The Industry Remembers Ray Sheldrake

The Industry Remembers Ray Sheldrake

Ray Sheldrake, a pioneer with poly greenhouses and the Cornell peatlite soilless mix when he was an Extension horticulturist at Cornell University, died Oct. 21 at his retirement home in Sun City, Fla. Sheldrake was a popular speaker, and his word was gospel to thousands of growers as they shifted to bedding plants grown in double poly greenhouses in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

A memorial service will be held this Friday, Oct. 31 at 2:30 p.m. at Annabel Taylor Hall at Cornell University. It will be led by Rev. James K. “J.K.” Boodley, son of Professor James W. Boodley, who collaborated with Sheldrake in developing the Cornell peatlite soilless mix.

Merle Jensen, Professor Emeritus in the Plant Sciences Department at the University of Arizona, also remembers industry icon Ray Sheldrake fondly. Read his tribute to his friend and colleague following Sheldrake’s death October 21.

Sheldrake and his colleague, Boodley, were the first to develop a uniform soil mix. Their formula was a peat moss and perlite mix with the nutrients needed to grow the crop. It took a few years for growers to learn how to use the mix, but in less than a decade, most growers adopted the peatlite mix. Plant losses in production due to diseases, poor nutrient management and even insects decreased by 80 percent.

Sheldrake was one of a rare breed of horticulturists who could not only instruct and teach, but had a curiosity and inquiring mind that developed answers to perplexing problems. His specialty was applied research, and he was adept at finding innovative solutions that cut back on costs and, at the same time, grew a better plant.

He was also an entrepreneur. With his wife, Elsie, he founded Early Bird Farm in 1959 on the Elmira Rd. in Ithaca, N.Y. It is a retail greenhouse and roadstand market which his son, George, is successfully carrying on. When he took early retirement from Cornell in 1979, he founded and became director of the Sheldrake Research Center, and he was the chief consultant for W.R. Grace & Co., for soil development and plant nutrition. 

Sheldrake was a competitive person, and out of that competitive nature grew two of the landmark developments which helped thousands of growers make a success out of bedding plant production. One was his work with double layer poly greenhouses. Writing in “History of U. S. Floriculture,” Sheldrake told how he worked with Aart Van Wingarden and got him to shift to double poly from frames and hot beds.

The double poly house put many growers into the bedding plant business, who otherwise could not afford more expensive glass houses. And it saved the tremendous amount of back-breaking labor involved in growing plants the old way. But it took some convincing because growers felt the new technology would not produce as good a plant. This is when Sheldrake took to the road, and honed his speaking and salesmanship skills. 

He will also be remembered for his work on plastic mulch for field vegetables, drip irrigation, soluble plant fertilizer, growing in bags and plant growth regulators (PGRs).

Sheldrake was not one to sit on his laurels. Energetic, competitive and sports minded, he loved his airplane and flew himself to meetings, where he developed wide acquaintance among growers in many states. Or, if you were in Ithaca, he would take you on his boat for a ride around Lake Cayuga past Sheldrake Point.

At bedding plant meetings, Ray and Will Carlson put on the “Ray and Will Show” to packed halls of growers as the two of them talked back and forth about the fine points in growing plants. They didn’t hesitate to “one up” the other to the delight of the audience. It was great theater and great education for the audience. After meetings, Ray would haul his golf clubs out of his airplane and challenge all comers for a wager.

“Ray made a monumental contribution to the horticultural industry of today,” says Merle Jensen, who once was a teaching assistant to Sheldrake. “He was a legend and he was the launch pad for my very exciting career.”

For many years, Sheldrake was associate editor of American Vegetable Grower magazine, and his articles on bedding plants were closely read. He would fly into Willoughby, Ohio for editorial meetings, followed by golf at the Kirtland Country Club. One year, he flew editors Dick Meister and Edna Gould to the Ball Field Day at West Chicago in his Piper Cherokee.

Sheldrake was born in New Jersey in 1923, and graduated with a degree in horticulture and ag education from Rutgers in 1949, after serving three years with the engineers in Europe in World War ll. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1952 with his major field of study in vegetable crops.

After several years as vegetable specialist in Extension at the University of Georgia, Sheldrake returned to Cornell as assistant professor. In 1969, he became a full professor in the Department of Vegetable Crops. He is survived by sons Gregory R. and George A. both of Ithaca, and daughters Barbara Bendzunas of Comer, Ga., and Connie O’Connell of Mooresville, N.C.

