Bernadine Strik, a horticulture professor at Oregon State University whose innovative cultivation strategies shook up the American blueberry industry, died on April 14 at a hospital in Corvallis, Ore. She was 60.
The cause was complications of ovarian cancer, said her husband, Neil Bell.
Modern farming is as much science as labor, and Dr. Strik, whose career at Oregon State began in 1987, brought a skeptical, scientific approach to blueberry cultivation.
But she had also grown up with her hands in the dirt — her parents owned a nursery and landscaping business — so she had a strong sense of the practical demands farmers face.
“She was able to connect with the growers,” Scott Lukas, who took on Oregon State’s endowed professorship for Northwest berry production after Dr. Strik retired in 2021, said in a phone interview. She could view research “from that down-to-earth perspective,” he added, “and be a human about it and not get lost in the science.”
Blueberries have been systematically cultivated in the United States since early in the 20th century. But demand has grown in recent decades as scientists have trumpeted the fruit’s health benefits and as packaged forms — frozen, puréed, freeze-dried, powdered — have made it more accessible.
The United States was the largest producer of blueberries until 2021, when it was surpassed by China, according to a report last month from the Agriculture Department’s Foreign Agricultural Service.
When Dr. Strik began examining Oregon’s blueberry industry, she found that growers placed plants four feet apart in rows because they thought that the size of mature bushes required that much room. She also observed that blueberry plants were grown standing free, without trellises, 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 those practices could improve harvests, according to a 2021 profile on the Oregon Blueberry Commission’s website.
Blueberry plants spaced about three feet apart, she discovered, produced 50 percent higher yields as they grew, without lowering yields once they matured. Using trellises prevented the loss of an average of 4 to 8 percent of a blueberry crop during machine harvesting. And using weed mats — material, often synthetic, covering the ground around plants — in addition to sawdust increased yields by up to 10 percent, even when weeds were effectively controlled by the sawdust.
“It was simply because of the change the weed mat did to the soil temperature,” she said.
Dr. Strik helped organic growers maximize their yields by planting on raised beds instead of flat ground, a technique that also benefited conventional farms. She persuaded many berry producers, in Oregon and beyond, to accept her research and adopt her measures.
The federal Agriculture Research Service, part of the Agriculture Department, said in a news release in 2022 that “the berry crop industries in Oregon and around the world have all benefited from Strik’s research.”
Because of that research, the agency said, “yields during development years have increased dramatically, and organic production has increased from less than 2 percent to more than 20 percent of Oregon acreage.”
Bernadine Cornelia Strik was born in The Hague on April 29, 1962, to Gerald and Christine (Alkemade) Strik.
In 1965, the Striks moved to Tantanoola, a small town in South Australia, where her father worked in forestry. But they tired of the heat, and in 1971 the family moved to Canada and opened a nursery and landscaping business in Qualicum Beach, on Vancouver Island.
After graduating from high school, Dr. Strik earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island in 1983. She completed her doctorate in horticulture at the University of Guelph in Ontario in 1987. Soon after that she took a job at Oregon State in Corvallis.
One of her students there was Mr. Bell, who came to Oregon State in 1990 to study for his master’s in horticulture. They married in 1994.
In addition to her husband, with whom she lived in Monmouth, Ore., she is survived by their daughters, Shannon and Nicole Bell.
In 2021, the year she retired, Dr. Strik was named a fellow of the International Society for Horticultural Science and won the Duke Galletta Award for Excellence in Horticultural Research from the North American Blueberry Council.
Her two dozen graduate students were an important part of her legacy, Mr. Lukas said. He noted that Dr. Strik had imparted not just academic rigor but also the ability to communicate practically and effectively — a skill he called “a science in itself.”