Howard Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, measures ‘chances’ as growing seasons. In 40 chanceshis book “40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.”, he says that most of us have about 40 chances to accomplish our goals in life.

The Buffett family is not your typical billionaire family. Warren lives in the same modest house where he and his wife started out– before he made his billions in the stock market. He still drives himself to work in a modest American car. He still eats in local restaurants.

He and his wife Susan raised their kids to be normal people, not rich kids. Buffett once commented, “I want to give my kids just enough so that they would feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they would feel like doing nothing”. Howard was the big, hyperactive kid who loved big trucks, tractors and equipment. His first job was running a front-end track loader. A friend asked if he wanted to help on the farm and he let Howard drive his tractors. Howard was hooked. The one great gift his father gave him was when he bought a grain farm in Nebraska and leased it to his son at the going rate. Howard has gone on to be a very successful farmer.

One Shot at a Warlord

Howard Buffett on a farm in Africa

While his dad helped him get started in farming, his mom got him started in wildlife conservation and philanthropy. The combination of love of conservation and helping poor farmers throughout the world may begin to explain why Howard’s book about “chances” begins in the hot, dry desert of South Sudan, facing an African warlord. General Caesar Acellam “had helped lead a campaign of murder, rape, torture and enslavement in at least four countries.” In his work in poverty stricken areas over the years, Howard realized that he could never improve environment or agriculture if he wasn’t willing to make a difference in the lives of people. Howard is not a coward with a camera, though it often gets him in trouble. This time, his camera shot of the warlord smiling with South Sudanese officials helped to end a war that had held the country in the grasp of starvation. Howard’s book continues on with 39 other stories about sustainable farming and the complexity of aiding those in extreme poverty.

Green Revolution Won’t Save the World

Howard and I do not agree about everything with respect to sustainable farming, but we do agree on many points. As opposed to most Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), he does not believe that the Green Revolution will save starving populations in third world countries on the long term. The Green Revolution calls for the use of big modern equipment, hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in these desperate regions. However, most of the nations in Africa and Southeast Asia are comprised of fragile, worn out soils and limited resources. Over a few decades of efforts and observations, he has learned that it is better to work with subsistence farmers than to replace them; that it is better to teach soil management techniques that build organic matter and improve soil health than to provide a quick fix with hybrid seeds that won’t grow in the climate and synthetic fertilizers that won’t heal the soil; that it is better for farmers to own land than for them to be tenants. In most countries, tenant farmers can be pushed off the farm at any time.

The Next Chapter in our Lives

Reading Howard’s excellent book at the end of one year and beginning of another seemsvertical significant to me. I do not aspire to rise to the same height of tractor seat as Howard. I am more of a Cub Farmall kind of farmer, but I do believe in setting goals and creating change for the better. Lacking both time and youth (not THAT many “chances” left!), I probably with not take up farming  again myself. I plan to focus on improving the community garden, buying more food from our local farmers, and pressing for more opportunities for farmers and other improvements to our communities.

What is your next chapter? As a farmer, or one who supports farming, what did you learn in 2013 that you are not going to repeat? What will your next ‘crop’ be?

We only have a certain number of chances left.