UC farm advisor retires

A native of Montevideo, Uruguay, Mario Moratorio brought a unique international perspective to a wide-ranging 25-year agricultural research and teaching career with the University of California. He will retire June 29.

Moratorio grew up in an urban area of his native country, but the scope of course offerings at the Universidad de la República led him to pursue education in agricultural production. While in college, he met a scientist from the British Museum, who helped him obtain a fellowship with the British Council that led to a doctorate degree in entomology from the University of London, England.

After graduation, Moratorio returned to Uruguay for a short time, then moved to Venezuela to teach ecology and entomology at the Universidad Experimental de los Llanos Occidentales in Guanare from 1978 to 1983. A London classmate, Thomas Bellows, by then an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, created a post-doctorate research position at the university for Moratorio in 1984.

“I had done my Ph.D. research on egg parasites of leafhoppers. At the time, scientists in California were trying to find a biological control program to control the sugar beet leafhopper,” Moratorio said. “I was able to step in and do the same kind of research I was already familiar with.”

Moratorio conducted leafhopper research at UC Riverside as a post-doc for two years and staff research associate for five years.

Remembering the best six years of his career, the time he spent teaching in Venezuela after finishing his Ph.D., Moratorio sought a position in UC Cooperative Extension that would enable him to combine his research skills with teaching. In 1992, he was selected as county director and farm advisor in El Dorado County.

“To me, it was a dream job,” Moratorio said. “I focused on helping growers succeed. Having been raised and educated in Uruguay, my experiences there coincided with issues faced by limited resource growers in El Dorado, particularly in the area of agricultural sustainability.”

Moratorio worked with a variety of agencies, including the El Dorado Farm Trails Association, to help make the county a tourist destination and increase growers’ direct sales. He collaborated with the agricultural commissioner’s office to organize an annual fall harvest fair to showcase the area’s agriculture and attract visitors.

Moratorio also coordinated the El Dorado County’s Master Gardener program and worked on production horticulture issues, such as phylloxera, oak root fungus and measles in local vineyards.

In October 1998, Moratorio was named the acting integrated pest management advisor for Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. In this temporary position, Moratorio delivered three-hour training sessions on vineyard pests and natural enemies to vineyard workers in Hopland, Kelseyville and Philo. In 1999, Moratorio took the role of small farms/urban horticulture advisor for Yolo and Solano counties.

A critical issue in Yolo and Solano counties at the time was pesticide runoff from homes and gardens, which the Environmental Protection Agency found posed a more significant public health threat than pesticide applications made in agricultural operations. Moratorio trained Master Gardeners to show homeowners least-toxic pest management alternatives.

Moratorio developed the concept and secured funds to create the “California Backyard Orchard,” a Web site hosted by the Fruit and Nut Research and Information Center at UC Davis. The Web site includes gardening calendars, general orchard preparation and maintenance tips, and information on specific fruit species.

He used his Spanish-language skills for outreach work with the parents of students involved in an elementary school garden-based learning program, which introduced young people to food production and encouraged healthful eating.

In retirement, Moratorio said he will use his time to continue to help others. He raised his two sons in California; both are UC graduates. If it weren’t for them, he said, “I would return to the old country and use what I’ve learned to help farmers over there. But with the children here, I’m going to do that part time, spending four or five months a year in Uruguay.”

Already, Moratorio has plans to visit his alma mater in July to present a seminar on the UC agricultural Extension system.

“The dean of the college is a close friend of mine,” Moratorio said. “He has been trying to develop an extension system like ours in Uruguay and would like to have another voice carrying his message.”

Moratorio’s home base will remain the Solano County community of Cordelia Village, where he also plans to support local farmers during his retirement by connecting them with low-income residents in order to enhance their access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

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