Nearly 1,400 acres in Cochise County has become an experimental farm, substituting for parts of Africa where deserts, hot temperatures and little rainfall create agricultural challenges.
“The only thing Arizona has, which most parts of Africa doesn’t, is frost,” said Howard Buffett, whose foundation has been working in different parts of the world to increase agricultural output.
Noting that his foundation’s work is being done in 78 nations, of which 41 are in Africa, Buffett said the acreage near Willcox is a stand-in for other countries because of its similarities, which can be used to create theories and perform newer farming techniques. If successful, these techniques can be transferred to other areas around the globe.
Buffett said he was flying over southern Arizona, when he looked down from the airplane and saw Cochise County, where the landscape reminded him of similar places in Africa.
Investigating further he found out, “… Willcox is the place you can both water stress plants and drought stress plants,” which is what happens in large parts of the African continent, he said.
When it comes to most African nations they do not have anything similar to the United States, with land-grant colleges and associated agricultural research services, said Buffett. Monday, Buffett attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a new shooting range for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, which he donated $900,000 for the facility.
The range will be named in honor of the late Sheriff Larry Dever, who proposed the idea to Buffett several years ago. Buffett also supports many law enforcement projects through his foundation.
The Willcox property allows for center pivot, drip and furrow irrigation systems and allows for a better understanding of yield economics, Buffett said during an interview with the Herald/Review.
Noting he has spent a lot of time in Africa — sometimes months at a time — he said having the Willcox experimental property allows him to spend more time in the United States and still go to Africa and elsewhere to find solutions to the food issue in different parts of the world, where a majority of farmers are involved in subsistence agricultural in order to feed themselves and their families.
Unlike the United States where about 10 percent of a person’s money goes to purchasing groceries, in Africa it is between 60 and 70 percent, Buffett said.
A benefit that results from the Willcox property is that surplus items, like pinto beans, go to a food bank in Tucson, he said.
Modernizing agriculture in other nations has to involve a sense of reality, he said. How Americans farm, with heavy mechanized equipment, isn’t how most farmers in Africa do things. There, animals pull plows and the majority of the seeding is by hand, he said.
On the Cochise County land there are two oxen — Ike and Earl — which are used to test equipment that will be used in different parts of the world, Buffett said. One project is trying to develop a new system to plant seeds at the same time the land is being plowed using the oxen. That idea is still a work in progress, Buffett said, adding two other ideas were unsuccessful.
Labor saving devices are as important as high-yielding crops when it comes to small farms, he added.
And being able to ensure the land is productive means finding ways to end centuries-old ways of farming, when the old ways remove the natural nutrients to the detriment of the soil, Buffett said.
“Africa really got the short end when it comes to soil,” he said.
And, the problem of poor soil is exacerbated by ‘slash and burn’ where locals will burn trees to make it easier to clear the land for farming, Buffett said.
Saying he understands their rationale to feed their families, he said their environmental outlook is much different than in the United States.
“I was once told by a friend no one will starve to save a tree,” Buffett said.