When rancher Jack Cunningham moved from an arid and rocky part of southwest Texas to 600 acres of much different soil in Springer, Oklahoma, he needed guidance on making his new land productive. A friend recommended he call the farming experts at the Noble Foundation, just 10 miles away in Ardmore.
That was 24 years ago, but Cunningham still remembers the day when a Noble soil specialist, a livestock specialist, a horticulturist, and an economist stepped out of a white Chevy Suburban on to his property. They exchanged pleasantries and took a drive around the ranch as the Noble team members asked questions. They provided Cunningham with the informed answers he needed to be a responsible and profitable steward of his land. Today the foundation continues to advise Cunningham and other Oklahoma ranchers and farmers. That’s just what oilman Lloyd Noble hoped would happen when he endowed the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, which is both an operating foundation and a grantmaker, in 1945.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Cunningham—who has expanded his ranch to 1,000 acres and has brought a son into his operation—owes much of his success to the consultation provided by the Noble Foundation. If Cunningham had tried to hire such consultants, he couldn’t have afforded them.
Noble offers its consultation services for free.
“The soil specialist taught me how to test my soil,’’ says Cunningham, now 62. “The livestock specialist helped me stock this place with yearling cattle. The crop specialist taught me how to spray for different insects and when to fertilize your winter pasture and Bermuda grass. The economist helped me with expenses by giving me data on the highs and lows of certain markets in Oklahoma City.”
Knowledge isn’t all Noble has offered Cunningham over the years. Those specialists have become life-long friends. “They don’t necessarily tell you what to do. But they give you choices of what you can do,” says Cunningham. “Most of the time, they don’t even come to my place anymore. I just give them a call, tell them my problem, and they solve it. I’m telling you, they are the best thing going in Oklahoma. They have the welfare of the common rancher in their hearts.”
With an endowment of $950 million and more than 300 employees (75 with doctoral degrees) working on a campus completing a $100 million, state-of-the-art expansion, Noble now does much more than provide consultation to ranchers, although that remains a vital part of the mission.
The foundation has evolved over 60 years, and now has three divisions:
· Agricultural. Cunningham is one of more than 1,000 “cooperators”—the term Noble uses for farmers assisted by this division—who live within a 100-mile radius of Ardmore in Oklahoma and Texas. The division collaborates with several universities and operates five farms itself for demonstrating land management practices. It also offers educational meetings, tours, and seminars for cooperators and the public.
· Plant Biology. This division conducts biochemical, genetic, and genomic research in the areas of crop improvement, human and animal health, and production of novel products in crops. For example, Noble scientists have been determining how plants produce condensed tannins, naturally occurring compounds that provide a variety of nutrition and health benefits to animals and humans. Condensed tannins are perhaps best known as the potent antioxidants in grapes, cranberries and green tea. In humans, they have been shown to have anti-cancer properties, as well as a positive impact on heart disease and the immune system. Noble researchers have discovered how to produce condensed tannins for the first time in plant tissue that doesn’t naturally make these molecules.
· Forage Improvement. The newest division, it began in 1997 when the foundation asked the Agricultural Division this question: “If there was one thing science could do to help Oklahoma farmers and ranchers, what would it be?” The answer was to develop a cool-season perennial forage grass so ranchers and their livestock wouldn’t have to depend so much on hay and annual forages like wheat and rye. To help achieve that goal, Noble established the Forage Improvement division and has just completed an 85,000-square-foot research facility to house it and attract top scientists. Research progress has already been made, giving the foundation hope that within a few years several new perennial forage grasses will be available to area farmers and ranchers.
Over its history, the foundation has spent more than $390 million on operations and $260 million on grants. “It’s particularly meaningful that an organization in Ardmore with these resources has continued the focus of the founder and implemented it in a way that could not have been envisioned 60 years ago,” says Michael A. Cawley, Noble Foundation president. “We’re doing things that now have the opportunity to impact the country and the world, and those things are being done by all three of our operating divisions.”
