is that somebody who has a ton of money — we will underwrite you doing this. We will basically eliminate the risk.

What got you to care about these issues ?

When I was 5, my father was very much my hero. And he ran for political office in a very thankless campaign for a very thankless position. And he did it because his mother had instilled in him, if you are someone who has the capacity to make a great change, you have the responsibility. So, taking that advice to heart, taking the incredible wisdom my grandfather imparts on anyone who will listen, taking this concept of what I call the “lottery of life” — my grandfather calls it “the ovarian lottery” — my dad made the decision he would dedicate his life to helping others.

And, as a 5-year-old running around campaigning with him, it was very inspiring.

It is impossible to interact with folks whose daily life is farming and who are poor — who can’t even produce enough food to feed themselves and their families, which is so antithetical to farming when you’re in the United States, right, because all we do is grow a ton of food and sell it all — it’s, in my mind, impossible not to be passionate about it.

I started completely on my own, farming 400 acres — a no-till farm — last year. Literally working the land myself and understanding the entire system and process has been a fantastic growth opportunity.

What will you be doing in five years?

Well, the little that I can say for sure is that I will be living in Omaha with my wife.

You know, I was pulled out of Omaha when I was younger because my father started to work, when he was done serving as county commissioner, at Archer Daniels Midland. When I left the White House, and I was working — we worked remotely for the Defense Department, so we commuted to Afghanistan and Iraq and back — I started the process of moving back to Omaha. And it was like this enlightening experience, like I am finally coming home.

If I’m home, I’ll be happy. And if I’m around family and if I’m working on projects with friends, I don’t know what else I’d want to be doing.

And I’ve spent so much time with my dad traveling and seeing the ground-level change that we’ve been able to make through philanthropy and trip over trip, time over time, country over country, home after home we’ve been invited into, given tea, given food that people didn’t have to give us, I mean all of these things. It’s time for me to take all of that as fuel and really put it toward understanding how we can make some positive improvements to the different systems that we have in society.

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