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Foundation Using Science, Technology to Improve Agriculture

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Posted Mar. 1, 2004

A new era at the Noble Research Institute's Agricultural Division began on June 5, 2000. On that date, we approved a new strategic business plan for the Agricultural Division, and I wrote a memorandum to everyone in the division saying, in part, "I am appreciative of your efforts and extend my heartiest congratulations on a plan that will enable the Ag Division to excel … I believe the implementation of this plan will enable you to accomplish your mission with greater effectiveness."

From my vantage point, both of those beliefs have become reality. Implementation of that plan has been ongoing since June 2000. It has been a team effort — everybody in the Agricultural Division has contributed to this initiative. I know you have seen positive change, too.

Some of you probably have questions about our research efforts. The origins of our research derive from the practices and vision of our founder, Lloyd Noble. He was a strong believer in using available science and technology. I am told that one of the reasons he was successful in the oil and gas drilling business was that he readily incorporated new scientific and technological advances in his drilling programs that allowed him to drill deeper and faster than his competitors. Even in the late 1940s, Mr. Noble understood that science and technology could be used to help farmers and ranchers better understand and improve their agricultural practices.

In the mid-1980s, I had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Fred DeHoffman, who was then the president of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. In the late 1970s, the Noble Research Institute provided the initial funding to the Salk Institute to start their plant biology research program. I asked Dr. DeHoffman why one of the premier biomedical research institutes in the world would have an interest in a plant biology research program. He explained that the betterment of mankind was dependent not only upon health care advances but also upon better and more efficient delivery of food and forage to man and animals, which would require the incorporation of the latest science and technology into production agriculture systems. He also shared this insight with our board of trustees. The board was aware that funding for agriculture and plant-related research seriously lagged available funding for biomedical research — a condition that unfortunately has not changed in 20 years. Thus, there existed an opportunity to further support the vision of our founder.

The focus of the operating programs today at the Noble Research Institute is the improvement of agriculture. We implement this mission through the activities of our three operating divisions — agriculture, plant biology and forage improvement.

The readers of this publication are well acquainted with the activities of the Agricultural Division. I hope that you sense the same enthusiasm and excitement in that division to help farmers and ranchers through their consultation, demonstration, education and research activities as I do.

In 1987, in part due to their discussions with Dr. DeHoffman, the board of trustees organized the Plant Biology Division, which focuses upon plant metabolism, plant responses to pathogens and pests and the understanding and improvement of legumes.

In the mid-1990s, we posed this question to our Agricultural Division: "If there was one thing that science could do for agriculture in our area, what would it be?" The resounding and almost unanimous response was the need for a cool-season perennial forage. In 1997, our board of trustees authorized the start of an applied forage research group, which is known today as our Forage Improvement Division. The efforts of this division are focused upon the development of improved cultivars of important legume and grass forage species (including cool-season perennials) for use by farmers and ranchers in this part of the country.

The work of the Plant Biology and Forage Improvement divisions regularly receives critical acclaim from some of the world's leading plant and forage scientists.

It is truly exciting to witness the cooperation, communication and interaction among our operating divisions. They meet frequently to learn more about the work of the other divisions and share ideas on projects that require all of their inputs. These interactions will lead to significant advances in production agriculture in our area. Some of the ideas being considered by the collaborative interaction of all three operating divisions include: the removal of prussic acid from Johnson grass; development of plants to indicate soil phosphate levels for global positioning/precision agriculture; development of cattle molecular markers; the development of bloat resistant and cotton root rot resistant alfalfa and improved bermudagrass digestibility.

In addition to our internal collaborations, all three divisions have very important collaborators at various universities, agencies and with private industry. We are involved with more than 25 different groups.

The Noble Research Institute is a private family foundation, and the majority of its board members are descendants of Lloyd Noble. Generally, the most difficult job that any private family foundation has is maintaining the focus of its founder. Over time and with the transition of new family members into the board management structure, some foundations lose sight of their founders' vision. This has not been the case at the Noble Research Institute. I take my hat off to the Noble family for staying the course in pursuing Lloyd Noble's vision.

What will the Noble Research Institute of 2054 look like? While I can't say in detail or with absolute certainty, I am confident that our tradition of seeking to advance and improve agriculture will continue. Perhaps in 2054, your children or grandchildren will be receiving advice from one of our agricultural specialists about which Noble Research Institute-developed forage variety will reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides or herbicides. Maybe they will be attending a seminar announcing an aluminum-tolerant alfalfa variety with increased yields. They might be reading an Ag News and Views article describing a new cattle vaccine which eliminates shipping fever. Or maybe they will be preparing for a farm visit by one of the Agricultural Division's consultation teams.

Regardless of what happens, I'm confident that it will be due to a group of employees committed to excellence and a board of trustees committed to Lloyd Noble's vision.