ARLINGTON, Va. (DTN) -- Howard Buffett wants farmers to voluntarily embrace more conservation practices before they risk facing more regulatory control. Buffett also said Thursday he opposes EPA's controversial waters of the U.S. rule, saying it may be impossible for farmers to comply with it.
Buffett, chairman of a foundation in his name and a board member for the investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, also is a farmer with holdings in Illinois, Nebraska and South Africa. In recent years, Buffett has increasingly championed conservation practices such as no-till planting and cover crops. Buffett conducted a question-and-answer session with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the opening of the USDA Ag Outlook Forum.
Afterward, Buffett told reporters he doesn't like the waters of the U.S. rule.
"I personally believe that's a situation where regulation and regulators are overstepping," Buffett said. "I think you have to look at regulation as how can you practically apply it. Honestly, if they are going to apply it the way they set out to apply it, I think you would put a lot of farmers out of business. I think it would be impossible to comply with, so I think it was overstepping."
The rule drafted by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers redefines waters that would fall under the regulatory authority of the Clean Water Act. The rule is currently tied up in court as at least 30 states and multiple industries have sued to stop the rule's enforcement. As DTN reported Monday, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati ruled that it will take a stab at ruling on the legality of WOTUS.
In their conversation Thursday, Vilsack and Buffett talked about the business argument for conservation. Buffett noted American farmers are the biggest conservationists in the world, but they can do better.
"We have saved tens of millions of acres of biodiverse jungles and forests because of efficiency, high-yielding production agriculture," Buffett said. "We never get credit for that. Farmers can be the heroes of saving the world."
He also pointed out he's been no-tilling for more than 20 years and uses cover crops in his rotation.
"The business case is that I can be very competitive with yields and spend a significantly less amount of money because my expenses are lower," Buffett said.
Farmers have to challenge their behaviors because farmers and ranchers hate regulations, but they need to act with more urgency on conservation if they want to "beat the regulators," Buffett said.
Further, government programs and incentives are the best tools for an effective role in government helping improve water quality and reduce soil erosion, he said. Buffett also credited Vilsack's tenure for setting a new standard for conservation.
"You cannot win this without strong government leadership," Buffett said. "Without government support you will fail, so USDA has to be a leader on this."
He added, "Agriculture can have more impact on water quality in this country than any other single industry."
Vilsack asked about the long-term viability of the current corn-soybean rotation that dominates the Midwest. Buffett said he has struggled with the question because farming is a business and producers have to make money at the end of the day. Again, government programs could help farmers implement a more robust crop-rotation system, he said.
"It doesn't work well economically to do the kind of rotations we really should do to protect our land," Buffett said. "That's the challenge."
Failing to reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff will only translate into longer-term regulatory restrictions on farmers, Buffet said. Looking 25 years out, Buffett said farmers will be talking about more severe regulations and how they were too slow to act in order to control their own future.
"I don't see us moving fast enough to grab ahold of that," he said. Buffett added that technology won't necessarily bail farmers out, either. "We're not going to use technology to get our way out of soil erosion or poor water quality. We cannot fix it with technology."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.Unglesbee@dtn.com
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