Farmers told to clean up their act — or else

Howard Buffett issues warning | The avid supporter of soil health warns farmers to change practices or governments will

Howard Buffett has a message for farmers: change your environmental practices or someone will change them for you.

Buffett, chair of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, said producers, particularly in America, haven’t been taken to task for agriculture’s impact on water quality.

However, the “free ride” for farmers is coming to an end.

“Everybody has talked about hypoxia and the Gulf of Mexico for 25 years, but nobody has been able to do anything about it. All you have to do is look at a map and you know exactly where it’s coming from (and) who’s doing it,” said Buffett, who spoke over lunch at the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture, held in Winnipeg June 22-25.

“We haven’t had to change our practices…. In any other profession, you would never get away with that. Never.”

Buffett sits on the boards of companies such as Berkshire Hathaway and Coca Cola, but his passion is agriculture. He has farms in Illinois, Nebraska, Arizona and South Africa, has practiced no-till for 20 years and touts the promise of zero-tillage and cover crops.

Buffett also supports the Brown Revolution, a movement that promotes the importance of soil health.

Following his presentation in Winnipeg, Buffett met with 15 members of the farm media to share his thoughts on the state of conservation agriculture.

Relaxing on a white-leather sofa, with a semi-circle of journalists around him and a bottle of Coke within reach, Buffett said environmental groups and policy makers aren’t going to ignore the ecological sins of farmers much longer.

“If I’m an environmentalist … my two big targets (would be) Florida, the Everglades, and the Midwest with the nitrogen runoff and phosphate runoff.”

If growers don’t clean up their act soon, governments could mandate certain practices on the industry, he said.

Buffett said many growers don’t adopt conservation agriculture practices because ingrained habits such as intensive tillage die hard.

“So much of it is about perception,” he said.

“If farmers can kind of get over the fact that everything doesn’t have to look perfect all the time. That’s what tillage is about. It looks good. Makes you feel good.”

However, he said those feel good practices are compromising water quality and threatening soil health.

During Buffett’s lunchtime presentation, a member of the audience said producers in the United States and Europe don’t adopt zero tillage because those farmers receive generous subsidies and have little incentive to innovate.

Buffett agreed.

“In the United States … we can afford to over-fertilize and pay the bill,” he said.

“We can do things that allow us — I don’t mean this be as derogatory as it sounds — to be a little lazy.”

Rene Van Acker, a University of Guelph plant science professor, has criticized growers for what he calls “Betty Crocker” farming, or crop production based on a simplistic recipe.

Van Acker said such phrases are used to initiate a discussion about agricultural practices rather than insult a wide swath of farmers.

“I don’t think Mr. Buffett was intending to call American farmers lazy,” said Van Acker, who attended the conference.

“But I think farmers would agree they have multiple responsibilities. They have responsibilities to their cash flow and their business model, but they also have responsibilities to the land and the environment.”