Noble announces staff reductions, finalizing pivot to regenerative ranching

Robby Short
The Daily Ardmoreite
Noble Research Institute aims to focus its operations on regenerative agriculture with the primary goal to regenerate millions of acres of degraded grazing lands across the U.S.

The Noble Research Institute announced a final round of staff reductions Wednesday, part of the organization's two-year focal shift toward regenerative agriculture, or more specifically, regenerative ranching.

Adam Calaway, director of communication and public relations for Noble Research Institute, said staff reductions began in January. A total of 64 of the 137 eliminated positions within the institute’s plant science and breeding programs opted for severance packages or to relocate their research to other organizations by April. 

“For the past two years, we have been working on moving Noble into a regenerative ranching focus,” Calaway said. “As a consequence of that, we had to change what our research operations will be doing.”

Calaway said the change would shift Noble’s workforce from a laboratory-based operations to an applied, ranch-level focus, that will reduce the institute’s need for plant science and plant breeding research.

Wednesday’s announcement impacts 50 current Noble employees, with some of the initial 137 employees having either returned to the organization or remaining in other roles. Calaway said the reductions will have no impact of the Noble Foundation’s philanthropic activities. 

Calaway said the reductions were not a result of the ongoing pandemic or revenue issues, and that an increase in Noble’s workforce is expected.

“We have been going through the process of identifying research priorities. Once those priorities are identified, then we can build teams around those priorities,” Calaway said. “Those teams mean we can open jobs up. We’ve already had about a dozen positions open up in this new regenerative model.”

Calaway said the regenerative model is intended to work primarily with ranchers on improving the overall ecological conditions of the nation’s estimated 665 million acres of pastures and ranch lands.

“Our focus is the farmer and the rancher,” Calaway said. “The farmer and the rancher have to deal with this complex intersection of soil, plant, water, animal and human and how to manage this whole system. Our previous research focused on individual elements; our regenerative research is going to focus on landscape scale.”

Calaway said a combination of changing climates, aging producers and increasing debt has made the organizations refocusing efforts necessary.

“It’s a mindset, so we are teaching them ecological principles in an effort to rebuild the soil,” Calaway said. “There are some major issues facing agriculture today. Increasing soil organic matter by just 1% can help an acre of land hold 20,000 more gallons of water and can help the land be more drought and flood resilient.”

Nearly half the continental United States is currently facing historic drought conditions that is forcing ranchers from North Dakota to California to sell their herds long before they are ready for market, in some cases simply to keep them from starving. 

While those drought conditions have yet to impact Oklahoma this summer, the state is only a few years removed from widespread hay shortages and drought conditions that dried up the ponds and streams many ranchers use to water their herds.

Calaway said the regenerative focus looks to remedy some of the larger impacts climate change has on the revenues of the nation’s food producers. 

With an aging and declining population of agriculture producers, Calaway said the transition is intended to help bolster an industry with one-third of its workforce aged 65 or older.

“If you look at farm debt, $415 billion in farm debt in 2019, that’s a record high. Bankruptcies are the highest since 2011,” Calaway said. “These are major issues that need to be addressed and we believe that regenerative ranching can address these elements.”

Calaway said the institute’s focus on regenerative agriculture with provide farmers and ranchers with resources and education while instructing them on practices shown to increase soil output while reducing inputs needed which also provide additional benefits downstream.

“If you think about it, the Great Plains developed under grazing pressure with huge herds of bison,” Calaway said. “They did the same thing we do today with cattle. We move them through adaptive grazing, so you are getting that nutrient cycle. As they eat, and stomp down the weeds and the expel waste out of the animal and this is all working within that system to restore soil health.”

Calaway said the principles of regenerative farming also leads to less reliance on artificial fertilizers and herbicides, further reducing pollution as well as the cost of operations. 

“It’s teaching a mindset to farmers and ranchers so they can apply it to their context,” Calaway said. “It’s working with mother nature; it’s working with those natural ecological systems. It allows the farmers and ranchers to be productive and profitable today as well as ensuring the land for tomorrow.”

Calaway said that nearly 41% of the United States' total landmass is used for agriculture, with 85% of grazing lands being currently unusable for producing any human food crop other than grazing animals.

“We believe this has the potential to have a tremendous impact on agriculture in the United States and beyond,” Calaway said. “And it impacts the single largest use of land space in the United States.”