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Day of reckoning coming for U.S. farmers

How long can the U.S. compete in a world where other countries are working much more effectively at sustainability?

American farmers are getting beaten badly by the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Australia. All those countries are far outpacing the U.S. rate for adopting conservation farm strategies, says Howard G. Buffett, and he believes a day of reckoning for the U.S. may come sooner rather than later.

It won’t be pretty, Buffett told the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture conference in Winnipeg earlier this summer.

“We have a mindset that has kept us trapped in thinking like our dad or grandfather,” said the son of billionaire Warren Buffett.

Besides being son of one of the world’s most famous business icons, Howard Buffett is a highly regarded Illinois farmer and an outspoken advocate for conservation agriculture, and he is a philanthropist in his own right, serving as chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

If U.S. farmers were as sluggish at adopting electronic technology as they are at sustainable farming, they’d still be carrying around those giant cellphones from the 1980s with the long antennas. “We have not changed our thinking nearly as quickly as we have changed our adaptation of technology,” Buffett said.

The reluctance to embrace conservation strategies is because some farmers are simply frightened by the unknown and shudder at the thought of modifying the way they’ve always done things, Buffett believes. Also, government policies have provided incentives not to change.

“In the U.S., we can afford to make mistakes and our kids don’t go hungry,” Buffett added. “We can afford to overfertilize and pay the bill and still get by. We can do things that aren’t perfect and be a little lazy… That just means we don’t have that pressure on us.”

By contrast, in regions that lack government safety net supports, farmers are under pressure to be more creative about how to get the most out of their operations over the longest period of time.

“In Brazil, they could not afford not to figure out how to do it in a way that made them the most money, built their soil faster, and kept it from eroding,” Buffett said. “They’re 85 per cent no till.”

Australia faces constraints too, dealing with a limited amount of water in a harsh environment, so that country too has made big progress in adopting conservation practices.

But that doesn’t mean that the costs aren’t adding up in the U.S. As a result of slow adoption there, water is getting scarcer, and water quality issues are getting increasingly common.

Erosion rates during the last decade have also mirrored and sometimes exceeded those of the dust bowl, Buffett said.

“How we’ve gotten away with some of what we’ve gotten away with is amazing to me. Everybody has been talking about hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico for 25 years but nobody’s been able to do anything about it, and all you have to do is look at a map and you know exactly where it’s coming from, who’s doing it. And we don’t have to change our practices!

“If you did that in any other profession,” said Buffett, “you would never get away with it. Never.”

“We’ve gotten a free ride for a long time.”

Buffett acknowledged numerous U.S. farmers have made changes, and that “farmers have adopted tens of millions of acres of cover crops.” Such farmers are finding not only that conservation farming is working, and that the environment is better and the water is clearer, but they’re making more money too.

But many others have not gotten with the program, and they’re potentially at risk from the government coming in heavy handed and telling them how things will be done in the future, said Buffett.

Too many farmers are blind to the danger, he said. And of those who can see it, many believe they will be able to fight it off.

They’re wrong, Buffett said.

“The political landscape is changing in the United States, and it’s not changing in the favour of U.S. farmers,” Buffett said. “That will make all of those institutions that have helped protect our situation and our rights less powerful and influential.”

So although agriculture has won the big battles of the past, that’s about to change. When large urban areas start to raise a fuss about things like their water, Buffett warned, they’ll get what they want.

“Numbers always win,” he said. “A city like Los Angeles for instance has the numbers to defeat farmers.”

Besides, farmers should also worry about government intervention, given so few of the politicians, bureaucrats and activities trying to influence agricultural policy actually understand farming.

“You’ve got policy-makers, politicians, bureaucrats and (certain) academics who’ve never had to grow anything in their life, who have never had to understand what it means to have Mother Nature kick your butt,” he said.

Fair or not, however, this is the choice that farmers face: either do it yourself or have someone else tell you how you’re going to do it.

Not all farmers believe they’re facing what amounts to an ultimatum. “If you’ve gotten away with it for two or three decades and nothing’s happened to you, you tend to think, ‘At least in my lifetime, what do I need to worry about it for?’”

Nor is regulation the only threat.

Food processors and retailers are getting more powerful too, Buffett said. Soon, they’ll demand that their products are grown sustainably.

“A company like Wal-Mart is going to demand this, and when they demand this, then the ADMs, the Cargills the Bunges and the other people in the world are going to have to figure out how to do it,” said Buffett. “(Change) may come from regulation, it may come from corporate demand or consumer demand, but it’s coming.

“It will probably come slow enough that we have time to adapt to it, but you can’t sit still.”

This article appears in the July 2014 Country Guide special section on sustainability

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