Wilmot Irish, farm mechanization supporter, dies at 94

Wilmot “Bill” Irish, an agricultural engineer and professor emeritus, who specialized in farm structures and mechanization in the dairy and poultry industries, died Nov. 22, 2022, in Shelburne, Vermont. He was 94.

Irish was initially hired at Cornell in 1960 on an extension appointment in what is now the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering (BEE). The bulk of his work involved visiting farms and helping farmers fix and update agricultural buildings to improve temperature control and reduce disease pressure among livestock. In 1981, he was promoted to a full professor, and while he continued working with farmers, he also oversaw projects aimed at increasing regional cooperation among agricultural researchers in the Northeast and at helping farmers transition to more mechanized operations.

Wilmot Irish

“He was known for his kindness, positive spirit and helpfulness to all who met him,” said Ronald Furry, professor emeritus of BEE and a former colleague of Irish’s.

Irish was born July 15, 1928, in Burlington, Vermont, and raised on a subsistence farm during the Great Depression. His chores included milking the family’s six dairy cows each afternoon and helping to raise crops in the family’s very rocky soils, he said in a 2013 interview. Over his lifetime, Irish said he watched small farms like his family’s mostly disappear and large “mega-dairies with 1,000 to 2,000 cows” develop, aided by mechanization. His experience with small farms and expertise in new farm technologies helped him serve as an “interpreter” among farmers, scientists, architects, food processors and others, he said. For example, when the dairy industry began to phase out bulk tanks in favor of more modern milk storage, Irish worked with food scientists, milk inspectors and farmers to ease the transition while ensuring food safety.

Irish was an active member of what is now known as the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers from 1950 to 2000. In 1981, he was awarded a Fulbright grant to develop an agricultural engineering program at the University of Gezira in Sudan. Locally, Irish served with the Rotary International Ithaca chapter from 1968-98.

Irish graduated from the University of Vermont in 1950, and then served in the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant in the Korean War, during which he was awarded the Bronze Star. He completed a master’s degree at the University of Illinois and worked for Cornell from 1960 until his retirement in 1993.

Irish was preceded in death by his wife of 50 years, Barbara, Ph.D. ’93, son Wendell and grandson Zeke Kassel. He is survived by his son Paul ’75, daughter Carol, their spouses, several grandchildren, one great grandson, nieces and nephews.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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