Agronomist Madison Wright dies at 95

Madison J. Wright, professor emeritus of agronomy whose efforts helped establish soybean production in New York, died April 27 in Ithaca. He was 95.

Wright joined the Cornell faculty in 1959 at a time when agronomy included both field crop production and soil science. In his early career he focused on groups of plants used as hay in pasture before expanding to study a variety of crops.

“The world outside wasn’t staying the same: It was changing, and we had to change along with it,” Wright said in a 2013 interview.

His research and extension work on oilseed crops led to the reintroduction of soybeans in New York agriculture. There had been some soybean production in New York up to WWI but very little in the middle decades of the 20th century. In the 1980s, Wright helped bring soybean production back to the state as he worked with farmers to overcome a number of challenges, including access to seed, marketing, processing and proper machinery for the crop.

By 1990, New York farmers produced soybeans on about 40,000 acres. In 2018, the state’s production reached 330,000 acres, with a crop valued at $141 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As a teacher, Wright emphasized off-campus learning experiences. He and colleagues pioneered courses that examined agriculture in different U.S. regions and abroad.

“The thing to do is to go to farms and listen to what the farmers have to say about what they are doing,” Wright said in 2013.

Wright and other faculty members would take about 30 students on trips lasting two-and-a-half weeks. The first courses focused on the Northeast but would later fan out to include the Midwest, Southeast and Pacific Coast.

With a rise in interest in international agriculture, Wright began teaching tropical crop production at Cornell. He took part in some of the early International Agriculture and Rural Development (IARD) course trips, with a focus on tropical agriculture in mainly Central American countries. The first international course offered at Cornell when it launched in 1968, IARD6020 has since expanded to visit countries all over the world.

Wright was born April 9, 1924, in Washington, D.C. He moved frequently as a child in a naval family, and attended schools in four states and the District of Columbia.

His undergraduate career at the University of North Carolina was interrupted when he served two years as an electronics engineer in the naval reserves during World War II. After his discharge he worked summers on a farm and developed an interest in agriculture even as he finished his degree in chemistry in 1947. He pursued agronomy and botany studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he received master’s and doctorate degrees in 1950 and 1952, respectively.

In 1959, he came to Cornell as an associate professor. He was promoted to professor in 1968, and served as department chair from 1970-75. He retired in 1989.

He served as Tompkins County representative on the Central New York Resource Conservation and Development project, and in Cayuga Heights as a representative on the Environmental Management Council.

He is survived by his wife, Mary, four children and five grandchildren.

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Lindsey Knewstub