Staying true to Lloyd Noble’s intent is something the foundation takes very seriously, largely through the vigilance of nine family members on the foundation’s 12-person board. These family members know how the foundation spent its money before Lloyd Noble died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 53 in 1950, leaving the bulk of his estate to the foundation.
Noble made his money in oil, borrowing $15,000 from his mother to buy his first drilling rig, eventually leading to the creation of Noble Drilling Corporation and Noble Energy, Inc., both of which continue today. Noble learned to appreciate the values and work ethic of farmers, because many of his employees had an agricultural background. Noble often said that agriculture was the backbone of America and that land would be needed to produce food long after oil and gas were depleted.
He also maintained that the ownership of a piece of land, no matter how large or small, was the greatest defense there was against tyranny.
Respecting the land and wanting to give back to the community, Noble named the foundation after his father because he said Samuel Roberts Noble was the most generous man he had ever known.
Lloyd Noble had “a strong interest” in the Ardmore area, Cawley adds, “but he wasn’t insular in his thinking. He was a big thinker. That’s why some of our grants have been on a national basis and our science and agriculture, while headquartered here, have broad reach throughout the world.”
With its $13 million payroll, the Noble Foundation is the fourth largest employer in Ardmore (population 30,000), trailing only a Michelin tire plant, the local hospital, and a distribution center for a national corporation.
Locals need not worry about the foundation’s going out of business. It is designed to operate in perpetuity and has much work yet to do to continue Noble’s mission “to accomplish results that will help free the people of fear, reduce selfishness, and attain a better understanding of man.”
The top four recipients of Noble grants over the years have been the University of Oklahoma ($29 million), the Heritage Foundation ($21 million), the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation ($13 million), and Oklahoma State University ($13 million).
With its $100 million facilities expansion in full bloom, the vast majority of the foundation’s expenditures have gone to operations in recent years. In 2003, for example, 98.3 percent went toward operations and 1.7 percent to grants and scholarships. The board put a moratorium on new grants following its January 2003 meeting.
But as construction comes to a close, that’s likely to change. “As those expenditures end and we get the costs amortized, I would guess the granting budget will start to go up,” says Cawley. “If there was not the expansion going on right now, the percentage would be closer to three-fifths for operations and two-fifths for granting.”
In 2004, however, the Foundation did make new grant commitments totaling $7 million.
When complete, the expansion will give the foundation more than 450,000 square feet of enclosed research and administrative space, and the ability to tackle agricultural problems in-house, with the collaboration of three divisions.
“It’s becoming a world-class facility as well as a world-class program,” says Floyd Horn, former administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. “It takes that type of facility to attract the best and the brightest in some of these fundamental sciences. You don’t normally find that type of effort. . .out in the countryside.”
Horn says he has admired the foundation since 1971, when he was a beef cattle research scientist in Oklahoma and saw the sophisticated land-use plans Noble experts developed to make farms environmentally safe and financially healthy. This allowed families to retain their farms instead of being bought out by conglomerates.
That admiration only grew as Horn moved to Washington, D.C., and saw the foundation’s other divisions tackle scientific issues not addressed by the government, such as an extensive study of the genomics of alfalfa, one of the most productive plants in agriculture. The Noble Foundation “went ahead and started that program almost entirely on its own, and it’s become a world-class project,” says Horn. “That took great courage. And it’s done things like this time and time again.”
Such projects stem from a belief that the business and philanthropic sectors are often better suited to help the average farmer than the government. The foundation board’s determination to adhere to free market principles make the Philanthropy Roundtable, with its similar “viewpoint and philosophy,” a natural fit for the Noble Foundation, says Cawley.
At times, the principles of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation can seem as big and lofty as the Oklahoma sky that Lloyd Noble often looked at in awe and wonder. But ranchers like Jack Cunningham will tell you their friends and neighbors at Noble don’t have their heads in the clouds. They are as solid, real, and practical as the Sooner soil Cunningham’s crops take root in.
“I guess I would have gone broke if they hadn’t helped me,” says Cunningham. “But I’ve been able to buy even more land since they’ve come up here. They’ve helped my kids. They’ve helped me. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
Mark O'Keefe is editor of Religion News Service.