The Noble Research Institute is building a backyard. Four, actually.
Cars zip by the agricultural research institution's campus on Highway 199 east of Ardmore, Oklahoma, every day. Now, just before they reach the main entrance, they pass a field with a slatted oak fence. It's a privacy fence that could be found in any neighborhood, except this one is 200 feet long.
Behind that wooden fence begins the Noble Learning Center showcase, a work-in-progress that will demonstrate more than 100 different ways anyone can incorporate hands-on agriculture into their daily lives. The Noble Learning Center will also translate small-scale, backyard agriculture done by individuals to the large-scale, commercial agriculture accomplished by farmers and ranchers.
Will Chaney drove up to the south side of the fence in a golf cart one chilly October morning. The senior research associate works in the Center for Pecan and Specialty Agriculture (CPSA), one of four Noble Research Institute research centers designed to benefit agricultural producers and consumers. CPSA is leading the Noble Learning Center project.
Chaney stepped out of the vehicle and said, "Welcome to the backyard."
This land was an actual backyard at one time, he explained. Two houses sat here, and summer interns lived in them while working at the Noble Research Institute. The ground is still rocky in some places where the original driveway existed. Today, this parcel models four "backyards" that demonstrate ways people can grow food at home regardless of space, soil, budget and skill limitations.
The Noble Learning Center's demonstrations continue well beyond the backyards. Across a gravel path that will one day be paved are rows of raised and elevated garden beds. Some are store-bought; others are made from old tires, cattle feeders and other recycled materials. A wildlife area will show native and invasive plants as well as the signs of and ways to manage feral hogs. Pollinator plots and hives will display ways to promote populations of agriculture's little helpers, the bees and other species essential for robust crops of many fruits, vegetables and other foods.
Chaney's favorite area is "The Acre." Commodity crops, like wheat and corn, will be planted there. Visitors will learn how the basic principles of growing plants in their garden translates to what farmers do in large fields. They'll also learn how these crops connect to their everyday lives from providing food for cattle to becoming the basic ingredients for cooking oil or bread.
Construction on the Noble Learning Center began with the wooden fence in late summer 2015, and progress continues. The plan is to eventually open to the public during daylight hours for self-guided tours.
Will Chaney helps develop the Noble Learning Center in his role as a senior research associate in the Center for Pecan and Specialty Agriculture.
Why This? Why Now?
There are more than 318 million people in the United States. Less than 2 percent of them operate farms or ranches, yet 100 percent of people eat. That means everyone is connected to food – and agriculture.
This 98 percent gap between food producers and consumers concerns Charles Rohla, Ph.D., CPSA manager, as well as many others in agriculture. Very few people have hands-on knowledge and experience in agriculture yet everyone is connected to it through food. And it seems many have an opinion on how agriculture should be done.
"More people are becoming interested in knowing how their food was grown," Rohla said. "We realized we needed a place to show people what agriculture is and how they can be involved."
Rohla and other Noble Research Institute agricultural consultants have observed a trend over the past 15 years: more people are coming to them for advice on how to start a successful agricultural operation. These new farmers and ranchers have made their careers as doctors, engineers, lawyers. Some of them have bought land; others have inherited from a grandparent. Now they want to trade city life for a rural lifestyle, but they are not sure how or where to start.
Other groups are also interested in agriculture, even if "agriculture" is not the word they initially use. Schools want to teach their students the hands-on science of growing food. Community organizations, including the Carter County Health Department, want to encourage people to increase their physical activity and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. "Many people don't realize they can or already are participating in agriculture," Chaney said. "We want to help them understand that if they are growing anything, they are involved in agriculture. We want to give them examples that they can use to grow food and help them understand agriculture as a whole."
This is especially important, Rohla said, at a time when farmers and ranchers face increased regulatory pressure, which affects how they do their jobs. The Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the largest public research university in Virginia, reports regulation on agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting has grown by 77.98 percent since 1997.
"The greatest thing we can do for the future of agriculture is educate," Rohla said. "It doesn't matter if you're interested in organic, traditional or nontraditional agriculture; there is room for everyone at the table. The Noble Learning Center will be a place for all ages and backgrounds to learn about how they can participate in agriculture and what farmers and ranchers do to produce the food they buy at the grocery store."
