OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — The world-renowned University of California-Davis' agricultural sciences department has brought California billions of dollars over the years, but a lawsuit involving two of its most renowned scientists questions the school's commitment to its future.
California is an agricultural giant, producing $54 billion worth of farm products in 2014, growing more than one-third of the nation's vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. California farmers and orchardists grow more than 400 food crops and UC Davis has played a role in developing just about all of them.
California strawberries bring in $2.5 billion a year the state's fifth most-valuable crop. UC Davis has developed 56 varieties since 1945, creating strains that are bigger, taste better, stay fresh longer and yield six times more per acre. More than 80 percent of the strawberries grown in North America and more than 60 percent worldwide are UC Davis varietals.
"Since the 1940s, they have developed a string of very successful strawberry varieties, developed for California growers, but sold worldwide," said Carolyn O'Donnell, a spokeswoman for the California Strawberry Commission.
"The reason it is so important is that it's a public program, and the varietals are available to anyone. Strawberries are a unique crop — a crop of opportunity. You can grow a lot of fruit on a small amount of land. It's an ideal crop for immigrants to get their start in farming. Probably 25 percent of growers in California started out as farmworkers."
Douglas Shaw and Kirk Larson ran the UC Davis strawberry program for 22 years until they retired in 2014, and formed California Berry Cultivars.
On Monday, their company sued the Regents of the University of California, for access to their decades of work. The five-count complaint essentially accuses UC Davis of neglecting the program, which they say is vital to California's strawberry industry.
Shaw and Larson — who are not plaintiffs as individuals — developed more than a dozen strawberry cultivars at UC Davis that are being grown throughout the world. In 2004, they released the Albion varietal, known for its outstanding flavor and high productivity. It can be grown as many as nine months of the year and is the most widely planted strawberry in California today.
"Berries had gotten big, but lost their flavor. So they made a conscious decision to rebreed for taste," said A.G. Kawamura, a former California Secretary of Agriculture and the owner of Orange County Produce. "They have allowed those of us that grow strawberries to stay in business."
Kawamura is also president of California Berry Cultivars, which he describes as a consortium of growers and packers. The company, with Shaw and Larson leading the way, expected to continue developing the UC Davis varieties using the same germplasm — stock strains of valuable genes — but UC Davis denied the company access.
So California Berry Cultivars sued the trustees in Alameda County Court, alleging breach of contract, conversion, breach of faith, breach of fiduciary duty and unfair competition.
Kawamura, who has grown strawberries all his life, said the company sued due to frustration with the UC Davis program and fear that the school won't be able to replicate its past decades of success, and isn't even going to try.
Kawamura said the university's waning interest in the program was apparent even before Shaw and Larson retired.