The change from London to the wide plains and big country of Arizona is so marked that despite being late we couldn’t resist stopping the car and filming the early morning sun break into the mist across the farmlands of Wilcox.
This is a land of big skies, big landscapes and big personalities.
By the end of the day I was to have grabbed, by the neck, one of the world’s wealthiest men to stop him falling out of a helicopter, been given a sheriffs badge for Cochise County and tracked through the drug runs along the Mexican boarder in search of signs of drug cartels and illegal immigrants.
But it was still only 7:30 in the morning and I was heading to meet one of the biggest men in town, indeed perhaps one of the most influential men in the world. He is a leading member of one of the richest families in the world and personally runs a programme dedicated to changing the world’s ability to feed itself. To make it successful he is using billions of dollars of his own family’s money.
Howard Buffett is the son of Warren, who is regularly referred to as the world’s most successful investor. Apart from his wealth and huge success, what marks him out his down to earth approach to investment and life in general. He still lives in a relatively modest family home and is often filmed at public occasions playing his ukulele.
His son, Howard Buffett has been named as the next chairman of the Buffett investment group, Berkshire Hathaway. Howard is no dilettante son of the rich and famous.
In 2005, Howard received the Will Owen Jones Distinguished Journalist of the Year Award, and in 2007, he was appointed a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Against Hunger on behalf of the World Food Programme. He was awarded the Triumph of Agriculture Exposition Agri Award, the World Ecology Award, and the George McGovern Leadership Award. In 2012, he was awarded the National Farmers Union Meritorious Service to Humanity Award, the Columbia University Global Leadership Award, and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Pennsylvania State University.
On the plane over from the UK I had read his book ‘40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.’ About the lessons he learned from farmers around the world in how to overcome food poverty and insecurity.
As we headed off the main road, the landscape dipped and we drove from bright sunlight into a well of thick fog. We were looking for
Apache Farm, where we were told Howard was expecting us. In the end the farm had to send out drivers to find us and we followed them down winding paths to the farm itself and a low building where Howard was waiting.
Despite his control of hundreds of millions of dollars, Howard looks like any other farmer you might meet here. He is as short as I am and his trousers were even shorter. The room we met in was covered with photos he had taken on his trips around the world.
As the crew discussed where to set up filming opportunities, Howard discussed his photographic career with me. It has taken him to some wild and dangerous places.
Today we were starting with something very tame. The director had us sit on two large straw bales in the middle of the farm, since both of us are fairly short, it meant our feet dangled off the side like some naughty school children waiting outside before our parents would let us back into the house.
Howard talks passionately about the need to develop techniques, which would enable countries to fee their population. He is using his farm in Arizona to test different methods, which he thinks may help design a better farming strategy for many countries.
What struck me most, was his not his discussion of farming techniques but his analysis of what has been wrong with the way we have approached aid in general.
You might build a hospital in a country, he says, but then you find it hasn’t got enough medical supplies. So you ship in some medicine only to discover it hasn’t got enough doctors and nurses to administer the medicine. You keep trying to fix bits of the jigsaw, throwing a million dollars here at the problem and a million dollars there – very large sums of money but never enough to finish the jigsaw. As a result, he says, you help individuals but never fix the problem. What you realise is that the country doesn’t just need the hospital it needs roads to get steady supplies of medicine moved to where they are needed, a college to supply doctors and a structure on which all parts of the picture can hang.
So his next project is not to provide small answers but to see if he can provide a much bigger kind of solution. He is taking $500 million of his own family’s money and going to spend it in one place – to see if a concentration of spending can provide a fix where previous philanthropy has failed. The country he is spending it in is Rwanda. The goal is to invest in knowledge and production techniques to improve agriculture potential at scale. It’s a long term project but one which could have major implications for the way we approach aid.
Having explained some of his foreign ambitions, Howard was keen to show me the work on another of his farms, near the Mexican boarder. We jump in a helicopter with the local sheriff, a great guy who for some reason was on the ride with us.
We slide the right hand door of the helicopter and fix it open so we can get some good shots flying across the wide plains of Arizona and Howard and I get in on the left.
Flying south, I suddenly feel the helicopter veer sharply and the door on Howard’s side flings open. The pilot turns round trying to shout to Howard some instructions about how to get the door closed. I grabbed Howard by the collar trying to ensure he didn’t fall out. The pilot is now flying forward but looking behind him to check Howard is fine.
Because the pilot is no longer looking where he is flying, the Sheriff starts talking urgently to the pilot explaining that we are about to fly into Mexican territory. We are in an area where the Sheriff thinks some drug runners may be preparing a journey across the boarder. Not only would it be politically difficult for a member of the US security force to cross into Mexico uninvited, the drug runners, the sheriff said, might believe we were chasing them and start shooting at us. You look straight and let Adam and Howard deal with the door, he kept saying.
In fact Howard seemed to be the only one who was unconcerned with the whole thing. Eventually he managed to get a grip on the door and fighting the wind, got it closed again.
We landed on the US side of the boarder a short way from the wall the US had built to keep illegal immigrants out. I had heard of the wall but imagined something a lot more impressive. This seemed low enough to climb over with the use a ladder and indeed I was told drug runners don’t even bother with that, they just drive at it with a large truck and break through.
Seen from above, the landscape looks fairly flat. But when you land you can see there are lots of wide gulley’s that cut into the land. They are wide enough to drive a 4-wheel drive through and once you are at the bottom you are effectively hidden from anyone standing on the plains.
Howard and the sheriff took us through the gully’s and showed us where drug runners would make their way into the US along with groups of illegal immigrants. They leave signs for each other by tying cloths to tree branches and there were plenty of signs of people who seemed to have been there only recently.
We sat on a bolder along one of the routes and Howard talked about the problems of the poor and disposed not just in Africa and Asia but the people who live little more than a stone’s throw from the most successful advanced economy in the world.
Even with the Buffett Billions, Howard knows he can’t solve this problem. But he does believe that the money he and his family can bring to bear on the issue, might shine a light on a different route that might start on the plains of Arizona but could end up on farms in Africa and Asia and across the developing world.
We climbed back in our helicopter and on the way to Apache Farm we dropped the sheriff off – “Keep the blades turning” he shouted and dashed out to his office. Returning moments later he brought me a Cochise county sheriff’s badge and two sheriff epaulets. The helicopter was loud and it was difficult to hear what he said – but as he handed me my badge I imagine he said “This makes an honorary sheriff.” Perhaps he didn’t say that, perhaps I just wished he did. Either way, I do have the badge. So when you are next in Arizona and in need of help – just ask for Sheriff Shaw.