1. Annual Report
  2. 2017

Making the Impossible Possible


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The lens of history often blurs the reality of a moment. Viewed from the technological age, the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s has diminished from unprecedented natural disaster to mere lore, a Steinbeck novel, a Woody Guthrie ballad, a sepia tone backdrop for a tale about humanity's enduring spirit.

The slow ebbing of nine decades has mostly erased society's connection to this era and with it the underpinning lessons, the faint echoes of conservation. Today's generation often forgets that while man ultimately fashioned solutions to the Dust Bowl he also contributed to its genesis. Farming methodology of the time sprang from limited knowledge, even superstition. The resulting practices were unsustainable and inefficient.

Ignorance of soil conservation and proper stewardship left the land susceptible to nature's caprices. For much of the 1930s, the region endured a historic drought — one of the worst in 300 years, scientists now say — that pushed the land beyond its capacity. Sun-baked fields could no longer sustain a crop. The land stood unguarded and uncovered.

Bare earth inevitably became prey to the invisible talons of the prairie winds, which stole more than could be imagined. On "Black Sunday," 300,000 tons of life-giving topsoil — twice as much as removed from the whole of the Panama Canal — swept eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean in one afternoon. With it, went the hope of a generation. Man's unity with the soil, a dependence that stretches back to civilization's origins, found a sudden and violent division.

For years, dust storms blotted out the sun, forcing families to huddle in their homes — wet sheets and clothes shoved under doors and around windows. But the dust from these black blizzards still found its way in. Into homes. Into lungs. Dust pneumonia claimed lives, and a fractured economy swiped the viability of countless families. No way to grow food. No way to sell food. The people and land stood disconnected.

Rebuilding the Southern Great Plains was a task of such enormity it defies understanding by modern observers. Almost 35 million acres — a plot of land the size of Arkansas — were deemed completely useless with another 125 million acres experiencing rapid depletion of its topsoil. More than 2.5 million people fled the Dust Bowl states seeking a more fertile future. The wind blew their soil east, so thousands headed west in ramshackle rigs. Pulling life from the barren earth was deemed by pundits of the time as simply unattainable.

exampleMore than 2.5 million people fled their homes and farms in search of better lives as a result of the drought and dust storms of the 1930s. In 1945, Lloyd Noble formed the Noble Research Institute (then known as The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation) as a permanent resource to help farmers and ranchers rebuild the soil and improve agricultural productivity.

Only an uncommon few saw past what was and believed in what could be. Oklahoma philanthropist Lloyd Noble understood the width and depth and length of the scar left by the Dust Bowl on the land and the society that depended on it. Oklahoma was his home, the birthplace of opportunities that gave rise to his great fortune. He felt the burden of its recovery. He sought new methods to once again make the land efficient and the soil covered.

Noble, along with a band of soil conservation pioneers, assumed the mantle of jumpstarting a region. Speaking. Educating. Rallying converts to the banner of land stewardship. They declared the soil to be man's most precious and valuable resource. They brought hope that dispelled the fear of a generation and cast a new vision.

Noble went further. He established a permanent resource to assist agricultural producers eager to continue the recovery from one Dust Bowl and implement practices that could prevent another one. He formed the Noble Research Institute (then known as The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation) to provide solutions to agriculture's greatest challenges. He knew the Southern Great Plains — and all of agriculture — would face a conveyer belt of challenges be them economic, natural or man-made. Endless tests would require ongoing solutions and a place where like-minded advocates could connect.

For 72 years, the Noble Research Institute has been a constant companion for producers, offering counsel and education. Knowledge generated in Noble's laboratories, greenhouses and research ranches flow into the agriculture sector. Innovation and technology seek to answer questions in ways never before dreamed, making seemingly insurmountable challenges suddenly attainable.

This annual report bears witness to the legacy of a man who survived the Dust Bowl and planted a seed that has reaped generations of healthier land and more productive farmers and ranchers. Within these pages are stories of men and women who are the standard-bearers of a fundamental truth that unity and boldness can shape history. They share an unflinching courage to explore, a daily devotion to rolled-up sleeves and a tenacious belief that countless small steps finally make the impossible possible.