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AURI’s first oils scientist retires

Marshall, Minn. — AURI’s “oilman” retires July 1.

Max Norris joined AURI in 1990, soon after it was founded. He organized the Institute’s laboratories and led fats and oils research and technical services for nearly two decades. Norris headed up AURI’s early biodiesel initiatives, the first such efforts in the state. And he guided successful oilseed product development, including NuSun cooking oil, SoySoft lotion, and Preference and Destiny crop-protection adjuvants.

Former Durkee Foods director of research and development, Norris helped establish AURI as a respected research institution, says Teresa Spaeth, AURI executive director. “Max brought professionalism and solid science to AURI …. he has been a mentor to everyone in the organization.”

Two-part career

Norris, 68, says he had a two-part career. “I spent the first half of my career at Durkee Foods and the second half at AURI.”

He grew up in Beaumont, Texas, the youngest of three brothers and son of a house painter. His interest in agriculture started in high school, and a Future Farmers of America teacher pointed him to a career in the industry. “I guess I have a little bit of dirt in my blood,” he says. Norris earned a B.S. in agriculture from Sam Houston State College in Huntsville, Texas. That’s where he met his wife of 48 years, Virginia Norris, a South Dakota State University psychology professor who retired in June. “We met the first day of college,” Max recalls. “My roommates and I went dancing with some girls from the sorority across campus. We paired up by height — I was the tallest boy, and she was the tallest girl.”

Norris went on to graduate studies in organic chemistry at the University of Missouri. His research focused on egg products. In 1965, he joined Durkee Foods’ bakery products division as a fats and oils chemist. The Cleveland-based company made vegetable oils, spices, snack foods, condiments, frozen bakery doughs, confectionery items and many soybean oil-based products for the food-processing industry.

Norris spent 25 years with the company, rising to director of research for Durkee’s consumer products, food service and industrial products divisions. “When a customer had a need, we developed the product they needed.” Norris left Durkee Foods in 1989, after it was acquired by British conglomerate Unilever. He spent a year as a food industry consultant but found the work unsatisfying. “I never got to see how the project turned out,” he says. But more important, “I’m a people person, and consulting is a lonely life.”

In 1990, AURI’s first executive director, Virgil Smail, recruited Norris to the newly-formed nonprofit. AURI was quite a change from Durkee Foods, where Norris had managed 250 employees and a $15 million annual research budget. At the time, AURI had just a handful of staff and no lab facilities. But AURI offered the chance to build an organization dedicated to value-added agriculture, working with farmers and rural entrepreneurs on innovative ideas. “That’s what intrigued me,” he says. “It was exciting as all get out!”

Early biodiesel initiatives

Taking a walk with Norris into AURI’s fats and oils laboratory at Southwest Minnesota University in Marshall, several bench-top trials are visible on spotless, stainless-steel lab tables. One involves a vegetable-oil foam spray for protecting outdoor grain piles. Norris has worked on dozens of new oil crop uses — many are petroleum substitutes. “We want to grow the total market pie,” he says.

Biodiesel is one of the most important new soybean oil uses, Spaeth says. “Max did a significant amount of work on biodiesel back in the day when people thought it was a pie in- the-sky dream.” In 1992, Norris began working on biodiesel fuel specifications for underground mining equipment. Over the next 15 years, his team helped three groups of Minnesota farmers build biodiesel productionplants.

Today, the state has more than 65 million gallons of biodiesel manufacturing capacity, and all diesel fuel sold in Minnesota is a 2-percent biodiesel blend. “Max was the strongest advocate for bringing biodiesel on line and getting it to the marketplace,” says Edgar Olson of Crookston, retired AURIexecutive director.

Norris also headed up AURI’s Center for Producer-Owned Energy, which helps Minnesota growers start renewable-energy ventures. The Center’s innovative work on wind-biodiesel electrical cogeneration is now being tested on Minnesota’s Buffalo Ridge, Norris says. When the wind stops or drops, the biodiesel generator takes over, producing continuous renewable electricity.

Soybean growers’ ‘own expert’

Norris is especially proud of AURI’s close relationships with Minnesota’s grower groups. Soon after joining AURI, Norris convened an oils task force to get some ideas rolling, recalls Mike Youngerberg, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association field services director. “Soybean oil prices were really, really low back then,” Youngerberg says, and state growers were keenly interested in developing new markets.

“We felt a serious need for an organization like AURI,” says Youngerberg, who has been with the Soybean Growers since 1986. “AURI helped extend the dollars we had to invest in new uses,” he says. But more important was “AURI’s technical support, identifying projects, reviewing projects, providing technical expertise — all the things we couldn’t do ourselves. … My farmers look at Max as their own expert.”

Collaboration with AURI resulted in successes like crop adjuvants made from methylated soybean oil, Youngerberg says. Technical support has been as important as financial, he adds. A few years ago, for example, “Max helped us through some tough times when out-of-spec biodiesel fuel hit themarketplace.”

Norris, who lives in Lynd Township near Marshall, will continue to do some consulting. He and Virginia, who have two daughters and five grandchildren, are looking forward to more travel and family time. First up: a trip to Colorado with the grandkids.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working at AURI,” Norris says. “I’ve had a ball!”