SIERRA VISTA - Nearly 1,400 acres in Cochise County have become an experimental farm, substituting for parts of Africa where deserts, high 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 78 nations, 41 of which are in Africa, to increase agricultural output.
Buffett, eldest son of billionaire investor Warren 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 try newer farming techniques. If successful, those techniques can be transferred to other areas.
Buffett said he was flying over Southern Arizona when he looked down and saw Cochise County. The landscape reminded him of parts of Africa.
"Willcox is the place you can both water-stress plants and drought-stress plants," which is what happens in much of Africa, Buffett told the Sierra Vista Herald/Bisbee Daily Review.
Also, the United States has something most African nations do not: land-grant colleges, including the University of Arizona, and associated agricultural-research services. The Willcox experimental property allows for center-pivot, drip and furrow irrigation systems and provides a better understanding of yield economics, Buffett said.
Arizona benefits from the arrangement, too: Surplus items, like pinto beans, go to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona in Tucson. And Buffett donated $900,000 to a Cochise County shooting range to be named for the late Sheriff Larry Dever.
Unlike the United States, where about 10 percent of a person's money goes toward groceries, in Africa it is between 60 and 70 percent, Buffett said. Subsistence farming lets growers feed themselves and their families.
The Cochise property focuses on farming as it's done in Africa, where animals pull plows and most seeding is by hand. Two oxen will test equipment that will be used in different parts of the world. Researchers also use the oxen as they try to develop a new system to plant seeds at the same time the animals plow the land.
Labor-saving devices are as important as high-yielding crops when it comes to small farms, Buffett said. So is being able to ensure the land is productive. Only that, he said, will make it possible to retire centuries-old ways of farming, which remove natural nutrients from the soil.