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.