Those tangy, sweet, red berries that yielded $210.58 million for San Luis Obispo County in 2013, making them the county’s top crop in 2011 and 2012, are way more complicated than the average consumer could ever fathom.
In addition to the actual farming and harvesting, there’s also the research and development that happens before any strawberry plant finds its way onto a commercial farm. Think hybrid development, field testing, and other scientific procedures.
The strawberry varieties we pop into our mouths now didn’t exist 50 years ago, some varieties weren’t invented until 10 years ago, and the strawberries we’ll eat 20 years from now probably don’t even exist yet. A somewhat steady stream of new kinds of commercially viable berries is key to the industry’s survival, according to Carolyn O’Donnell, spokesperson for the California Strawberry Commission.
Many of those new varieties have been introduced via the strawberry breeding program at UC Davis, which is why the commission—a quasi-governmental agency representing the interests of state strawberry farmers—raised its hackles when the breeding program didn’t renew an annual funding contract with the commission in 2012.
The commission has helped fund the university’s breeding program for more than half a century. Those hackles rose to full-on mohawk status when the commission subsequently found out that the program’s head breeders were going to retire and possibly start a private company that sold strawberry varieties—the plants, not the berries—to nurseries.
So the commission sued the UC Regents in October 2013, saying in the lawsuit: “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.”
Mary Delaney—executive associate dean at the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences—said that while the university has discussed a variety of options with the retiring professors, Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson, “we are not considering a licensing arrangement that would privatize any aspect of the program.”
She assured New Times that strawberry varieties patented by the program, and their associated germplasms, which are essentially collections of genetic materials, belong to the University of California.
Delaney added that the reason Shaw and Larson decided in 2012 to no longer accept funding from the commission was because they were preparing to retire. She also said the university took time to review the strawberry program to make sure it was a “wise reinvestment” and never intended to shut down the program. UC Davis is currently searching for replacements for Shaw and Larson.
“That’s not the information we received,” the Strawberry Commission’s O’Donnell said.
The commission’s initial conversations with Shaw, Larson, and the university were over the phone, and it wasn’t clear to the commission what UC Davis’ plans were for the program.
The last time the program transitioned because breeders were retiring, the commission paid one year’s worth of salary for the incoming replacements, which were Shaw and Larson, so there would be a transition period, an overlap of old and new.
Since the 1950s, the commission has helped fund the Davis-based program with millions of dollars over the long haul, and 2012’s contribution was roughly $350,000. The farmers whom the commission represents have also paid the university royalties for use of the plants. Strawberry nurseries licensed by the university pay royalties based on the number of plants sold by the nursery to strawberry growers for fruit production.
One of the perks of forking over money to the university via contract was the caveat that benefited California strawberry growers. California farmers enjoyed exclusive rights to new varieties for the first two years after they were released, as well as a royalty discount of about $2 per box of plants.
Over the history of the breeding program, 46 U.S. plant patents have been granted for UC Davis strawberry varieties, and four new patents are pending. Of the 46 granted patents, 18 are currently licensed for commercialization.
O’Donnell explains that breeders and farmers are looking for a sweet spot that combines many characteristics: disease resistance, hardiness, taste, color, and size being a few.
But why is there a need for so many new varieties?
Strawberries aren’t grown from a seed; the plants are propagated from runners because each seed on a strawberry is genetically different.
“You’re essentially creating a clone,” O’Donnell said. “Over time, sometimes plants aren’t quite so rigorous.”
Varieties lose some of their pep after years of cloning, and the qualities that were once so desirable in them aren’t so potent anymore. Nurseries and farmers look to the strawberry program at UC Davis to keep high-quality plants coming with characteristics that continually improve on the earlier varieties, so without a breeding program and without public access to the varieties it produces, the industry could be in a lot of trouble.
Representatives of both parties met on June 30 to discuss settling the lawsuit. It was the second such meeting.
“We want to re-establish a new working relationship,” O’Donnell said. “We want to have a productive partnership.”
Camillia Lanham is a staff writer for the Sun, New Times’ sister paper to the south. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.