Just a few months ago, California Strawberry Commission President Rick Tomlinson was looking at the possibility of losing a valuable asset for strawberry farmers up and down the state – the public breeding program at UC Davis.
For more than half a century, the university’s strawberry breeding program has played a pivotal role in the strawberry industry, providing research and developing new varieties for farmers to grow. Instead of licensing plants from private companies, farmers are able to buy them from UC Davis, which has some of the lowest royalty rates around.
So when school officials raised the specter of shuttering or selling the program, Tomlinson said, the strawberry commission responded in October with a lawsuit, arguing that the college couldn’t in good conscience turn its back on growers who had bankrolled the research program for several decades.
“Farmers don’t want to sue. They just want to be in the field,” Tomlinson said. “Truly, this was a last resort.”
Last week, UC Davis publicly announced the program would continue, calling the commission’s lawsuit baseless and filing papers to have it dismissed.
Commission officials said they learned in 2012 that the program’s two professors, Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson, discussed leaving the university to start a private breeding company. A state-chartered agency under the California Department of Food and Agriculture based in Watsonville, the commission feared the professors’ departure would spell the end of the public program, according to the lawsuit filed in Alameda Superior Court.
The commission, which generates funding from grower fees, alleged that the university was poised to license the breeds to the new private venture.
“The university ... seeks to take the fruits – both literally and figuratively – of decades-long research that the commission funded for the benefit of the California strawberry industry and hand them over to private financial interests,” attorneys for the commission wrote in the lawsuit.
Strawberry commission spokeswoman Carolyn O’Donnell said the group first learned about the university’s intentions to halt the program in late 2012, when UC Davis stopped taking research money from the commission.
University officials, though, deny the program was ever in jeopardy.
“The breeders made a decision to cancel the research agreement, but that’s separate from UC Davis maintaining the program,” said Mary Delany, associate dean for the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, which oversees the program. “We have affirmed by word and by deed because we have a search underway for a geneticist-breeder.”
The strawberry breeding program dates back to the 1940s, when UC Davis existed as the University Farm School, an offshoot of UC Berkeley. Over the years, the types of new strawberry varieties increased dramatically. Today, the strawberry germplasm collection boasts nearly 1,500 unique plants in terms of their genetic characteristics, from strains that are climate-specific to plants that bloom only at the end of a season.
“You observe these plants that have certain characteristics, and you make a cross under different management schemes,” Delany said. “It takes years before a variety is actually patented. To have something patentable, it has to be different, it has to be unique.”
Shaw has worked for UC Davis since 1986 and Larson since 1991. Shaw was unavailable to talk for this article. Larson did not respond to requests for comment. Delany said that neither has filed paperwork to retire or resign.
She emphasized that the college was “dedicated” to the breeding program, noting that it “fits with our academic mission.”
In December, UC Davis made two copies of the germplasm in its possession, in a bid to secure the plants for future generations. A germplasm is the collection of genotypes of an organism, which Delany said is comparable to a library collection of books. The strawberry plants are being held in a separate greenhouse at the Davis campus not used by the breeders.
The strawberry commission has raised concerns that the two breeders may take possession of the plants when they leave. The university has countered that those claims are unfounded.
“That material is owned by the University of California,” Delany said. “Bottom line is people cannot take material that doesn’t belong to them without an agreement.”
In the lawsuit, the strawberry commission alleges that Shaw and Larson are seeking to “negotiate a private license to the germplasm with the goal of enriching themselves at the expense of those who paid for this initial and ongoing investment.”
UC Davis Chief Counsel Jacob Appelsmith reiterated that the university, as the owner, has every right to administer the program as it sees fit. “The commission has given us research funding, but they don’t have an ownership right to control the program,” he said.
The dispute has caught the attention of lawmakers representing the state’s agriculture-rich areas. A March 6 letter signed by 32 legislators was sent to UC Davis, asking the school to disclose its plans for the program.
“If your two main researchers are leaving, there needs to be a succession plan,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, one of the signatories. “Why would they not have greater safeguards for protecting intellectual property and making sure the program will continue as it has for decades?”
California’s strawberry farmers are the nation’s pre-eminent producers of the red berry that is popular in fruit cups, on top of cakes and in jam. Last year, the state produced more than 190 million trays of strawberries valued at $2.4 billion, with an average weight of 9 pounds per flat, according to the strawberry commission. The state has more than 400 farmers, who tend to 40,000 acres mostly along the coast in Monterey and Ventura counties.
Both UC Davis and the strawberry commission remain engaged in confidential settlement talks. Tomlinson said the commission was “excited” to learn of UC Davis’ intention to keep the public program, calling the move “very promising toward finding a settlement.”
But, he said, “we will need more than a press release to settle a lawsuit.”
Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.