Lloyd Noble's legacy continues with a bold step for his organization and new opportunities for funding agricultural research that benefits all of society.
The prelude to a new beginning unfolded in front of nearly 400 employees on April 26, 2017.
The all-employee meeting room, which had been silent with anticipation, boomed with applause as the announcement was made: The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation would become the Noble Research Institute in five days.
The Noble Research Institute would continue Noble's 72-year-long legacy of research, consultation and education programs. A new nonprofit, The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, would continue philanthropic programs.
The moment symbolized a transformation that would create new funding and collaboration opportunities for agricultural research at the organization and beyond.
The historic moment was one many had thought unattainable.
When Steve Rhines joined the Noble Foundation in 2001 to serve as intellectual property counsel, he became part of the search for a better way to steward the organization's resources and its mission to advance agriculture.
The consensus among the organization's leaders was that to remain classified by the IRS as a private foundation would limit its ability to conduct operations. The more desirable alternative was to become a public charity, but no mold seemed to fit. In 2004, Mike Cawley, president at the time, sent Rhines and others to Washington, D.C., to see if they were missing anything.
There, they sat across from legal counselors at Hogan & Hartson (today Hogan Lovells). The attorneys listened with interest to this unusual private foundation's story. Like most private foundations, the organization was initially funded by one private source (Lloyd Noble) and most of its revenue came from the investment of those funds (its endowment). But unlike most private foundations, the Noble Foundation also conducted its own direct operations: basic and translational plant science, applied agricultural research and demonstration on working farms and ranches, no-cost consultation for farmers and ranchers, and educational programs for youth and adults.
The attorneys said Noble's activities ran parallel to a lesser known type of public charity: the medical research organization, or MRO, which their firm had helped create within the U.S. tax code in the 1950s. The difference was obvious. Medical research organizations are dedicated to human health, so the MRO model would not fit unless the definition of "medical research" could be extended to include agriculture. It could not, but another idea was planted. What if a similar but new form of public charity, an agricultural research organization, or an ARO, could be created?
Pursuing the idea was not likely to be successful, the attorneys said. The pages of notes were filed away for three years, but Rhines and Noble's leadership never completely gave up on the thought.
By June 2008, Rhines, Cawley and Jeff Moen, who had joined the organization in 2007, developed a proposal to the Noble Foundation Board of Trustees. Though pursuing the ARO concept would bring many unknowns, the trio saw its potential to open up new opportunities not just for the organization but also for philanthropic giving to agricultural research on a national level.
The Board said, "Yes."
Rhines and Moen spent the equivalent of several months on the road over the next seven years. They traveled the country, explaining the concept and receiving input from deans of agricultural colleges, industry leaders, and ultimately lawmakers and their staffs. By 2015, 65 associations, universities and other nonprofits were lending their support to what had become known as the Charitable Agricultural Research Act, which had bipartisan support in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. The bill was introduced eight times from 2011 to 2015 before it was signed into law on Dec. 18, 2015, as part of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015.
The Board took a year to carefully consider how to move forward. Every piece of the organization perfectly fit as an ARO, except its philanthropic giving. In December 2016, the Board unanimously decided to split the organization's research, consultation and education activities from its philanthropy program. The former would remain with the organization and continue forward as the Noble Research Institute. A new private foundation with the original name, The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, carries on the Noble family's philanthropic legacy in the name of the man Lloyd Noble recalled as the most charitable man he knew — his father.
Bill Buckner, president and CEO of the Noble Research Institute, announces the organization’s new name and its plans to become an agricultural research organization, the newest form of 501(c)(3) public charity, at a special event in Oklahoma City on May 5, 2017.
Beyond Noble, the availability of AROs to philanthropists addresses a greater challenge facing the U.S. agriculture industry: lack of public funding for research. AROs are a new charitable option for those, similar to Lloyd Noble, who want to dedicate their wealth to agricultural research for the public good.
"There were many times when it seemed this wasn't going to work, when our plans would get derailed by a multitude of things that had nothing to do with the merits of the legislation," Rhines said, reflecting on the journey, in 2017, "but we kept going back to something one of the Board members, Bill Goddard, said in one of our early meetings: 'AROs extend the legacy of Lloyd Noble. This effort serves a greater purpose.'"
The obligation that rests squarely on the shoulders of each generation is not what they inherit, what they have handed to them, or what they acquire from the standpoint of wealth or position, but what they do with the wealth or power that they have in their hands.
— Lloyd Noble, 1943
The Noble Research Institute continues activities that had been in place before the name and structure changes. These activities are organized into four interconnected areas.
The Noble Research Institute focuses on research that will help farmers and ranchers improve land stewardship and productivity regionally, nationally and internationally. Scientists consider the full spectrum of agricultural research, including basic, translational and applied. They study the basic molecular and genetic levels of how plants grow and interact with the microbial world around them. They develop stronger and more efficient small grains, grasses and legumes. And they evaluate how well cattle perform in various grazing systems. In 2017, Noble scientists shared their findings through 61 peer-reviewed scientific publications.
The consultation program officially formed in 1958. However, Noble employees have been working directly with farmers and ranchers since the organization’s beginnings. As early as 1946, Noble field agriculturalists advised farmers and ranchers on how to boost their soil’s productivity through fertilization and conservation practices. In 1958, consultation began with three farmers in Carter County, Oklahoma, and with three farmers in each of the seven surrounding counties. In 2017, consultants worked with 1,764 farmers and ranchers, including 88 for the first time.
The Noble Research Institute is one of the largest agricultural producers in Oklahoma. The organization operates seven research and demonstration farms that span 14,000 acres in the southern part of the state. There, researchers raise forage-based beef cattle, grow horticultural crops like pecans, and manage natural resources in ways comparable to how farmers and ranchers in the region operate. In addition, these farms provide a place to apply research to real-world environments and an opportunity to test out practices and technologies so producers don’t have to invest their resources in trials. In 2017, 58 applied agricultural systems research and technology projects and demonstrations were initiated or in progress.
Lessons learned on the farms and ranches turn into information shared with students of all ages. The Noble Research Institute hosts agricultural seminars and workshops for farmers, ranchers and others interested in hands-on agricultural production and natural resource stewardship. All are welcome to learn the latest research-based approaches to managing cattle, forages, soils, horticultural crops, natural resources and economics. The Noble Research Institute also fosters an awareness of and appreciation for agriculture in the next generation. Youth learn about science and agriculture through interactive learning opportunities including hands-on lessons, tours, field days and internships. In 2017, educational staff hosted 1,281 people on tours of Noble’s agricultural facilities as well as 1,672 farmers, ranchers and other land managers who attended 14 agricultural education events. They also reached 7,146 students and 575 teachers through tours, hands-on lessons and interactive field days.