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A Uniquely Noble Fair Experience

By Courtney Leeper, Writer

Posted Aug. 9, 2017

Watermelon seeds flew through the air, and faces crinkled in pain during a chili-pepper-eating contest. Fortunately, our hot-pepper-consuming friends had easy access to ice cream (made using liquid nitrogen, of course), which they happily accepted from the hands of co-workers offering it.

You might say it was an interesting afternoon, last Thursday, Aug. 3, at the Noble Research Institute.

Every so often, we take a couple hours out of our day to have fun with fellow employees. As the summer begins to wind down, the time came for our annual Noble Garden GROW Challenge.

It was time to show off the fruits of our labors in the garden and engage in a little friendly competition.

Think of the Noble Garden GROW Challenge as county fair meets science expo.

When I was growing up, fair time was the busiest time of the summer. I grew up in 4-H and FFA, and the fair was like a grand recital. My friends would get their show pigs, steers, goats, etc., ready for the livestock shows. But my fair experience typically revolved around baking breads and cookies, canning green beans and jams, and sewing pillows and pajamas.

During the fair in my northern Missouri hometown, we showed off everything but the livestock in a round building known as the "Rock Barn." It had no air conditioning, but it was the place to be.

Thankfully, our Noble Garden GROW Challenge exhibition was in an air-conditioned building. But, in a lot of ways, it took me back to my days in the Rock Barn. There were blue, red and white ribbons to mark the first-, second- and third-place entries. The categories were standard, too: canned goods, desserts, floral and edible arrangements, fruits and vegetables.

As with most fairs (and let's be honest, most Noble Research Institute events), there was food to enjoy: cake, pie, popcorn and ice cream.

And there were games, like the watermelon-seed-spitting contest and the chili-pepper-eating contest. (Not quite the same as my hometown's mutton busting or Super Farmer contests, but definitely just as entertaining. You've never seen anything quite like six Noble Research Institute employees sitting around a table, surrounded by cheering (sometimes gasping) co-workers, eating peppers like they're candy. Greg Spencer, a greenhouse assistant, and Randy Redden, a research assistant, both topped out at a mild pepper, jalapeno pepper, serrano pepper and 15 habanero peppers each. I'm sure those tears were from overwhelming joy only, right?)

Pepper-eating challengeFrom left: Jaeyoung Choi, Jaydeep Kolape, Barbara Nova Franco, Greg Spencer, Mason McElroy and Randy Redden prepare to begin the pepper-eating challenge.

In many ways, the Noble Garden GROW Challenge event reminded me of the traditional fair experiences of my childhood. And those that will be coming up in Oklahoma and Texas over the next couple months. But the Garden GROW Challenge was also uniquely Noble in ways that make my heart happy.

How so? It goes back to some of the aspects that make this organization so special in general.

People from all over the world – more than 20 countries – work at the Noble Research Institute.

First of all, you never would have found a luffa (not the sponge, but the vegetable that if left to mature will turn into what is used as a sponge) at my hometown fair.

We're fortunate to experience so many different cultures right here in small-town southern Oklahoma because of all the people who have come to apply their knowledge and expertise at the Noble Research Institute.

One challenge many international employees run into is that some of the vegetables common to their countries (and, more importantly, to some of their favorite meals) are not often grown or sold here. So, they (and other interested employees) grow their own vegetables in garden plots on our Headquarters Farm. As a bonus, these employee gardens have become a demonstration to outside groups interested in starting community gardens.

Social media contest winnerPeter Lundquist and Rose Kithan Lundquist grew their prize-winning large tomatoes in the Noble Research Institute's community garden. Rose also won first place in the Noble Garden GROW Challenge social media contest for this Instagram post featuring Peter and Rose's 1-year-old son, Andrew.

Because of this, entries weren't limited to tomatoes and zucchini (although there were plenty of those).

