Maxwell Norton, director of UCCE in Merced County, to retire after 36 years

Jun 17, 2015

Maxwell Norton, UC Cooperative Extension director and advisor in Merced and Mariposa counties, plans to retire on July 1. Norton, who specializes in tree fruit, grapes and farmland preservation, has served Merced County growers for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources for 36 years.

Norton is “probably the kind of person everyone would like to know – a kind and gentle soul who exudes knowledge and wisdom,” said Bill Martin, executive director of Central Valley Farmland Trust.

For the past 10 years, Martin has worked on conserving farmland with Norton, who was a founding member of the Merced County Farmland and Open Space Trust, which merged with two other land trusts to become Central Valley Farmland Trust.

“He has an understanding of the landscape that is greatly appreciated,” Martin said of Norton. “He's very low-key, observant and provides timely input on provocative issues that come up at board meetings.”

Raised on a farm near Salida, north of Modesto, Norton studied pomology at Fresno State University, earning a B.S. and an M.S. in plant science before joining UC Cooperative Extension.

During his career, the UC Cooperative Extension advisor has helped Merced County growers solve problems in kiwifruit, Asian pears, prunes, peaches, strawberries, figs and pomegranates.

“When I started in 1979, there was rapid growth of two new industries – kiwifruit and Asian pears,” Norton said. “I conducted some early research trials on kiwifruit and authored a chapter of the new UC Cooperative Extension production manual for kiwifruit. I also spent a lot of time diagnosing Asian pear problems.” 

Early in Norton's career, UC scientists introduced a device for measuring soil moisture called a neutron probe.  The young advisor tested the device in peach orchards on clay-loam soils, attempting to correlate the probe, gypsum blocks, tensiometers and pressure chamber data. 

“All of these tools were relatively new then,” said Norton. “Mid-day values had not been established yet so data collection entailed going out at 3 a.m. to pick leaves and measure the leaf water potential while crouching in the back seat of my government-issued Plymouth Fury.”

Over the years, he has collaborated on many UC Cooperative Extension research projects for processing peaches, including mating disruption for oriental fruit moth. “Growers who farmed near towns were especially desperate for pest management tools that were more acceptable to urban neighbors,” he said.  

Collaborating with his UC Cooperative Extension colleague Roger Duncan in Stanislaus County, Norton conducted several research projects aimed at reducing labor costs in peaches. Projects included mechanical fruit thinning, chemical blossom thinning and various types of mechanical blossom thinning. 

Research by Norton and his fellow Cooperative Extension advisors showed that mature prune trees could be pruned every other year and still produce desirable fruit size and maintain yields. Growers widely adopted the practice of alternate year pruning.  Later, Cooperative Extension set out to demonstrate the new integrated prune farming practices where IPM tools were integral parts of the system.  

In the early 1980s, when many grape growers were spraying pesticides three to four times a year, leafhoppers developed resistance to some insecticides. Norton and other UC experts saw the potential for biological control by the Anagris parasitic wasp.  UC Cooperative Extension advisors persuaded growers to not spray the first or second generations of leafhoppers and let the beneficial insects control the pests. Now grape growers rarely have to spray for leafhoppers. 

Over Norton's career, agriculture in Merced County has diversified. He began having strawberry meetings translated into Hmong or Lao for immigrant growers and studying pomegranates and figs.

Off the farm, Norton has been active in community development, organizing workshops for farmers on how to export their products, chairing the Merced County Economic Development Task Force twice and serving twice as president of the county's Chamber of Commerce.   

“My favorite part of the job has always been doing farm calls, where I went out and visited growers and diagnosed problems, explaining the nature of the problem, and most importantly, suggest things to try,” Norton said.

In retirement, Norton plans on playing his tenor and bari sax in jazz bands, training UC Master Gardeners and volunteering with the local historical society and other organizations.

He has also been granted emeritus status by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.


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By Pamela Kan-Rice
Author - Assistant Director, News and Information Outreach