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The quest to breed better strawberries landed UC Davis in court. Here’s what happened

Mary Delany, associate dean at the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, examines strawberry plants with greenhouse manager Garry Pearson. UC Davis just settled a bitter lawsuit with two former strawberry plant breeders.
Mary Delany, associate dean at the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, examines strawberry plants with greenhouse manager Garry Pearson. UC Davis just settled a bitter lawsuit with two former strawberry plant breeders. The Sacramento Bee

Fear not, strawberry lovers. A nasty lawsuit over the strawberry breeding program at UC Davis – the wellspring of about half of California’s strawberry crop – is history.

The university on Friday settled a lawsuit against two berry breeders who quit UC Davis, formed their own company and began developing new strawberry varieties without the school’s permission. The scientists can continue using some of the strawberry plants they developed at UC Davis, but have to return others. They also will forfeit $2.5 million in royalty payments they stand to collect from the university for work they did at Davis.

The lengthy dispute has been closely watched in the food industry. California’s $1.9 billion-a-year strawberry crop accounts for more than 80 percent of the nation’s supply. About half of the berries grown in California are grown with seeds developed in UC Davis’ greenhouses.

Over a two-decade run, UC Davis plant breeders Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson bred new generations of plumper and sweeter strawberries that boosted sales and helped cement California’s leadership in the business. While many of the largest strawberry growers breed their own varieties, including Driscoll Strawberry Associates of Watsonville, the UC varieties have been licensed by major brands like Dole and California Giant, as well as many independent farmers.

The strawberry breeds have generated tens of millions of dollars for the University of California, and Shaw and Larson have earned millions themselves through a royalty-sharing arrangement.

The relationship soured, though, and Shaw and Larson quit UC Davis in 2014. They formed a company called California Berry Cultivars in Orange County. The divorce quickly turned messy. UC sued the two men and their new company, saying they had violated their “duties of loyalty” by attempting to breed new varieties using plants that were the property of UC Davis. California Berry sued back, accusing the university of stifling innovation by refusing to grant Shaw and Larson a license to use the plants.

“If you want more and better strawberries on your table … you should care about whether the university should be able to keep these varieties in a lockbox,” the breeders’ lawyer Greg Lanier said in an interview earlier this year. “Strawberry farmers need new varieties to battle changing weather – it’s rain, it’s drought, it’s changes in what pesticides you can use.”

UC won. In May, after five days of trial testimony in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, a jury found that California Berry had improperly used the UC plants. But the case wasn’t over. Damages hadn’t been sorted out, and after the jury rendered its verdict the judge said he believed UC Davis was as guilty of “bad conduct” as the two scientists. Settlement negotiations ensued, leading to the agreement filed in court Friday.

University officials declined to comment on the settlement. California Berry’s chief executive, A.G. Kawamura, a former secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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