A group of 60 independent strawberry growers – representing one-third of the planted acreage of California’s strawberry industry – are petitioning state leaders to resolve a messy legal dispute between two respected agricultural researchers and the University of California, Davis.
The coalition sent letters to UC Davis, the UC Board of Regents, and the California Strawberry Commission, encouraging the state to allow the now-retired researchers, Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson, to continue breeding activities with a newly formed private entity.
The letters come less than two weeks before the start of a trial between California Berry Cultivars (CBC) and UC Davis. Shaw is revered in the strawberry industry, having developed 24 new types of strawberry plants – nearly one a year – that have allowed growers to double production in addition to dramatically improving the quality and flavor of the fruit. An estimated 65 percent of the acreage of California’s $2.6 billion strawberry crop is planted with varieties developed by Shaw and Larson.
The growers are aghast that UC Davis is portraying Shaw in legal filings as a researcher driven by greed. During their tenure at UC Davis, Shaw and Larson generated nearly $100 million in royalties for the university, shared nearly half of their own royalties – hundreds of thousands of dollars – with co-workers, and contributed more than $9 million of their own royalties to help fund the breeding program. Shaw, growers say, has been a singular force in improving the fortunes of all of California’s strawberry growers.
The researchers contend that, prior to their retirement in 2014, they, in concert with the UC Davis Plant Sciences Department, proposed a public-private partnership that would allow them to continue developing plants and sharing the royalties with UC Davis. With a diverse group of growers, they formed CBC with a plan to share royalties with the university.
UC Davis initially approved the plan, but reversed itself after the California Strawberry Commission, with backing from large agricultural companies that have their own competing breeding programs, filed suit against UC Davis to intimidate the university into ending its relationship with CBC. As part of the settlement of that lawsuit, UC Davis confiscated 800 plants, destroyed about half of them and promised to involve the strawberry commission in any UC Davis licensing decisions.
California Berry Cultivars sued the university after it seized the plants and blocked the ability of Shaw and Larson to continue to breed and develop new strains of strawberries. UC Davis then counter sued, adding Shaw and Larson as co-defendants. California Berry Cultivars is seeking up to $45 million in damages in its suit against the university.
A federal judge ruled last week that as part of their contracts with UC Davis, Shaw and Larson were obligated to assign the rights to those plants to the university. But the judge also decided there is evidence that the university acted in bad faith against the esteemed researchers. The judge’s ruling suggested that both sides face some liabilities at trial.
A.G. Kawamura, a strawberry farmer, former California Secretary of Agriculture and part owner of CBC, said that a vibrant and competitive breeding program is essential for the continued viability of the state’s growers.
“After nearly six decades of successful strawberry innovation, it has been very frustrating to see the feuding between the UC and so many of the multi-generation family farms that have supported and depended on this public-private breeding program,” Kawamura said. “Costly litigation is such a waste when there are avenues for multi-benefit collaboration. Our future as California strawberry growers is at stake.”
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