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Jul 2, 2014 10:18 PM by LiLi Tan, KSBY News

Strawberry breeding battle

A legal battle is brewing over one of the Central Coast's most important crops - strawberries.

Local growers may not have access to certain berry varieties if researchers at a key breeding program at UC Davis leave and their future patents are no longer available publicly. The California Strawberry Commission is suing the university to keep the public breeding program alive and ensure sustainability for commercial growers.

The Commission says it has contributed millions to develop and support the public breeding program and tens of millions to the university through royalty payments. According to its communication director Carolyn O'Donnell, UC Davis intended to enter into a licensing agreement with the current researchers, allowing them to establish a private program and take with them plant materials and research data, "all developed with the financial support of California strawberry farmers for the past 30 years," O'Donnell said in a statement.
She says there are dozens of strawberries all over the world, and more than 14 have been planted in the state this year.

Santa Maria strawberry grower Daren Gee is currently testing a handful of varieties from UC Davis. He says having new varieties available every year is a necessary because current varieties may eventually go down in quality.

"They can get smaller, less sweet -- something genetically changes over the course of time that is undesirable, so then we have to move on. If something comes along that's sweeter, that's bigger and has more volume, it's a no-brainer," Gee said.

Gee says there are patents available through private companies; however, they're more expensive and sometimes growers have to then sell their berries through that company instead of under their own labels.

"We want to compete with everybody with our name on the box, not some sales company that is giving us an opportunity to market their strawberries," Gee said.
Gee says the discontinuation of the program shouldn't effect growers for seven years, as that's how long it usually takes to cross pollinate by hand, develop a new variety and get it to local supermarkets.

Meanwhile, Cal Poly is working on their own strawberry sustainability program, hoping to breed its own varieties.

"The California strawberry industry is really critical to the state," said Cal Poly College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences' Haley Marconett. "We can work growers to innovate new plant varieties so we can make sure the industry is sustainable long term."

The university would be only the second public university to do so in California after UC Davis.

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