John Lennon wrote: “Nothing is real/And nothing to get hung about”
John was from England. Apparently some folks in California didn’t share his philosophy. Indeed their discord had risen to a point where they ended up in court. The University of California, Davis got into it with the California Strawberry Commission (CSC). At least no one was hanged.
Plant breeding can be dramatic without enlisting GMOs. Who would have guessed? But for me this story just keeps on giving. I’ve grown strawberries commercially, I went to school with the new UC-Davis Strawberry lead, Fragaria (the strawberry genus) is the subject of a review article in the stack here for a future post, and the back story for how two agencies of the State of California got into it over the remarkable little strawberry is – well – juicy.
In My Life
As a youngster I was privileged to wake up every day to life on a small farm. And on this farm we had a… oops, sorry. We had lots of things, and strawberries made the list. In fact there were a couple years where strawberries made up a big piece of that list. Dad even had the berry patch open for a U-pick operation at one point. I won’t belabor that experience here. But to try and stitch the whole narrative together just a bit, John Lennon’s Strawberry song came out while we had this multi-acre strawberry patch. The notion of Strawberry Fields Forever struck a very salient chord.
After this time strawberries just didn’t do it for me. A sort of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ situation arose. But over time my animosity weakened, and eventually my strawberry experiences of youth actually bore fruit. In more than one college plant science course the botany of strawberry was trotted out as an example of interesting and different plant features (stolons – that stringy stem like thing that helps the plant spread, sometimes called runners; aggregate accessory fruit – all those seeds on the surface of the receptacle; and achenes (said seeds)). Yep, picked them; hoed them; ate them… and even studied them.
Dr Steve Knapp
By some good fortune I managed to do well enough as an undergraduate student to enter a graduate program in Agronomy at the University of Nebraska. Maybe those strawberry memories helped. This was in the late 70’s through the early 80’s, and as fate would have it, Steve was a student there as well. I won’t suggest Steve and I were close, just that our respective educational journeys crossed in Lincoln, NE. Bill Ross, a USDA-ARS sorghum breeder at UNL at that time, was a member of my MS graduate committee and was a coauthor with Steve on a nice piece about estimating confidence intervals for heritability¹. I’ve had the great fortune to know many excellent plant breeders over the years, and Bill Ross easily makes my top ten.
More on this genus at another time. I will mention here that the American Journal of Botany had the outstanding foresight to publish a Special Issue last October: ‘Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Plant Science’. There is an article on Fragaria in the mix – though there is also one on Glycine and as a soybean person I have to put that one at the front of the line.
the back story… (Yesterday)
I’d heard a little about this story last year, but hadn’t actually drilled down to the details. Now I’m wishing I had. With the help of NPR’s Dan Charles and a couple other sources I’ll try to reconstruct some of the soap opera that went on before the hiring of Steve Knapp.
Even before UC Davis gets written into the history, the UC Berkley got things going with a plant pathologist named Harold Thomas. Thomas started collaborating with plant breeder Earl Goldsmith and the two developed five strawberry varieties released in 1945. UC Berkley doesn’t typically show up on the radar for plant breeders, but the foodies among us may recognize it as the academic home of Michael Pollan who wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire.
As with so many things going on in the middle of the 20th century, the conflagration of WW II sucked all the air out of strawberry breeding at Berkley. The future of the strawberry in California rebloomed in 1952 – but its reincarnation took place at UC Davis. There is a nice timeline of developments at the UC Davis web site.
Fast forward to 1986 and the hiring of Doug Shaw to the faculty in the Department of Pomology (fruit science). Dr. Shaw overlapped with a couple of senior strawberry researchers (Royce Bringhurst and Victor Voth – retiring in ’89 and ’91 respectively). After Voth’s retirement UC Davis hired Kirk Lawson. Laying onto this timeline… Strawberry Fields was released in 1967, and John was murdered in NY in 1980. Imagine.
California strawberries are big business. One can be forgiven for thinking of grapes or oranges first when considering fruits of California. They do have an Orange County after all. But these little red guys still generate some serious cash. With all the success of UC Davis’ strawberry breeding program, Shaw and Lawson found themselves in a good spot. And before any mudslinging we do need to appreciate that not just any fool on the hill gets this kind of opportunity. Further, they did manage to keep the ball rolling. So credit them that. From where I sit it looks like visions of green were blooming in their imaginations over the years. Based on the stories written by Dan Charles the program was getting less and less academic and more and more commercial. Consider that Shaw and his co-workers were taking home millions of dollars from royalties generated by the strawberry program and they weren’t generating a long list of peer reviewed research. I’ll suppose out loud their faculty colleagues who were less well rewarded financially and more academically productive might have been ready to channel Eleanor Rigby. And let’s also imagine a hypothetical private sector plant breeder who might aspire to directly compete for the lucrative strawberry business – this is a business with a fairly steep barrier to entry. Going up against an entrenched program with the pedigree of the UC Davis’ strawberry program would be formidable. If one side of the road is a public sector and ostensibly academic effort, and the other side of the road is a no holds barred private sector business then what is it in the middle of the road? A dead skunk (not to be confused with a dead squirrel). Tensions grew, Shaw and Larson left, and the CSC suffered a case of ‘who moved my cheese’. Suits were filed and counter filed. The ‘Forever’ part of Strawberry Fields was in doubt.
All the legal animosity has been set aside with Steve’s hiring and the negotiation to set up the near term future for the various stakeholders. This is good news. Now everyone can return Get Back to what they were doing before. And the rest of us can look forward to putting some strawberries on our ice cream – hopefully forever. Forever gives us a chance to reflect on the name of the strawberry variety UC Davis released in 2008 – they named it ‘San Andreas’. Hard to find any fault with that, and going forward Steve and his coworkers will have to get creative to top it (I’m rooting for ‘Lennon’).
To get a more rounded account of the goings on inside the UC Davis strawberry breeding program I thought I’d dig up some intel from a well-connected source. Our travel budget here at GP is not up to a plane ticket to California, so I figured a stop by our local garden center might offer an opportunity to interview a strawberry plant. You know, get a firsthand insight into the fast lane life of the world’s biggest strawberry breeding program. Two problems, seems it’s still a bit early in the season for stocking strawberry plants… and well, my ability to speak strawberry is VERY rusty.
I’m guessing Steve Knapp has to be within a half dozen years of his 64th birthday. Yep, I was going there. But I’m also wondering what Steve likes to do after a long day in the strawberry nursery under a hot California sun. Yep, I was thinking of that too. At this point I suppose it might be best if I just Let It Be…
I should offer here that if Doug Shaw, Kirk Lawson, or anyone else connected with this story feels I’ve misrepresented anything I beg they please leave a comment and help me set the record straight. I don’t have a dog in this fight and absolutely no intention of painting anyone’s reputation in the wrong light.
And Steve – if you’re ever in the mood to relive some graduate student memories from the all the way back in Lincoln (a long and winding road)… I promise I can talk about something other than the Beetles.
1 Knapp, S.J., W.W. Stroup, and W.M. Ross 1985 Exact confidence intervals for heritability on a progeny mean basis. Crop Sci. 25: 192–194.
Dan Charles’ NPR stories on this can be found online at:
The UC Davis Strawberry breeding timeline can be found at:
“D-BW-Tettnang-Erdbeerernte” by ANKAWÜ – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:D-BW-Tettnang-Erdbeerernte.JPG#mediaviewer/File:D-BW-Tettnang-Erdbeerernte.JPG