Here's a sneak peek walk through the Noble Learning Center backyard and beyond.
Steve Upson, soils and crops consultant, contributes his horticulture expertise to the Noble Learning Center.
Each backyard will be 50 feet by 50 feet and will include a wide variety of examples of do-it-at-home agriculture projects. The plan is to arrange the yards by amount of money, space and building skill needed so that they can be adopted by anyone.
In the spring of 2016, the CPSA set the idea of the backyards in front of students in a landscaping class at the Oklahoma State University Oklahoma City campus. The students created plans for what might go into the spaces, and some of these ideas will be incorporated into the Noble Learning Center during different seasons.
Chicken coops will be included in Noble Learning Center demonstrations.
The backyards will include chicken coops, rabbit hutches, raised beds that will be home to edible plants nearly year-round, planters made from recycled materials, and small fruit trees. One backyard features a small hoop house and another a small greenhouse, where foods like green peppers can be grown year-round.
The backyards will also test new or new-to-the-region plants (like kiwis, bananas, figs, oranges and the plum-apricot cross called a pluot) to see how well they grow in the greenhouse or outside in the Southern Great Plains.
Innovative agricultural techniques will also be demonstrated, such as espalier, in which a fruit tree is trained to grow along a flat surface like a fence; hydroponics, where plants are grown in water rather than soil; and vertical farming, which allows more plants to be grown in a smaller amount of space.
Charles Rohla, Ph.D., manages the Center for Pecan and Specialty Agriculture, which leads the Noble Learning Center.
Education Inside and Out
Plans for the Noble Learning Center also include an educational pavilion, an outdoor classroom, and additional gardens that will demonstrate how a community garden could operate. One garden may even include a variety of food plants – like cauliflower – that could add both color and an additional community food source to city parks.
Garden Bed Showcase
Rows of garden beds are displayed just beyond the backyards. The showcase includes raised beds, which are contained beds that sit directly on the ground, and elevated beds, which have space between the container and the ground. Each bed will be made of different materials: some bought; some made from scratch; and others made from repurposed stock tanks, mineral tubs, feeders and tires. Plans involve 30 different examples. Peanuts are even in the plan. Since the protein-rich "nut," which is actually a legume, prefers sandy soil, an elevated bed will demonstrate how peanuts grow. (Hint: You'd have to dig to find them. Peanut plants flower above-ground but the fruit grows below.)
Wildlife and Nature Walk
A resource for learning about native plants and wildlife will be developed across the pond. A trail will wind through the trees, and visitors will be able to identify native plants planted and invasive species contained along it. BoarBuster, the trap developed by Noble Research Institute researchers for reducing the invasive feral hog population, will be set up for demonstration. This area of the Noble Learning Center will be particularly used by Noble Academy during fishing and other wildlife workshops, as well as by agricultural consultants to show specific plants in real-time.
An acre is a common measurement in agriculture. Large-scale producers determine how much seed they need to plant by the acre. They sell their crops by how much they produce on an acre. But what is an acre? It's 43,560 square feet. So what does that look like? The Acre will show visitors exactly what an acre looks like as a single acre will be contained within four yellow posts. On this acre, there will be three plots that crops will be rotated among. One for cool-season crops, like wheat and rye. One for warm-season crops, like corn and cotton. The other will lay fallow, or in a rest period. Visitors will be able to relate what they are learning about growing food at home to how a large-scale farmer grows crops in the field. They'll also learn how much an acre will produce, on average, of a particular crop and what that crop is used for. For example, a farmer can grow, on average, 40 bushels, of wheat on one acre. That 40 bushels will make enough flour for 1,600 loaves of bread.
Examples of bee hives (minus the bees) will be shown along the wooden fence on the backside of the backyards. Groups especially interested in bees could visit the apiary (where bees do live and work) further south in the larger production area of the CPSA. A plot on the east side of the backyards will feature pollinator-friendly plants, like milkweed. These plants are commonly thought of as weeds by farmers and ranchers because they compete with plants more suitable for livestock and human consumption. But, as Chaney said, they might be able to find a small plot of unfarmable land where they can cultivate these plants to help the bees and other pollinators, like Monarch butterflies.