The University of Florida is changing its ways after an I-Team investigation revealed its agreements with competing farms in Mexico.
Last month, an I-Team investigation found UF developed new types of blueberries to help Florida farmers make a living, but then sold the rights to grow those same blueberries to foreign farms, including Mexico. Mexico's growing season competes with Florida.
In an email blasted out over the weekend to the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, representing some 500 growers, the university said it plans to put Florida first when it comes to any new deals with foreign farms.
The email states, "In foreign countries that pose a potential competitive threat, our new licenses contain clauses that prohibit fruit of our licensed varieties from being imported to the U.S. during the Florida blueberry production window."
That would be a change from the way the university currently does business.
The university says it has international licensing agreements to protect Florida growers, so blueberries created at UF aren't "available in unlimited qualities to all willing buyers." In addition to Mexico, UF also has licensing agreements for its blueberries in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Japan.
Farmers like Bill Braswell aren't happy about it, telling the I-Team, "It's like, 'well wait a minute. It's Florida tax dollars. They should be going to help Florida.'"
Over the last three years, taxpayers have contributed close to half a billion dollars to UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which houses the blueberry breeding program.
Dr. Jack Payne, a vice president and the top decision maker at that institute, told the I-Team it's impossible for the university to stop the international theft of plants.
“You can’t stop any country from using it, so we’re trying to control it and make money to put back into the industry," Payne told the I-Team last month.
Farmers must pay the university's nonprofit, Florida Foundation Seed Producers, 30 cents per plant to grow the university’s blueberries. Last year, UF collected more than $5 million in blueberry royalties. Payne said 70 percent of those royalties fund the blueberry breeding program. Another 20 percent is paid to the scientists who developed the plant, while the remaining 10 percent goes to Florida Foundation Seed Producers. That non-profit is responsible for carrying out licensing agreements.
The university's email to growers on Saturday also claimed the I-Team "misrepresented the facts" surrounding its international licensing of its blueberry varieties, but did not detail what was misrepresented. University officials have not responded to the I-Team's requests for comment. The I-Team also asked whether UF plans to revise its current licensing agreements with farms in competing countries, so the fruit is not imported into the U.S. during Florida's picking season. Officials have not yet responded.