There were eggplants, cucumbers, luffa, long beans, soybeans, yam beans, onions, regular okra, purple okra, chili peppers, winter melon, bitter melon, cantaloupe, bottle gourd, watermelon, dates, Asian pears, apples and more.

Different vegetablesEmployees view Noble Garden GROW Challenge entries and learn fun facts about different vegetables and their origins. Venki Lakshmanan (pictured pointing here) took first place in the luffa category.

It was an education just walking by the entries. I personally thought the bitter melon looked cool.

Bitter melonI wonder what bitter melon would taste like. (Besides "bitter.")

Speaking of education …

No matter where we're from, we share a desire to learn more and to share our knowledge.

Fairs are a great place for education. Many state fairs have great exhibitions on production agriculture, including livestreams of animal births. My own hometown fair offered information about wildlife conservation and farm and rural safety.

When you work at a research institute, you're surrounded by people who are incredibly smart and inherently curious. This is what it takes to deliver solutions to great agricultural challenges. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that our fair-like event also included educational exhibits.

But our educational exhibitions meshed international flair with the science of agriculture.

Produce entries were labeled so that people like me would know the difference between a bitter melon and a winter melon. Signs above the entries gave information about where different vegetables originated. For instance, I did not realize cucumbers are believed to have come from India originally.

We could learn about beekeeping from Charlie Canny, director of facilities and a leader for the Texoma Beekeepers Association. Or canning without a pressure canner from Samantha Ephgrave, program officer, who taught a hands-on workshop in the days leading up to the event. This booth included a lesson in pH levels because acidic foods (those with a pH level lower than 7) like tomatoes, jams, jellies and pickles, are able to be canned with a boiling water bath rather than a pressure canner. Becca McMillan, executive assistant, also used a plastic blue cow model to point out where different cuts of beef come from.

Charlie CannyCharlie Canny shares his knowledge of beekeeping with fellow employees Nadim Tayeh (left) and Raul Huertas Ruz.

Infusing time-honored tradition with forward-thinking.

One of my favorite aspects of the Noble Research Institute is its attention to and honoring of the past and tradition and its simultaneous willingness, urge even, to look to the future and find tangible ways to make tomorrow better for both individuals and the world as a whole.

I can see this in the Noble Garden GROW Challenge event. The fair-like competition reminded me of tradition: of the late-night hours spent canning green beans with my mom, and of admiring the flower arrangements while sweating my way through the Rock Barn on a hot July fair evening.

The Garden GROW Challenge also taps into a deeper history vein at the Noble Research Institute by, in a way, memorializing the soil and garden contests that got us started back in the 1940s. In those early years, farmer and rancher participants were encouraged to try out methods to conserve the soil and improve its fertility. By adopting those practices for three years on 8 acres of a 10-acre plot, they saw the difference those practices made in improving their productivity.

While the Noble Garden GROW Challenge taps into the tradition of contest and rural American culture, it also widens tradition to include new perspectives and opportunities to learn and grow in understanding. That's a key to progress.

And there's just something about competition that gets us excited and pushes us to do more and better.

Noble Garden GROW Challenge winnersCongratulations to our first-place and grand champion winners! (Back row, from left: Greg Spencer, Randy Redden, Peter Lundquist, Jose Fonseca; Middle row, from left: Sylvia Warner, Paula Barbour, Kim Kinard, Clarissa Boschiero, Jeanne Stepp, Yaxin Ge, Venki Lakshmanan, Jessie Gee, Maria Monteros, Guangming Li; Front row, from left: Yun Kang, Kuihua Zhang, Rose Kithan Lundquist, Qingzhen Jiang, Jaydeep Kolape, Vidhya Raman)

