Larry Gordon
Los Angeles Times

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 UC Davis plant sciences professor 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.

Watsonville’s fog, sandy soil and cool temperatures, often just in the 60s during summer days, make it ideal for growing the berries. Farmers produce the most strawberries in the state, far surpassing growers in other productive areas in Santa Maria, Oxnard and Irvine.

Across town, the quasi-governmental California Strawberry Commission has its headquarters in an office suite decorated with photos of strawberry baskets and harvests and a floor rug in the shape of a berry. Watsonville has long been the center of 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. And for California farmers, it could mean the end of easy access to sweet berries.

The whole thing was set into motion when Shaw, 60, 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 to the 1930s.

The commission, which represents mainly growers and packers, 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.