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SHANIKO A magnetic field seems to radiate from Jeanne Carver as she scrambles through rocks and sage on the Imperial Stock Ranch. Hundreds of sheep scamper the other direction as Carver nears, following an ancient impulse to flee.

A hundred yards away on the high desert terrain, a statuesque model raises her chin to an early morning sun. It’s time for her close up. With the light just so and Carver and the sheep serving as a wooly backdrop, this is golden hour for a fashion photographer, two assistants, a hair stylist, a makeup expert, a fashion designer and her assistant.

Balancing the down and dirty routines of sheep ranching with the air brushed world of high fashion has become something of the norm at Imperial Stock Ranch. A decade and a half of herding sheep and reinventing the business has brought this 35,000 acre ranch in rural eastern Oregon to a date with the Winter Olympics next month in Sochi, Russia and, on this January morning, to the second day of a photo shoot in an effort to create a catalog.

This fall, the “Imperial Collection by Anna Cohen” is expected to be available on the racks of a handful of high end retailers. The wool fabric has been grown on the ranch and the ranch has financed its processing, spinning, dying and weaving. Entering the apparel industry directly, even on a small scale, is a risk filled venture for an operation that relies on beef, wheat and hay sales for more than two thirds of its income.

Jeanne Carver hopes the collection will be another step in the evolution and ultimately the survival of the ranch at a time when many American farmers are moving on or selling out. Innovation, she says, is as important in agribusiness as in other industries people might associate more readily with technology and change.

“If you’re not constantly adapting and changing course,” she says, “you will never survive.”

The ranch began earning a reputation for adaptation in the early 1990s. Dan Carver, who owns and operates the ranch with wife Jeanne, sought the advice of government farmland managers about a different method of grazing cattle. The plan rotating the herd from one ranchland quadrant to another has over the past 20 years earned Imperial a reputation for sustainability and environmental protection.

The herd rotating practice allowed unused land to recover and vegetation to thrive. Through the Buck Hollow Watershed Enhancement, the ranch also helped reduce erosion and restore a steelhead run in a creek that courses through the property.

Earning more money for the ranch, Dan Carver readily admits, was his chief motivation. But profit coupled with other benefits has made him a sustainable agriculture advocate and a sought after speaker on the subject.

Those practices, however, could not have prepared Dan or Jeanne Carver for a life altering phone call in 1999.

Number of sheep, by state, 2012

SOURCE: Oregon Department of Agriculture

As they typically did in the spring, they called a regional processor to arrange delivery of that season’s wool harvest and hear the latest raw commodity price. There is no price, they were told.

It’s not that the Carvers hadn’t seen the warning signs. Between 1996 and 2000, more than 25,000 sheep producers went out of business in the United States.

In Oregon, more than 2 million sheep grazed in 1920, a figure that dropped to 1 million by 1945, 541,000 by 1970 and 210,000 by 2000 where it has stabilized, more or less, in the last decade.

The Carvers faced a wrenching choice.

“Do we stop raising sheep,” Jeanne Carver says, “or do we do it another way?”

Jeanne Carver, who is at least spiritual if not evangelical in her reverence for sheep and all they provide to humans, wanted to try another way.

“You gotta love ’em,” she says. “They ask for nothing and give you everything.”

Almost immediately after that 1999 phone call, the former collegiate hurdler hit the ground running to develop value added product lines for the ranch’s wool. The idea was to stop providing a commodity and instead develop a finished product think bottles of wine rather than grapes.

By the next year, she’d started Imperial Yarn locating partners across the country to process, spin and dye Imperial’s ranch wool for the specialized craft market.

In addition, the ranch financed the production of small runs of Imperial branded consumer goods caps, wraps and sweaters for sale in boutique stores, including Portland’s The Real Mother Goose.

By the middle of the decade, it appeared sheep ranching might just survive on Imperial Stock Ranch. Tens of thousands of sheep would no longer roam as they had a century ago when the ranch, under previous ownership, was among the largest in the country. But Dan and Jeanne Carver had developed a viable added value wool products business.

At the suggestion of Oregon Environmental Council officials, fans of Imperial’s sustainable ranching practices, the Carvers met in 2004 with John Emrick, then chief executive of Norm Thompson Outfitters in Hillsboro. Emrick listened intently to Imperial’s story of survival in sheep farming.

At the meeting’s conclusion, the Carvers and Emrick agreed on the parameters of wool and fabric supply for a Norm Thompson clothing line.

Emrick asked Dan Carver what he thought would be an appropriate amount of money that Norm Thompson should advance for the first year’s production.
polo boots for big kids Imperial Stock Ranch ready to enter apparel field