Ray Sheldrake helped thousands of growers who relied on him for advice and inspiration in their greenhouse businesses. His talent made possible for them to live the American dream made possible by a profitable business of their own that brought beauty and a green environment to homes and communities.

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10 comments on “The Industry Remembers Ray Sheldrake

  1. Dr. Sheldrake was as much a pioneer in Horticulture as any settler to the West ever was. His intelligence was obvious and his subjects were serious, but the gleam in his eye made sure that he did not take himself seriously. As a young whipper-snapper after listening to his patented lecture on “bucket chemistry”, I said to myself, “That is who I want to be like when I grow up.” The “bucket chemist” will be sorely missed.

  2. I worked with Dr. Ray during his consulting years at Grace-Sierra and he did quite a bit of work with controlled release fertilizers and low P nutrition as well. Ray taught me quite a bit about the practical aspects of fertilizers and greenhouse production for which I am very grateful.

  3. Dr.Ray was a true friend to the horticulture industry and a great friend of the Peters family. My Dad and Ray as part of the W.R. Grace Horticultural team were the Bob and Ray show at grower meetings all over the country. As part of his work with soilless mixes he was a great proponent of controlled phosphorus starvation. Ray showed everyone just how little phosphorus it takes to grow a great looking plant. It is one of the basics of modern fertilizer technology today enabling us to manufacture products with great performance at reduced costs because of less reliance on phosphorus raw materials which are the costliest components in fertilizers.
    The word “maverick” which is tossed around alot these days truly applies to Rays approach in his research and teachings. Working with Ray was truly a pleasure and an adventure. We will all miss him but never forget all he taught us.

  4. I was a young graduate student in the Veg Crops Dept at Cornell in 1959 when I first met Ray. We found we had common roots, born in New Jersey, Rutgers graduates and raised within a few miles of each other on small vegetabe operations. Charlie Hess who became Dean at California and at Rutgers grew up in the same area of New Jersey. Ray and I became close friends over the years and spent many hours on various golf courses here in Florida. I learned a lot from Ray, tending to Early Bird farm on some cold nights when we had late spring frosts in Ithaca and learning that applied science had great value to many, many people. Rays students went on to distinguish themselves in many areas and places around the world. His kindnesses toward me and our family will always be remembered. In many ways I owe the final chapter of my PhD. to Ray who pushed me to finish it and get my degree. You will be missed my friend-fly in clear weather.

  5. Dr. Sheldrake was as much a pioneer in Horticulture as any settler to the West ever was. His intelligence was obvious and his subjects were serious, but the gleam in his eye made sure that he did not take himself seriously. As a young whipper-snapper after listening to his patented lecture on “bucket chemistry”, I said to myself, “That is who I want to be like when I grow up.” The “bucket chemist” will be sorely missed.

  6. I worked with Dr. Ray during his consulting years at Grace-Sierra and he did quite a bit of work with controlled release fertilizers and low P nutrition as well. Ray taught me quite a bit about the practical aspects of fertilizers and greenhouse production for which I am very grateful.

  7. Dr.Ray was a true friend to the horticulture industry and a great friend of the Peters family. My Dad and Ray as part of the W.R. Grace Horticultural team were the Bob and Ray show at grower meetings all over the country. As part of his work with soilless mixes he was a great proponent of controlled phosphorus starvation. Ray showed everyone just how little phosphorus it takes to grow a great looking plant. It is one of the basics of modern fertilizer technology today enabling us to manufacture products with great performance at reduced costs because of less reliance on phosphorus raw materials which are the costliest components in fertilizers.
    The word “maverick” which is tossed around alot these days truly applies to Rays approach in his research and teachings. Working with Ray was truly a pleasure and an adventure. We will all miss him but never forget all he taught us.

  8. I was a young graduate student in the Veg Crops Dept at Cornell in 1959 when I first met Ray. We found we had common roots, born in New Jersey, Rutgers graduates and raised within a few miles of each other on small vegetabe operations. Charlie Hess who became Dean at California and at Rutgers grew up in the same area of New Jersey. Ray and I became close friends over the years and spent many hours on various golf courses here in Florida. I learned a lot from Ray, tending to Early Bird farm on some cold nights when we had late spring frosts in Ithaca and learning that applied science had great value to many, many people. Rays students went on to distinguish themselves in many areas and places around the world. His kindnesses toward me and our family will always be remembered. In many ways I owe the final chapter of my PhD. to Ray who pushed me to finish it and get my degree. You will be missed my friend-fly in clear weather.

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