George Norton was recently named a Fellow of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. The award represents the highest honor from the discipline’s primary association.

Advisor to more than 80 graduate students, author of several books, teacher of more than 2,500 students, and now AAEA Fellow, Norton has built his career helping others by addressing agricultural development problems around the world.

“You have to thank a lot of people because you don’t win this award without teamwork,” said Norton, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Most problems – or at least the most important ones – are multidisciplinary in nature and require team effort. I focus on practical issues and try to stay in touch with what’s most important in people’s lives, particularly farmers in developing countries.”

Norton’s interest in improving the lives of pastoral communities around the world grew out of his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, where he spent two years after graduating from Cornell with a bachelor of science degree in agricultural economics. That experience solidified his interest in international development, leading him to pursue a doctorate from the University of Minnesota. And four decades later, it continues to influence his academic and research program.

Norton’s experience helping small farms solve their pest problems in Colombia, his background growing up on a farm, and his graduate work on tribal farm planning each influenced the direction and success of his work in agricultural development, research evaluation, and integrated pest management – the three pillars of his research and outreach program.

Over the course of Norton’s almost 40 years at Virginia Tech, he has worked with a wide array of scientists, international agencies, and governments to reduce pests, assess impacts of agricultural research, and improve the lives of farmers. 

“I focus more on people and problems than on methods,” Norton said. “I see problems that affect farmers and try to prioritize those that affect a large group. I try to be proactive in figuring out what those problems are going to be.”

Recently, Norton and a team of researchers from Virginia Tech’s IPM Innovation Lab helped tomato farmers in Nepal combat an invasive and destructive pest by anticipating the pests’ arrival and devising tactics to aid farmers in fighting off the pest. The Tuta absoluta pest had traveled from Spain to Africa and was making its way into Asia, but the team was able to project its path, develop solutions while minimizing pesticide use, and partner with the Nepalese government to distribute information and resources to farmers.

Norton is considered a leading economic expert within the IPM community, which is mainly composed of entomologists and plant pathologists, and has received wide recognition for his contributions, including a lifetime achievement award that he received at the International IPM Symposium in 2015. He has received additional awards for his research and advising, including Virginia Tech’s Alumni Award for Excellence in Graduate Academic Advising.

Many of Norton’s colleagues contributed to his AAEA Fellow’s nomination, citing his academic achievements along with his praiseworthy persona.

“George Norton is a good man with a kind heart, a real human being,” said colleague, Julian Alston, who co-authored a book with Norton. “He does his economics with a serious purpose – to help others, especially the world’s poor who are in most need of help. He approaches his teaching and other work with the same generosity of spirit and purpose.”

Norton credits his wife of 47 years, Marjorie, who is also a Fellow of her professional association, with his success. She was the driving force behind their decision to enter the Peace Corps and to pursue academia – a decision he could not be more pleased about.

Written by Jillian Broadwell