WATSONVILLE, Calif. — On an ocean-facing hillside with stunning views of Monterey Bay, Douglas Shaw circulates among thousands of strawberry plants he has helped to breed and grow. But the man who is considered California’s most esteemed strawberry expert declines to choose his all-time favorite.
The plant-sciences professor at the University of California, Davis, is a bit like a father unwilling to favor one child above his others — patented strawberry varieties with names such as Albion, Benicia, Portola, Monterey and San Andreas. He’s also an unsentimental scientist with an eye toward hardier and tastier descendants.
“You can’t get too attached to them, because the idea is that you are supposed to be replacing them with something better,” he said.
He bites into one berry and reports that it tastes both sweet and acidic, a combination some people crave.
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“It’s not rocket science,” he said of his evaluations. “It’s objectivity.”
Watsonville’s fog, sandy soil and cool temperatures, often just in the 60s during summer days, make it ideal for growing the berries. Farmers here produce the most strawberries in the state, far surpassing growers in other productive areas in the state.
Watsonville has long been ground zero for California’s $2.3 billion-a-year strawberry industry. Now it has taken center stage in a sour legal battle over the fruit’s — and Shaw’s — future.
The stakes are substantial as the dispute unfolds beyond the fields of leafy plants that sprout delicate white blossoms and red fruit.
For universities, it spotlights their role in the nation’s agribusiness and the rights to intellectual property that, in this case, just happens to be edible. And for California farmers, it could mean the end of easy access to the sweetest strawberries that best survive the journey from field to warehouse to kitchen tables.
The whole thing was set into motion when the 60-year-old Shaw, after nearly three decades at the university, said he and his research partner, UC breeding expert Kirk Larson, planned to leave UC and start a private company for strawberry crop development.
Asserting that UC was no longer interested in their work, he also said they wanted to take a share of a valuable UC inventory of strawberry specimens dating back to the 1930s.
The quasi-governmental California Strawberry Commission, which represents mainly growers and packers, was alarmed. It sued the University of California, alleging the university was endorsing the privatization of an important part of the state’s agricultural heritage. UC denies the allegations.
California produces 90 percent of the nation’s strawberries, and more than half of that is in patented varieties raised through laborious hand crossbreeding and transplanting at UC farm labs.
Strawberry licensing payments netted UC Davis about $4.5 million last year, and the fruit scientists and their co-workers shared a pot of about $2.6 million, UC data show. Some of both sums were plowed back into research costs.
“The concern is that an employee of the university and a group of investors are attempting to get a personal gain from what truly belongs to the industry and the people of the state of California,” said Tom Am Rhein, research-committee chairman of the Strawberry Commission.
Although he is at the center of the complicated dispute, Shaw is not a defendant in the lawsuit, nor is Larson, who did not respond to requests for interviews. Shaw denies any subterfuge.
“There’s nothing underhanded at all about this. We really tried to be above board,” the professor said as a strong breeze blew across the leased land in Watsonville, looming over Sunset State Beach. “Everything we are proposing here is completely consistent with intellectual-property law and university policy. We thought it would be good for all parties.”
The breeding expert said he has the right — even the duty — to take some of the genetic copies with him to his new company and will leave UC duplicates of all specimens. He said his plan would be “the best way to make a lasting and permanent contribution” in preserving the strawberry heritage.