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The farmer and the financier: a tale of Buffett’s billions

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While Warren Buffett guides a multi-billion dollar company and tugs on the strings of Wall Street, his son Howard would rather spend his time — on a tractor.

Warren Buffett is a billionaire. Howard Buffett is not — and never will be.

Warren, the world’s richest man in 2008 (he tumbled to third in 2011), grew up a financial prodigy. At age 10, when other kids were squealing at Disneyland, Buffett was visiting the New York Stock Exchange — he bought his first shares at age 11. With a trail of gold as testament to his wealth, Buffett is now 81 years old, renowned as the King Midas of finance, and chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, a multi-billion dollar company with shares valued at over $100,000 — each.

Warren’s eldest son, 57-year-old Howard, is lined up to take the reins at Berkshire Hathaway. “Here’s the keys, boy. Don’t crash the vehicle.”

But the picture is not what it seems — something is lost between father and son. Warren’s prowess has assured him a slot in the pantheon of American financial titans: Carnegie, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller … Buffett. The Buffett name is cemented in history. And yet, that pedigree means very little to Howard. Maybe Howard abandoned Warren’s billions; maybe Warren and his billions rejected Howard; or possibly the answer is muddled in between.

While Warren pulls financial levers and carries Haiti’s deficit in his wallet, Howard would rather spend his time — on a tractor. It’s a stunning contrast between father and son; a gulf separating financier and farmer. 60 Minutes recently ran a story on Howard that showed a man content with digging in the dirt on 1,500 acres of corn — not a gentleman farmer or a high-browed overseer.

According to 60 Minutes, Howard farms soybeans and corn in Illinois and Nebraska — a fair distance from the boardroom of Berkshire Hathaway. But U.S. corn and soybeans are only a small part of Howard’s farming focus. He runs a humanitarian foundation that promotes feeding programs and agricultural education across the globe. The foundation teaches ag basics — growing techniques that poor farmers can continue even after Howard and his money are long gone. It’s the opposite from the high-tech Bill Gates approach. Howard doesn’t hesitate to point out the gaps in the Gates method, saying that synthetic fertilizers and hybrid seeds are headed for failure in poor countries; when the money runs out, the game is up.

Howard’s challenge to Gates is laced with a massive dose of irony: Five years ago, Warren Buffett made a colossal donation to the Gates Foundation — $31 billion. “Hey Billy, if you’re gonna spend my daddy’s coin — at least do it right.”

With the elder Buffett’s fortune set for charities and non-profits, Howard is still a very wealthy man, but he’ll never touch the fiscal heights of his father. Howard will carry on the Buffett name, but not the Buffett billions. He’s the billionaire farmer — who contentedly wasn’t.

Here's the 60 Minutes segment on Howard Buffett:

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