Lloyd Noble knew there was more to the land than just the oil he had found beneath it.
Noble was born in 1896 in Indian Territory, in the train depot town of what is now Ardmore, Oklahoma. He was the son of pioneers who had come from New York looking for new opportunities. His parents, Samuel and Hattie, and his uncle and aunt, Edward and Eva, farmed and operated various businesses in Texas and what is now Oklahoma before settling in Ardmore, where they started a hardware store the same year Lloyd was born.
Noble Brothers Hardware provided wares to the local farmers and ranchers, and, as a boy, Lloyd Noble swept floors, stocked shelves and delivered goods for the store. He came in frequent contact with these agricultural producers and admired them for their diligence and humility. He also saw that the early settlers did little to conserve or build up the soil as they generated their prized commodity, cotton, year after year.
From Oil to Soil
In early adulthood, Noble taught school and served briefly during World War I before enrolling in the University of Oklahoma. Eager to begin his own venture, Noble left college early to seek his fortune in the state’s most lucrative new enterprise — oil.
In 1921, the 24-year-old entrepreneur purchased his first drilling rig with assistance from his mother, Hattie, who co-signed a $15,000 loan. Noble became a leader in the oil and gas drilling industry, capitalizing on new ideas and technology to drill deeper and faster than his contemporaries. He quickly became one of the most respected drilling contractors in the U.S.
Lloyd Noble and Art Olson (far right) went into the oil business together in 1921. Pictured is their first oil rig. The two operated together until 1930 then went on to achieve success in their individual drilling companies.
Noble found enjoyment in personal aviation and frequently flew from his home base in Ardmore to his oil rigs across the country. From this bird’s-eye view, he could see that the poor agricultural practices he had observed as a youth were taking their toll on the land. Failure to return nutrients to the soil resulted in a barren land that was susceptible to erosion. Drought compounded the problem, and the winds that swept through the Great Plains in the 1930s carried off precious topsoil — blowing away the region’s economic lifeblood.
During the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years, Noble saw that others were struggling. Many families fell into despair from the inability to grow food and earn a livelihood from the weakened land. Farmers gave up, leaving in droves to an elusive financial sanctuary in the American West.
Noble, who had at different times retreated to ranches for personal reflection and recreation, didn’t see giving up on the land as the only option. He knew that the revitalization of his community must start with agriculture, and more specifically with rebuilding the soil. This would benefit not only farmers and ranchers but all of society.
The oilman once said: “We believe that while at times we have felt the overshadowing presence of oil, we are living in an area that is essentially agricultural. … the land must continue to provide for our food, clothing and shelter long after the oil is gone.”
Armed with this conviction, Noble focused his attention on bolstering land stewardship and soil management. In May 1943, he addressed these issues in a column for the 50th anniversary edition of his hometown newspaper. He wrote: “What are we in the present generation going to do with this heritage? Are we going to encourage the terracing, conservation and upbuilding of our soil so it will support a growing, healthy and prosperous livestock and agrarian industry, or are we going to allow our soils to be depleted and our population shifted to other areas as we read about it in the newspapers?”
Two years later, he provided a permanent resource for the agricultural community when he established Noble Research Institute (then called The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation) on Sept. 19, 1945. He tasked his new organization with benefiting mankind.
In the early days, Noble’s organization focused on education and encouraging area farmers and ranchers to return nutrients to the soil and to conserve resources. He continued to guide the organization until his death on Feb. 14, 1950, just three months after giving a speech in which he said: “No civilization has outlived the usefulness of its soils. When the soil is destroyed, the nation is gone.”
Today, Noble Research Institute, guided in large part by Lloyd Noble’s descendants, continues to build on its legacy of working alongside producers, providing research-based information and assisting them in the essential roles they play in society.
The mission is just as critical today as it was in 1945.
Looking to the Future
Though the winds have settled from the Dust Bowl, there is still work to be done to restore the health and function of the land. Of the 655 million acres of public and private grazing lands in the U.S., it is estimated that up to 70% of them are in a degraded state.
This degradation does not only affect the individual producer’s ability to grow food and earn a livelihood. It more broadly impairs the quality of food, interferes with fresh water supplies, increases the opportunity for land erosion, and limits the soil’s ability to capture and store atmospheric carbon. However, there are ways to reverse this degradation for the benefit of both producers and all of society.
Noble today is developing programs to help ranchers regenerate their grazing lands and achieve long-term financial stability. Specifically, the future of Noble will focus on helping producers embrace and implement regenerative ranching, which is the process of restoring degraded soils by using practices based on ecological principles. Regenerative ranchers work with the natural environmental systems — comprising soil, plants, water, animals and the humans that manage them — to build organic matter and resilience within the soil.
Healthy soil has less nutrient run-off and erosion; sequesters atmospheric carbon, which combats climate variability; and, because of its ability to better hold water, serves as a management tool for both drought and heavy rain. Just a 1% increase in organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre.
“As we look to the future, we imagine our nation’s cattle producers having the knowledge and tools needed to rebuild our country’s soil and grazing lands, not only to provide for their families but pave the way for the next generation of producers,” says Steve Rhines, president and CEO of Noble Research Institute. “While we absolutely support the continued delivery of nutritious and affordable food to the world’s plates, our goal will be to help producers leave the land better at sunset than it was at sunrise. We are proud of our legacy and honored to have been entrusted to carry forward Mr. Noble’s vision. It is what provides context and excitement for our next chapter of transformational work.
During this anniversary year, our celebration will focus on the important role farmers and ranchers play in our society, while we — as an organization — continue to grow and evolve to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”