The Imperial Stock Ranch is a 32,000 acre ranch in eastern Oregon that has been in the family since 1871. For its first 140 years, the ranch produced cattle, sheep, grains and hay. Today, they produce beef, lamb, wool, grains and hay. On the surface the difference between today and 140 years ago looks small. They just use different names for the things they produce, right? But not just the names have changed. As Jeanne Carver describes in the video below, they’ve had to move from selling products on the commodity market to creating value-added products, like lamb for the table, and fiber for yarns, textiles and apparel.
Dan and Jeanne Carver of Imperial Ranch took the steps to find and develop new markets with the help of a Farmer/Rancher SARE grant, and assistance from technical advisor Brian Tuck of Oregon State University Cooperative Extension and Stephen Riese of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Carvers wanted to make sure the sheep remained a profitable part of the ranch so they needed to secure markets for their lamb and wool at prices that created a profit. Here’s what they did to make that happen.
Heritage Lamb/Fiber Marketing
This headline is a really big part of what they did. By changing their mindset from one of selling sheep and wool, to one of selling lamb for the table and fiber for clothing they could start to look for the markets that needed those things.
First the Carvers found a meat processor who could uniformly provide the cuts required to sell directly to restaurants. They also worked with restaurant chefs to find out the cuts and pricing that would provide a return to the processor, the restaurant and the ranch, while giving customers a tasty product at a good price. To help the restaurant market their lamb, they created display pieces telling the ranch story, and helped train restaurant staff so they’d be able to tell the story as well. They marketed their lamb as a “fresh spring, all-natural product, locally grown on a highly awarded ranch that is one of Oregon’s agricultural treasures.”
Turning Wool to Fiber and Lambskin Fashion
By visiting yarn and fiber dealers, the Carvers learned that there is a high demand for local wool products. To meet that demand they found a wool processor who could take their raw wool once a year and process it to the Carver’s requirements. They began by creating their own kits with a pattern and the fiber for making a garment. Then, as Jeanne describes in the video below, when folks who didn’t knit expressed an interest in buying ready made items, they worked with their new network of knitters to create ready-to-wear items. They worked with professional photographers to create quality images for catalogs and sales pieces to match the high quality of the product they were selling. Last but not least, they looked into tanning operations so that they could turn the raw hides into lambskin fashions.
How It’s Working
Things are going great! Not only is the ranch more profitable thanks to stable, predictable markets, but they’ve also created more than a dozen jobs for women in the region who work from their homes designing and producing garments from Imperial wool yarns as well as jobs in textile marketing. Meat sales have exploded as well. To meet the demand, the ranch is now sourcing lambs from neighboring producers who have purchased Imperial Ranch breeding stock.
Recommendations From the Carvers
For producers considering a similar marketing path, Jeanne Carver shares these recommendations. (From the Imperial Stock Ranch 2008 poster)
• Clearly define what you want your life to look like – take a holistic approach.
• Remember that whatever level of work you anticipate, it will be more.
• Make sure you love what you are doing – passion will be your greatest asset.
• Be adaptable without compromising your values; changing conditions, circumstances and consumer needs and interests will require creativity and adaptability.
• Try looking at your operation from a different angle: “Instead of raising cows and sheep, we raise beef and lamb for the table,” says Carver. “Instead of harvesting wool, we raise fibers that are the basis of our fabric, garments, and product lines – subtle yet critical mindset changes.”
To keep things going smoothly in the long-run, here are their recommendations from the final report:
“The Carvers recommend developing a core group of customers that buy into the concept of a local product, customers that become part of your extended ranch family. They caution that the marketplace constantly changes. For example, chefs come and go in restaurants, butchers in grocery stores and managers in retail outlets. To even out change, they recommend dealing with people who own the businesses and make the decisions, making sure their vision of the future matches your own. They also emphasize the importance of economies of scale. The larger you become, the lower your cost of production. While taking this to the extreme has led to the industrialization of worldwide food production, they say it is important for the small operator to stay in the market with some expanded production. Also, they emphasize the importance of local and regional food production, noting a growing trend for consumers to buy locally even at a higher price.”
One of the Carver’s goals in doing this work was to serve as a model for other producers who also want to provide products to serve this market need. So here are some links where you can get more information and details.
You can learn a lot about how to tell your farm’s or ranch’s story, by visiting the Imperial Stock Ranch Website, and the website for their yarn. Their attention to detail, and the pictures and language they use tell customers what makes their purchase special. If you haven’t yet worked up your skills to be able to do this on your own, look for someone who can. (Note: One of Kathy’s many jobs was writing creative copy for an ad agency. Maybe she can work for you too!)
Here’s the final report for the SARE project the Carvers worked on. It can give you additional details about how they did what they did.