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Q&A: Bill Buckner, Noble Research Institute

Growing up on his family’s farm in Missouri had a tremendous impact on the direction of Bill Buckner’s life. “I knew that no matter what I did, I wanted to be connected to agriculture,” he says. 

As the president and chief executive officer of the Noble Research Institute for the past seven years, Buckner has been a part of a team that has made great strides to advance agriculture. “Our founder, Lloyd Noble, lived through the Dust Bowl and established our organization in 1945 as a way of safeguarding the soil and fostering land stewardship,” he says. “We need the next generation of philanthropists to follow his example and become passionate about solving the challenges that face agriculture.”

Before his retirement at the end of 2018, Successful Farming magazine spoke with Buckner about those challenges and why the institute continues to carry the banner for soil.

SF: How is Noble helping to address the global challenges of providing an abundant, sustainable, and safe food supply?

BB: We are addressing those challenges in numerous ways. Our plant science research is helping develop hardier, more efficient forages that can be used in various ag systems in the southern Great Plains and beyond. 

Our youth education teaches students from sixth grade to college about the critical nature of agriculture and the need for research to advance agriculture. We also discuss how they can select virtually any field of study and contribute to agriculture as a whole. 

Our adult education and producer relations groups are geared to provide counsel and knowledge to producers who may have a few acres to thousands of acres, and includes producers who run cattle to those who grow pecans. We are helping them reach their goals and doing it in a manner that improves the soil and advances land stewardship. 

Our agriculture research systems and technology group helps test our plant science research in small- and large-plot environments, provides hands-on demonstrations to producer groups, and evaluates the latest technology to see how it can be included in real-world agricultural systems. 

Additionally, the Soil Health Institute and the Ecosystem Services Market project bring Noble’s mission to the national stage. Together, they demonstrate how Noble is addressing the great agricultural challenges facing this world.  

SF: What is the biggest challenge facing agriculture? 

BB: The industry will face myriad production and sustainability challenges in the coming decades and countless questions about how to feed a burgeoning population. The most significant of these is a global lack of understanding and appreciation for our soil. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci said, “We know more about the movement of the celestial bodies than the soil underfoot.” More than 500 years later, this fact remains true. 

Why is soil so critical? Because it holds the answers to many of the other challenges we face in agriculture. A teaspoon of healthy soil can hold 1 billion bacteria, several thousand protozoa, and a wealth of fungi and nematodes. This biome holds the potential to provide humanity with new antibiotics, ways to effectively store large quantities of carbon, and the potential to use less water and synthetic inputs in food production. 

However, our soils are disappearing quicker then we can imagine. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 33% of our world’s soils are moderately or highly degraded. Many ag soils have lost 30% to 50% of their precious organic carbon, thereby reducing its capacity to withstand drought, naturally suppress plant pathogens, filter chemicals, and provide nutrients to plants and the animals that eat them.  

Through the creation and ongoing support of our Soil Health Institute, whose sole mission is to safeguard and enhance the productivity of soil through scientific research and advancement, we have helped agriculture begin to overcome this  challenge.

We must all become fervent soil advocates. It is the foundation of our world. 

SF: If you could leave agriculture with one final thought, what would it be?

BB: Look down. We must explore the hidden realm of the soil so we can uncover the hidden secrets it holds. We must take care of the soil, because without it, there is no foundation for agriculture or society. As Lloyd Noble said, “No civilization has outlived the usefulness of its soils. When the soil is destroyed, the nation is gone.” 

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