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There is a legal skirmish in California over strawberries. More than half of the strawberry varieties that Americans eat were created by breeders at the University of California Davis. And those strawberry breeders now say that they're leaving the university to go into business for themselves. Well, the state strawberry growers are suing the university, hoping to keep that public breeding program alive. NPR's Dan Charles has this story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Before we get to this juicy controversy at UC Davis, you should know a little about where the modern strawberry came from.

JIM HANCOCK: You know it's a pretty amazing story.

CHARLES: Jim Hancock, a strawberry breeder at Michigan State University, says it starts with two different berry plants growing in completely different part of the world a few hundred years ago. One plant in Chile produced nice, big berries that were unfortunately kind of bland.

HANCOCK: And the other species is a really, very small-fruited thing with really bright red color.

CHARLES: Those tiny berries bursting with flavor grew in the eastern United States. The two species got picked up by European collectors, and they ended up next to each other in a French botanical garden. There, they made babies.

HANCOCK: And it was a perfect combination.

CHARLES: Their offspring had berries that were big, red, and they tasted great. The strawberry was born. The story didn't end there. Over the years, Breeders like Jim Hancock kept on cross-pollinating plants, creating new varieties - better berries.

HANCOCK: So a gradual, steady improvement in size - a gradual, steady improvement in storability and firmness.

CHARLES: Another breeder, Tom Sjulin, worked for many years for Driscoll's Strawberry Associates in California.

TOM SJULIN: I think the number one thing is probably having the ability to be picked, packed and shipped all the way across the United States and still arrive in good condition.

CHARLES: Maybe you noticed there's one thing that Hancock and Sjulin have not mentioned - taste.

HANCOCK: Being a strawberry breeder, I shouldn't admit this, but I think for a long time taste was going down.

CHARLES: But the breeders say that's really changed in recent years. Sjulin brought some evidence with him - some strawberries.

SJULIN: They were picked locally here in Whatcom County, Washington - just picked this morning.

CHARLES: Look at this one, he says. It's a variety called Albion. It's big, firm enough to travel thousands of miles, and you know what? It has amazing flavor, too.

SJULIN: I'm sitting here, smelling this - the wonderful aromas coming off this Albion variety. It's a nice piece of fruit.

CHARLES: This variety came from the University of California Davis, which brings us to the controversy. California has the perfect climate for growing strawberries, and people at UC Davis have been breeding them from almost a century. Private companies are now doing it too, but UC Davis remains the most important center of strawberry breeding in the country. It operates a lot like a private company, patenting new varieties and collecting millions of dollars in royalties from strawberry growers. On the other hand, says Tom Sjulin, unlike private breeding companies, the UC Davis program sells their varieties to everybody. Any farmer can grow them.

SJULIN: There are still a lot of growers in California that really depend on that University of California program continuing as is. Anything that might disrupt that is cause for great concern, as you can imagine.

CHARLES: And now there is disruption. The two breeders who run the program are leaving and setting up their own private strawberry breeding company. What's more, they'd like to take their strawberry plants with them. The leading breeder, Douglas Shaw, declined a request for a recorded interview. In an e-mail he wrote that he's not leaving to earn more money. He's already paid very well. He and his coworkers get a chunk of the strawberry royalties. In recent years, that inventor's share has been more than $2 million a year. Shaw says he's leaving because the university no longer cares about the kind of practical, commercially valuable breeding that he does. In any case, strawberry farmers are alarmed. Carolyn O'Donnell from the California Strawberry Commission, which represents the farmers, says they tried to tell the University that this public breeding program is really important.

O'DONNELL: We kind of felt like the University wasn't necessarily taking us very seriously, and hence, the lawsuit was filed last Fall.

CHARLES: The Strawberry Commission is asking the court to stop the University from what it calls privatizing strawberry breeding. Now, Mary Delany, an administrator at UC Davis, says this is all a misunderstanding.

MARY DELANY: I mean we never said we were going to close the breeding program. We said we're evaluating the program.

CHARLES: And we've decided the program will continue, Delany says. The University is now looking for a new strawberry breeder. As for the breeders who are leaving, Delany says they will not get to take any plants with them.

DELANY: This is University of California property.

CHARLES: The Strawberry Commission, representing farmers, says that's good to hear but before dropping it's lawsuit, the commission wants more guarantees that the University will keep working to create the next great strawberry. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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