I’ve been traveling a lot recently, but one trip has left a different mark on me from the others. This year I attended the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting with my 11-year-old son Drake, which means we heard six hours of Q & A with Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. As a farmer, I was listening from a very interesting perspective, to see if I could transfer the wisdom I heard from Buffett, in particular, to a farming operation.
I got more than I bargained for.
There was a farmer that stood up and asked Buffett and Munger about farming.
Munger said it was a horrible business because farmers only make money once every 20 years.
Warren Buffett has actually owned farmland for most of his life. He purchased his first farm in Nebraska for around $10,000 before he entered high school with money earned from running a paper route.
Of course, Warren Buffett is 85; nowadays, that same land probably costs $800,000.
Can you imagine buying an $800,000 piece of land before entering high school? That was Warren Buffett’s earning capacity as a young man.
So when he talks, I listen. I recommend that you do the same. Here are seven things I learned from Buffett that can be applied to farming.
1) Read Ferociously
Buffett reads 5-7 hours a day: 4-5 newspapers, annual reports, books, and more. The man just ferociously reads. Honestly, the more I read the more my challenges and problems lessen or diminish.
Reading is the number one thing that entrepreneurs can do to leverage themselves and become more competitive. Build a library; books are cheap.
But what about taking action, you say? If I sit and read all day, won’t that distract me from actually executing my business plans? Sometimes the best strategy is to sit on your hands or in Buffett’s words, “thumb sucking.” Wait for an opportunity to come where all you have to do is walk over and pick up the money. There’s definitely a balance between acquiring knowledge and applying it. Remember: knowledge is only powerful when it’s organized into an actionable format.
But here’s what I’ve found: you will always have problems popping up. Books will inspire solutions constantly; I listen to audiobooks all the time that spark solutions to problems that the book isn’t even addressing directly. But because I’m thinking through the totality of business as I read or listen along, my mind is primed to unfold new actionable strategies.
You want to be a billionaire? Read like the dickens.
2) Work With People You Like — And Who Love Their Jobs
If your partners and employees aren't passionate, you shouldn't work with them. Buffett’s advice was to look for people who would pay to do their job. Think about Sam Walton: he drove an old pickup truck with Dog kennels in the back. And today, if he were still alive, he’d be worth almost $200 billion. He just loved what he did every single day and so did his employees. If you find employees like that, you’re in an incredible place to succeed.
3) Have Fun Showing Your Passion
When you’re passionate about what you do and you have fun doing it, people are magnetized to you. People call you with deals — they want to work with you.
I try to have fun with all my suppliers, whether that’s a dinner every now and then, calling them up and giving them crap, or following them on social media. I try to get a really great relationship with the people I do business with. And anytime a deal comes up, guess who’s always the first person they call?
4) Focus on Adding Earning Power
When you’re adding earning power, you’re reinvesting any profits into things that are going to grow your business. Only invest in something that shows a nice positive ROI. For example, in 2012-13 when farmers had a lot of extra money, they bought a lot of machinery they didn’t actually need, wasting capital that didn’t provide extra earning power. They would have been better served to use their old machinery and wait for better investment opportunities.
They might not even be farm-related investments; we’ve had farmers in my area that have invested in restaurants and things like that for extra revenue. Which leads me to the next point.
5) Be Capital-Efficient
This is Warren Buffett’s secret weapon. He only buys (or at least tries to only buy) capital-efficient businesses.
Think about it: if you start at $100 make 20% of that in a year, you’ll make $120. Then the next year you should be able to make 20% of $120, which is an added $24 for $144, and then 20% of that next year, and so on. See how fast it compounds? That’s how Buffett became one of the richest guys in the world for most of his career. With the money his businesses make, he looks at buying other capital-efficient businesses, and it compounds and compounds.
6) Run Each Field Like Its Own Business, and Make Sure It’s Adding to the Pot
Buffett makes sure that each business he buys is adding to the pot. Applying that principle to your farm, make sure you break your farming operation down into individual fields and know the production costs on each. Then you can say, “These fields are losing me money...Why?”
You’ll have two options: turn them around to produce profit, or get rid of them.
7) Keep a Lot of Cash (a.k.a. Dry Powder) Around
“Be Greedy When Others Are Fearful and Fearful When Others Are Greedy.” That advice about being greedy comes from a pretty famous Warren Buffett statement. Anytime there’s a market crash, he’s lining up to buy all those companies he’s wanted to buy for years, because they are now on sale. The “ thumb sucking” has finally paid off! Buffett will wait 10-20 years to buy a company, holding off until their stock plummets to an affordable price.
Baron Rothschild, an 18th century nobleman, said that “the time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.” The worse the market, the better the opportunities. Things are unfolding in agriculture that are making people with “dry powder” have decent opportunities to soup up their operations and grow their businesses.
I took plenty of notes at the Annual Meeting — way too much to fit here. But even if you follow just these seven steps, you’ll be utilizing solid business advice from a rock star in the financial world.
The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Penton Agriculture.