Crop scientist Raymond Sheldrake dies at 85

Raymond Sheldrake, professor emeritus of crop science and developer of widely used cultivation materials and techniques, died Oct. 21 in Sun City, Fla. He was 85.

Sheldrake, who developed (with colleague James Boodley) the now widely used soil-less horticultural mix known as Cornell peatlite, served on the faculty of Cornell's Department of Vegetable Crops (a predecessor to today's Department of Horticulture) from 1954 until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1979.

Sheldrake is also known as the father of the double poly (plastic) greenhouse and is recognized for his research on plastic mulch, drip irrigation, soluble plant nutrition, plant growth regulators and controlled environmental agriculture. He is also remembered for his engaging, down-to-earth and witty speaking style, which entertained and educated audiences from industry to academia.

Born in Prospect Park, N.J., in 1923, Sheldrake served with the Army Corps of Engineers in World War II after high school; he subsequently earned his bachelor's degree in horticulture and agricultural education from Rutgers University (1949) and his master's degree (1950) and Ph.D. (1952) in vegetable crops at Cornell.

His work on soil-less crop mixtures met with early skepticism, said son George Sheldrake; but the Cornell peatlite mix, made from a blend of peat moss and the mineral perlite with plant nutrients added, was ultimately adopted around the world and led to an 80 percent reduction in plant losses in production from disease, poor nutrient management and insect damage.

In 1959 Sheldrake and his wife, Elsie, opened Early Bird Farms, a still-thriving retail greenhouse and market in Ithaca. After retiring from Cornell, he also founded the Sheldrake Research Center and was the chief consultant for W.R. Grace and Co., a soil development and plant nutrition company.

Also known as "the flying professor" to friends and colleagues, Sheldrake learned to fly in his 40s, and he became an avid pilot and owner of several airplanes.

Sheldrake is survived by four children and seven grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife in 2002.

A memorial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 31, at Anabel Taylor Hall.

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