How a multimillion-dollar court case is affecting SLO County's sweet strawberries
Local strawberry lovers and growers in search of ever sweeter and more durable California fruit have been caught in the middle of an intellectual property fight that has halted the flow of new varieties from the industry’s primary provider.
But that could change soon now that the case is finally headed to the courtroom.
San Luis Obispo County’s $241.2 million strawberry industry — the second most valuable cash crop behind wine grapes in 2016, according to the county Department of Agriculture — is heavily reliant on the production of new cultivars, berries with genetic makeups that make them tastier, hardier or resistant to diseases.
But that genetic development has been tied up in a multimillion-dollar court case involving UC Davis’ renowned strawberry breeding program and the two researchers who helped create some of its best-known varieties, which are used by the majority of growers in the San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria area.
A trial over the berries will begin next week in San Francisco.
The UC Davis strawberry legacy
The dispute revolves around an invaluable collection of tiny strawberry plants, housed in a Davis greenhouse, and the right to turn them into new varieties of strawberries for commercial sale.
Researchers Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson developed the plants and have been trying to wrestle control of them for nearly five years, after giving notice that they were preparing to leave UC Davis.
The university has kept an iron grip on the plants, with one official calling them “the crown jewels of the breeding program.” The Davis breeding program is considered a worldwide leader; the varieties of berries developed in its greenhouses account for about half of California’s strawberry crop.
Shaw and Larson’s lawyer, Greg Lanier, said UC Davis hasn’t released a new variety of strawberry for commercial use since the two scientists formally left the university in 2014 and founded their own company, California Berry Cultivars.
“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,” Lanier said in a Sacramento Bee interview. “Strawberry farmers need new varieties to battle changing weather — it’s rain, it’s drought, it’s changes in what pesticides you can use.”
Lanier said a recent pretrial ruling by U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria has put the Davis program further into limbo. The judge ruled that UC Davis has the right to hold onto the plants themselves, but the university doesn’t control the intellectual property associated with the plants.
That puts a crimp on UC Davis’ ability to use the plants to develop new commercial varieties, Lanier said. At the same time, Lanier said it’s nearly impossible for Shaw and Larson to develop new strawberry varieties without physical possession of the plants they bred.
“Without the physical plants in our possession, we can’t develop them anymore,” he said.
UC Davis spokesman Andy Fell told The Sacramento Bee, “The program is in full swing. New varieties are in the pipeline, but breeding new plants and bringing them to market does take some time. We look forward to having new varieties for the industry in the future.”
‘Fresh genetics’ important to SLO County growers
About 83 percent of strawberry varieties planted for winter, spring and summer production in southern San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties — an area dubbed the Santa Maria region by the California Strawberry Commission — were developed at UC Davis. The remaining 17.2 percent were created by private proprietary breeders for bigger growing companies.
UC Davis has been developing strawberries for growers since the 1930s. Shaw and Larson, who arrived at UC Davis more than 25 years ago, have been responsible for some startling innovations, including a flavor-rich variety nicknamed the Albion that came out in 2004.
Local growers declined to discuss the lawsuit, saying they’d prefer not to take sides. But they did say their business depends on the constant development of new, genetically improved strawberry varieties, no matter who’s creating them.
“Growers are never happy,” said Charles Okui, whose family has grown strawberries near Grover Beach for decades. “We always want something better.”
Okui said his family grows 26 to 27 acres of strawberries — 80 percent are San Andreas and Monterey berries and 20 percent are Albion, all of which were developed at UC Davis. He said the quality of the fruit begins to go down after a certain number of years, producing a need for new types of strawberries.
“It takes a long time to come up with a new variety,” he said.
Okui said he favors different varieties depending on how he’ll sell them. For example, the Albion is known for its sweet taste and is a hit at farm stands. But it’s not as durable as other varieties and is more expensive to grow.
Alan Hayashi, whose family is also known for South County strawberries, said they plant about 11 acres of Albion and Monterey berries — both UC Davis varieties. He also said new berries are constantly needed, once the older ones “start losing their characteristics.”
“You cross a few things, and you get fruit that holds up a little bit better,” Hayashi said.
Kevin Gee, general manager of Santa Maria strawberry company Darensberries, said his family grows 650 acres of berries and is preparing to plant another 180 acres this summer. Gee said they grow five UC Davis varieties — Monterey, San Andreas, Cabrillo, Frontera and Portola — some of which they got to test out when the university was developing them.
“Having fresh genetics come in is very important,” Gee said.
Gee said it’s critical for independent growers to have access to different varieties of strawberries, in order to keep up with bigger companies such as Driscoll Strawberry Associates in Watsonville. If growers can’t access the latest genetics, it might be tough for them to remain free of corporate control.
“There wouldn’t be other choices for growers to grow independently,” Gee said.
Ultimately, the result of this case will decide what kind and quality of fruit ends up on consumers’ tables.
Sacramento Bee reporter Dale Kasler contributed to this story