Gresham, Ore. — When a farmer called for some information about his raspberry crop, Ron Roberts mentioned the Oregon Caneberry Commission. The farmer asked what a caneberry was, and Mr. Roberts said, ''You're growing it.''
Between snowy peaks of the Coast and Cascade ranges, the Willamette Valley is the Caneberry Capital of the World. But residents here probably don't even know it, and most of them spent childhood summers picking the berries in one of the only geographic pockets in the world where they grow.
Admittedly, Oregon caneberries have an image problem. And Ron Roberts, a raspberry farmer since he harvested his first berries as a Future Farmer of America in high school, wants to change that.
The caneberry is a family of delicate berries that grow on tough but thin woody canes and thrive in a cool, moist climate. Caneberries include raspberries , blackberries, and boysenberries. Agricultural experts agree that these berries grow in the Oregon soil and climate with an ''intensity'' unmatched anywhere in the world. ''Intensity'' translates into lay terms as - tasty.
Like so many other outside forces of progress that have changed attitudes in this rural state, market factors are forcing berry farmers to adopt more sophisticated approaches to an old-fashioned business.
As chairman of the Oregon Caneberry Commission, Roberts and other farmers see the future of their business hinging on the ability to change the image of what has been an exotic, expensive purchase.
A $3 carton of raspberries may be a status symbol for a hostess, but that image won't support farmers like Roberts. What's going to help farmers here is broader use - like carbonated raspberry juice (Ocean Spray already markets a cranberry-raspberry juice), berry sauces for meat dishes, and more frozen berries.
Caneberries have long been grown nearly exclusively in Oregon. Of the total US berry harvest, Oregon accounts for 95 percent of the black raspberries, 45 percent of the red raspberries, 95 percent of the loganberries, 85 percent of the blackberries, and over 50 percent of the boysenberries.
Although Oregon farmers have held a corner on caneberry production, berries from New Zealand and Canadian farmers now glut the market. Increased supplies mean lower prices. And subsidized Canadian farmers also compound the competition.
Erric Ross, an agent with the Oregon State University Agricultural Extension here, says British Columbia has just planted 1,000 additional acres of raspberries. That equals one-third of Oregon's raspberry crop. And just 200 additional acres of raspberries can mean a 5- or 10-cent-per-pound difference in return for the farmer.
Roberts, a young farmer who sports a pair of plant clippers on his belt, says berry farmers need to expand their thinking. ''It's not the same as it used be, when you could haul 5 to 10 acres (of picked berries) into town. Now it's a specialized business.''
Promotion and legislative lobbying now may save the berry business here. ''But the grower never felt this was his job,'' Roberts adds. ''The reason you want to be a farmer is you want to be independent. . . . Nobody wants to tell his neighbor what to do.''
But ''we've got to increase consumption, or we're all going to be in trouble, '' he says. That's why farmers from Canada, Washington, and Oregon formed the North American Raspberry Council.
''Let's face it, people can live without raspberries,'' Roberts admits. But the exotic image isn't necessary, says Ralph Garren, a researcher with the extension service. ''Exotic? It's a matter of choice and judgment and comparative cost. We always have bananas, don't we?''
Now it's the time of year when berries are just a sweet summer memory for most people. Indeed, the woody raspberry canes on Roberts's 35-acre farm look like brittle witches' brooms stuck in the mud - unlike the lush plumage that will erupt by summer. But caneberry farmers in this area work in their fields year-round. And this year, many are looking outside the farm to ensure there will be a market for their berries in July.
The Caneberry Commission is trying increase restaurant and yogurt producers' use of berries. The commission has also contracted with food technology labs to come up with new recipes for berries and to find a way to keep them from falling apart when baked or frozen.
The past couple of seasons have not been profitable for berry growers here, but Roberts loves the business and says, ''I'd rather try to change the market and make things better than change my crop.''