By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2013, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Bill Buckner grew up on a Missouri farm and never left agriculture throughout a career that took him to Canada, Germany and North Carolina.
But he had never heard of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation — Oklahoma’s largest private foundation — until an executive recruiter called in 2011 to gauge his interest in becoming president of the Ardmore-based organization.
At the time, Buckner was preparing to retire as president and CEO of Bayer CropScience LP, based at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. He was closing out an 18-year career with the division that oversees Bayer’s crop protection, biotechnology manufacturing and environmental science groups.
“When the executive recruiter called and asked me if I had any interest in the job, I Googled the Noble Foundation and began reading about the organization. I said ‘my gosh, why have I not heard of this place?’” Buckner told me during a recent visit to the spectacular Noble Foundation campus just east of Ardmore.
What Buckner, 56, discovered was a billion-dollar philanthropic agriculture foundation founded in 1945 by oilman and philanthropist Lloyd Noble. The mission was to advance agriculture through land stewardship and resource conservation.
Today it employs 380 people, including 110 Ph.D.-level scientists, ag consultants and researchers from 25 countries.
“After reading about the mission and the history, I said, ‘Absolutely, I’d be glad to talk to you about this job,’” he said.
Buckner became the Noble Foundation’s eighth president in January 2012.
Although the foundation has grown to include three divisions — agricultural, plant biology and forage improvement — the original mission remains unchanged, Buckner said. The Noble Foundation is continually seeking ways to advance agriculture through education and research to better use resources (water, soil, nutrients), optimize production and improve the lives of farmers, ranchers and consumers.
“How do we take the key activities here and, for example, link them to produce a new drought-tolerant forage that doesn’t require 50 percent of the nitrogen that we typically use?” he said. “The sustainable outcomes of drought tolerance, nutrient use, efficiency, are truly the Holy Grail for all crops.”
Those are big goals. Can Noble scientists solve them?
“We are contributing,” Buckner said. “But there are a lot of people around the world working in the same areas. The challenge is how do we link up with the global community of research scientists and try to solve these problems through collaboration?”
Buckner envisions an Oklahoma ag biotech cluster similar to what he helped create in North Carolina, built with public and private support, dedicated investment funds, industry networking and university collaboration.
Today, Research Triangle Park is a center of ag R&D operations including several universities and multinational biotech firms.
“It takes a vision,” Buckner said. “We have to start there.”
The Noble Foundation provides Oklahoma a great place to start.
Jim Stafford is a communications specialist with i2E, Inc., in Oklahoma City.