Oct 6, 2021
Industry innovator Strik retires after 34 years as Extension berry specialist

After a three-decade career with the Oregon State University Extension Service, Bernadine Strik retired with the highest honor bestowed by the International Society of Horticultural Science for her innovative and industry-changing program on berries.

The ISHS fellowship – bestowed on scientists who have made a significant impact on horticulture worldwide – was well-deserved. Strik’s innovative research and Extension outreach had an impact in the Oregon berry industry, valued at $123 million a year, throughout the United States and in other berry regions worldwide. A similar honor came in 2007 when she received the American Society for Horticultural Science Fellow.

OSU established a berry crops endowment 10 years ago. Today, with industry support, the endowment is almost $1 million, ensuring the faculty position and berry research, outreach and teaching programs will continue.

“Bernadine is a true embodiment of what a land-grant university system delivers,” said Sam Angima, associate dean for Extension and engagement in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “She did research that is informed by issues affecting stakeholders and research outcomes that fundamentally uplift our farmers’ bottom line. She’s got big shoes to fill.”

Strik was featured in a recent Oregon Blueberry Commission newsletter, with growers weighing in on her accomplishments.

Bernadine Strik and husband Neil Bell, a retired OSU Extension horticulture specialist. Courtesy Bernadine Strik

“They talked about the difference I’ve made,” Strik said. “They trusted my research and I was able to convey complex information in a way they can understand. Their response really touched me.”

It’s no wonder. In Strik’s 34 years at OSU, blueberry acreage in Oregon jumped from 1,200 to 15,000 acres with large changes in production systems based on her research. Her landmark 14-year project on organic blueberry production – planting methods, fertilization, mulching, cultivar adaptation, weed control – helped drive an increase in Oregon organic acreage from 2% in 2006 to 20% in 2020 as growers adopted Strik’s research-based production methods to increase their profitability.

“The industry came to me to do organic research in 2006,” Strik said. “It was important to me that they asked because there were so few organic blueberry growers back then. Despite that, the Oregon Blueberry Commission invested in the research to help the industry.”

Strik’s work didn’t stop with blueberries. She developed research programs on planting density, trellising, pruning, fruit set, fruit quality and planting systems in strawberries, red and black raspberries, blackberries and cranberries. Strik’s research also supported the development of a kiwiberry industry – the smooth-skinned kiwifruit the size of a large grape that can be eaten out of hand.

Intercontinental upbringing

Born in Holland, Strik comes by her love of horticulture honestly. Her paternal grandfather was a vegetable and strawberry grower in west Holland and her maternal grandfather spent his career selling produce at his specialty stores. Her mother and father followed in their footsteps.

When Strik was 3 years old, her family moved to Australia for six years and then settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, when her father was approached to design a golf course and where her mother started a landscape maintenance business. Eventually, the two opened a large retail nursery.

Strik worked in the nursery and grew to love ornamentals. At nearby University of Victoria, where she earned an honors bachelor’s degree in botany, Strik did her undergraduate thesis on rhododendron propagation. But her career took her in another direction.

She wanted to study something she could eat.

When it came time to apply for a master’s program, Strik’s professor and mentor encouraged her to apply for one of only two provincial scholarships from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. She was awarded one and used it at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, where she started her studies on strawberry physiology. But life had other plans. Her advisor recommended that she transfer to a Ph.D. program. Skipping her master’s, Strik earned her doctorate with distinction in horticulture at the age of 25.

After completing her doctorate, Strik started looking for a job and felt like she owed the Canadian government to get one in her home country. Though she tried, there just weren’t any.

“In Canada, Extension is separate from the universities,” she said. “I wanted to teach and do research but also work with growers because that was my background. I wanted to help farmers be more profitable so they can pass their legacy on to their kids.”

She decided to come back to the West Coast and found her dream job – an opening with OSU Extension. The land-grant system at OSU fit her well and the Willamette Valley stood out because of the climate and diversity of crops. She got the job and started as an assistant professor in September 1987. She was promoted to professor in 1997.

OSU horticulture’s ‘Energizer bunny’

Strik’s appointment initially didn’t include teaching or research, but she considered them priorities for her work so she was allowed add them to her position.

From the time she started her career, Strik has never slowed down – she’s got so much energy that her supervisor Bill Braunworth, head of the Department of Horticulture, calls her the “Energizer bunny.”

“Many have appreciated the significant contributions Bernadine has made to the local berry industries in the Pacific Northwest where production practices and varieties bred by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service have been evaluated in her program and adopted by the industry.” Braunworth said. “With her contributions, Oregon is a leading producer of domestic blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. Her graduate students around the world continue her legacy of excellence. She has done a wonderful job in bringing her expertise and experience to degree-seeking students and expanded her educational outreach to the world. Her impacts have been international in scope.”

Strik met her husband, Neil Bell, in 1990 and they married in 1994.

“Berries brought us together,” said Bell, who retired June 30 from his 20-year career as the OSU Extension community horticulturist for Marion and Polk Counties.

Strik and Bell came close to leaving OSU in 2000 when the University of Massachusetts offered them both positions. It was a tough decision, she said, but when key berry industry people and the OSU Master Gardeners organized a dinner to express the value of their programs, Strik and Bell decided to stay.

“That’s all I ever wanted. To make the berry industries and growers more successful and profitable,” Strik said. “To know I made a difference is the best way to retire.”

She deserves it. And now she will have plenty of time to do some of the things she loves like hiking and traveling with Neal and their two daughters.

Photo at top: In Bernadine Strik’s 34 years at OSU, blueberry acreage in Oregon jumped from 1,200 to 15,000 acres with large changes in production systems based on her research. Photo: Oregon State University

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