Bernadine Strik, whose insights helped blueberries thrive, dies aged 60

Bernadine Strik, whose insights helped blueberries thrive, dies aged 60

Bernadine Strik, a professor of horticulture at Oregon State University whose innovative cultivation strategies shook the American blueberry industry, died April 14 at a hospital in Corvallis, Oregon. She was 60 years old.

The cause was complications from ovarian cancer, said her husband, Neil Bell.

Modern agriculture is as much science as it is work, and Dr. Strik, whose career at Oregon State began in 1987, brought a skeptical, scientific approach to blueberry growing.

But she also grew up with her hands in the land — her parents owned a day care center and a landscaping business — so she had a strong sense of the practical demands facing farmers.

“She was able to connect with growers,” said Scott Lukas, who took over the Oregon State Chair for Northwest Fruit Production after Dr. Strik retired in 2021, in a telephone interview. She could view the research “from this realistic perspective,” he added, “and be human about it and not get lost in the science.”

Blueberries have been systematically cultivated in the United States since the beginning of the 20th century. But demand has grown in recent decades as scientists touted the fruit’s health benefits and packaged forms — frozen, pureed, freeze-dried, powdered — made it more accessible.

The United States was the top producer of blueberries until 2021, when it was surpassed by China, according to a report last month by the Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

When Dr. Strik began looking into the Oregon blueberry industry, she found that growers placed the plants three feet apart in rows because they felt the size of mature bushes required too much space. She also noted that blueberry plants were grown free range without trellis and that sawdust was commonly used as mulch because it was cheap and effective at killing weeds.

In a series of studies that took years to complete, Dr. Strik found that changing these practices could improve yields, according to a 2021 profile on the Oregon Blueberry Commission website.

Blueberry plants spaced about three feet apart, she found, produced 50% higher yields as they grew, without decreasing yields as they matured. The use of trellises prevented the loss of an average of 4 to 8 percent of a blueberry crop during mechanized harvesting. And the use of weed mats – material, often synthetic, covering the soil around the plants – in addition to sawdust, increased yields by up to 10%, even when weeds were effectively controlled by sawdust.

“It was simply because of the change the weed mat made to the soil temperature,” she said.

The Doctor. Strik has helped organic farmers maximize their yields by planting in raised beds rather than flat land, a technique that has also benefited conventional farms. She convinced many berry growers, in Oregon and beyond, to accept her research and adopt her measurements.

The Federal Agricultural Research Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, said in a 2022 press release that “berry picking industries in Oregon and around the world have benefited from Strik’s research.”

Because of that research, the agency said, “yields during the development years increased dramatically and organic production increased from less than 2% to more than 20% of Oregon’s acreage.”

Bernadine Cornelia Strik was born in The Hague on 29 April 1962 to Gerald and Christine (Alkemade) Strik.

In 1965, the Striks moved to Tantanoola, a small town in South Australia, where his father worked in forestry. But they got tired of the heat, and in 1971 the family moved to Canada and opened a day care center and landscaping business on Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island.

After graduating from high school, Dr. Strik earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Victoria, Vancouver Island, in 1983. She received her doctorate in horticulture at the University of Guelph, Ontario, in 1987. Shortly thereafter, she took a job at Oregon State in Corvallis.

One of his students was Mr. Bell, who came to Oregon in 1990 to pursue a master’s degree in horticulture. They got married in 1994.

In addition to her husband, with whom she lived in Monmouth, Oregon, she is survived by daughters Shannon and Nicole Bell.

In 2021, the year she retired, Dr. Strik was named a Fellow of the International Society of Horticultural Sciences and won the Duke Galletta Award for Excellence in Horticultural Research from the North American Blueberry Council.

His two dozen graduate students were an important part of his legacy, Lukas said. He noted that Dr. Strik imparted not only academic rigor but also the ability to communicate practically and effectively – a skill he called “a science unto itself”.


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