Open Vegetables First Place
Cucumbers Yaxin Ge, Transformation and Genome Editing Laboratory senior research associate
Eggplant Guangming Li, Transformation Core Facility research associate
Long Beans Guangming Li, Transformation Core Facility research associate
Other Beans Guangming Li, Transformation Core Facility research associate
Luffa Venki Lakshmanan, Microbial Symbiology Laboratory postdoctoral fellow
Onions Guangming Li, Transformation Core Facility research associate
Green Onions Sylvia Warner, Molecular Plant Nutrition Laboratory research assistant
Okra Jeanne Stepp, accounts payable clerk
Bell Peppers Blake Brawley, summer employee
Jalapeno Peppers Paula Barbour, lead environmental services technician
Banana Peppers Sylvia Warner, Molecular Plant Nutrition Laboratory research assistant
Other Peppers Peter Lundquist, Molecular Plant Nutrition Laboratory postdoctoral fellow, and Rose Kithan Lundquist, Microbial Symbiology Laboratory research technician
Pumpkin Vidhya Raman, Molecular Plant Microbe Laboratory postdoctoral fellow
Yellow Squash Sylvia Warner, Molecular Plant Nutrition Laboratory research assistant
Zucchini Squash Peter Lundquist, Molecular Plant Nutrition Laboratory postdoctoral fellow, and Rose Kithan Lundquist, Microbial Symbiology Laboratory research technician
Large Tomatoes Peter Lundquist, Molecular Plant Nutrition Laboratory postdoctoral fellow, and Rose Kithan Lundquist, Microbial Symbiology Laboratory research technician
Small Tomatoes Clarissa Boschiero, Functional Genomics Laboratory postdoctoral fellow, and Jose Fonseca, Molecular Plant Microbe Laboratory postdoctoral fellow
Watermelon Vidhya Raman, Molecular Plant Microbe Laboratory postdoctoral fellow
Winter Melon Guangming Li, Transformation Core Facility research associate
Bitter Melon Venki Lakshmanan, Microbial Symbiology Laboratory postdoctoral fellow
Other Melons Jessie Gee, research technician
Other Vegetables Jaydeep Kolape, Cellular Imaging Core Facility research associate
Gourd Venki Lakshmanan, Microbial Symbiology Laboratory postdoctoral fellow
Soybeans Qingzhen Jiang, Transformation Core Facility manager
Greens Venki Lakshmanan, Microbial Symbiology Laboratory postdoctoral fellow
Other onions Guangming Li, Transformation Core Facility research associate
Herbs First Place
Herbs Maria Monteros, Legume Genomics Laboratory associate professor
Open Fruit First Place
Apples Kim Kinard, greenhouse assistant
Pears Kuihua Zhang, research assistant
Other Yaxin Ge, Transformation and Genome Editing Laboratory senior research associate
Open Canning First Place
Fruit Kim Kinard, greenhouse assistant
Vegetables Jeanne Stepp, accounts payable clerk
Pickles Jeanne Stepp, accounts payable clerk
Jellies Kim Kinard, greenhouse assistant
Salsa Paula Barbour, lead environmental services technician
Picante Guangming Li, Transformation Core Facility research associate
Other Guangming Li, Transformation Core Facility research associate
Relish Jeanne Stepp, accounts payable clerk
Arrangements First Place
Open Yun Kang, staff scientist
Edible Maria Monteros, Legume Genomics Laboratory associate professor
Open Desserts First Place
Pies Paula Barbour, lead environmental services technician (Peach Fried Pies)
Watermelon-Seed-Spitting Contest First Place
28 feet, 7 inches Guangming Li, Transformation Core Facility research associate
Pepper-Eating Contest First Place
Tie Greg Spencer, greenhouse assistant, and Randy Redden, research assistant
Social Media Contest First Place
post Rose Kithan Lundquist, Microbial Symbiology Laboratory research technician

Grand Champions

Overall Garden
Jessie Gee, research technician (Cantaloupe)
Overall Desserts
Paula Barbour, lead environmental services technician (Peach Fried Pies)
Overall Canning
Jeanne Stepp, accounts payable clerk (Beans)

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