After 33 years: Ron Vargas retires from UC Cooperative Extension

University of California Cooperative Extension agronomy farm advisor and director of the Madera County office, Ron Vargas, retires June 30, ending a distinguished 33-year career finding solutions to agricultural challenges and sharing them with San Joaquin Valley farmers.

Vargas grew up on a family farming operation near Livermore, a 640-acre dry land grain and cattle ranch that had been established by his grandfather, an immigrant from Portugal. Vargas, who began driving tractors and grain combines at 13 years old, never expected to leave.

“Farming was my No. 1 first love and always has been my entire life,” Vargas said.

It took urging from a vocational agriculture teacher and his mother’s insistence for Vargas to enroll in a two-year technical animal science program at California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. Life at Cal Poly opened Vargas’ eyes to a spectrum of agricultural opportunity he hadn’t before considered and diverted him into a career of agricultural education and research.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in crop science and a teaching credential, Vargas was assigned to the Madera High School Vocational Agriculture Department for student teaching “My wife and I had to get out a map to see where Madera was,” Vargas said.

His career took another turn in 1973, after earning an agriculture science master’s degree at Cal Poly. He was offered a position with UC Cooperative Extension as a 4-H advisor three-quarters of his time with the remaining percentage devoted to weed control. It was in weed control Vargas made his mark. Though his job changed dramatically over 33 years – with Vargas taking on the role of cotton specialist for almost four years and being named the county director in 1993 – he said his focus was always on weeds.

Among his many accomplishments was an effort to develop control strategies for summer grasses in alfalfa. He also conducted five years of research to help justify registration of a new over-the-top broad leaf herbicide for cotton.

“I always looked for integrated approaches to weed control,” Vargas said. “A big focus of my work was on herbicides, because that’s a weed control approach that is often most economically feasible. But I’ve always stressed the fact that it’s best to combine chemical control with mechanical control.”

Vargas has also studied recent developments in integrating herbicide-tolerant crops for weed control.

“I would say the biggest weed control issue now facing growers and pest control advisers is weed resistance,” Vargas said. “I’ve always cautioned growers against using the same herbicide year after year, crop after crop. We’re now seeing some weeds become resistant to certain herbicides. For the past five years, I’ve been stressing resistance management.”

Vargas has received many honors for his service to the agricultural industry. This year he was inducted into the inaugural Farm Press magazine Researchers Hall of Fame. In late 1996, he received the National Cotton Council’s Cotton Extension Education Award. In 2001, he was awarded a lifetime honorary membership to the California Weed Science Society. Also in 2001, he was named the Agriculturist of the Year by the Cal Poly crop science department.

“It’s been an honor, and very humbling, to have received these awards. However, it has really been my privilege to serve California agriculture and to have had this rewarding and fulfilling career,” Vargas said.

The regional director of UCCE in the Central Valley, Linda Marie Manton, praised Vargas’ ability to work with all types of people and resolve problems.

“I’ve often found myself calling on Ron for advice and input on management issues,” Manton said. “His common sense and thoughtfulness were always helpful. Ron will be greatly missed by his clientele, his peers and UC, but especially by me. He’s been an excellent colleague, researcher, educator and representative for the University and the County of Madera.”

In retirement, Vargas said he will stay at his 20-acre Madera County ranch and work on a long list of improvement projects. He said he and his wife will pursue their interests in golf, snow skiing, horseback riding and traveling in the United States.

Neil McDougald, the Madera County range and livestock farm advisor, will take on the role of county director.

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