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Howard Buffett, Warren's farmer son, nurtures a cause

He believes immigration reform — but not amnesty — is needed to help small farmers of handpicked crops deal with a shortage of migrant workers.

May 13, 2012|By Melissa Harris
  • Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett and head of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, speaks at an immigration conference in Yuma, Ariz., in March.
Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett and head of… (Craig Fry, Yuma Sun )

DECATUR, Ill. — Wearing a black fleece pullover and blue cargo pants, Howard Buffett loaded his jumpy Slovakian-born German shepherd Bolek into his Ford F-250 Super Duty and radioed his crew that he was on his way.

"Beans don't do well in the cold and wet, but I'm going to plant anyway," Buffett said before climbing into the cabin of his John Deere tractor. There he pressed the "resume" button and began planting small, red soybean seeds, 180,000 to the acre. He drove hands-free thanks to a sophisticated onboard global positioning system, which alone cost $20,000.

Buffett, 57, is the middle child of Warren, but he lives a very different lifestyle from that of his fabled investor father. He farms thousands of acres of soybeans, corn and wheat here in central Illinois. The work is solitary. "That's why I like it," Buffett said. And the process is so automated that he doesn't need seasonal laborers.

But through his eponymous foundation, Buffett is becoming a standard-bearer for farmers raising crops that require handpicking, from asparagus in western Michigan to chili peppers in California to cherries in New York. Farmers say they are forced to let billions of dollars in crops rot because of a shortage of migrant labor.

Tightened immigration laws in Georgia and Alabama and federal crackdowns on undocumented workers exacerbate the problem, Buffett contends. He says comprehensive immigration reform — but not amnesty — is needed.

"We had over $3 billion worth of food rot in fields last year because it didn't get picked, and the [American Farm Bureau Federation] estimates that if we keep on this track, it'll be over $9 billion," he said.

Buffett believes that if something isn't done, fresh fruits and vegetables will become too expensive for the American poor.

Buffett began working on immigration reform last year.

"Immigration reform doesn't impact me personally; nothing my foundation works on does," he said. "But the truth is I have a long history of ties to Latin America. Some of my best friends are in Latin America. As I look at this issue, it is personal in a way, because I care about the people in that part of the world.… Our biggest single focus is agriculture for small, poor farmers."

In the early 1990s, Buffett, a father of five (including one who farms), settled in Decatur when he became head of investor relations at agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. He left the company in 1995 and established the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in 1999.

As of Dec. 30, 2010, his foundation reported assets of $226 million, the bulk of which was stock in Berkshire Hathaway, his father's company. In 2010, his father was listed as the foundation's only contributor, with a donation of $56.2 million worth of stock in Berkshire, where Howard is a director.

Buffett's foundation has been paying for "advertorials" in which farmers discuss labor- and immigration-related challenges in publications such as the Wisconsin Agriculturist, the Kansas Farmer and the Prairie Farmer. Buffett believes better information is needed for public debate and has tasked the foundation with collecting it.

"One of the things I would like to do is try to get mainstream agriculture to understand how important this issue is long-term for U.S. agriculture," Buffett said. "I don't think that's very well understood in the Midwest.... All through the Midwest, there are people who pick apples, who detassel corn. A lot of crops depend on labor, but they're done by farmers that don't communicate with one another. They're never in the same room together."

Although migrant labor shortages have been widely documented, there is little analysis that explains why. What's to say that inadequate wages, the difficult nature of the work, substandard housing, poor recruitment or poor treatment are not causing the shortages?

Buffett lamented that the issue of undocumented workers has become so emotional.

"Somebody like me starts talking about it, and they automatically think I'm for amnesty," he said. "I'm totally against amnesty. It's the worst idea you could have. But it doesn't have to be like this. You have to find solutions in between."

Sitting at the conference table in the corn crib on his farm, Buffett opened his iPad's red leather cover and began scrolling through photographs he had taken along the U.S.-Mexico border over the years.

"Here's a guy jumping a train in Mexico," he said, sliding his finger across the screen to forward the photos.

"They call this the death train. Here's a guy who's getting on it. People get pushed off. They get things stolen from them. Here's a Border Patrol agent checking a spot immigrants typically take shelter in.… Here's an agent tracking footprints. Here's an agent with an M14 [rifle]. Here they are with a K-9 unit. Here they are on horseback. Here's a helicopter. That was on a Sunday."

Buffett said the results of the fall elections will determine whether he puts more resources and time behind an immigration push.

mmharris@tribune.com

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