The new ranch economy

It takes cattle, sheep, hay, wheat, hunting, tourism, wool, yarn, custom farming, conservation, wind — and things yet to be imagined — to secure the future of the historic family-owned Imperial Stock Ranch.

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Above: Imperial yarn includes yarn products and fashion patterns, with the Imperial Knits Collection (a pattern-only collection) headlining Portland Fashion Week last year. 
Below: Dan Carver walking his land.
// Photo by Randy Johnson

The Imperial Stock Ranch sits 20 miles east of Maupin, which is to say in the middle of the most beautiful nowhere in eastern Oregon. The ranch sprawls across 32,000 acres of high desert, so high — 3,600 feet at its peak — that on crystalline days you can see all the way to Mount Baker and the necklace of volcanoes that leads to it.

Only four men have owned this ranch since Richard Hinton founded it 140 years ago. It passed from Hinton to his son, James, who grew the ranch to 70,000 deeded acres in Wasco County, along with more than 25,000 sheep and over 500 cattle, one of the biggest ranches in the county at the time, which made the Hintons important figures in the county and state economy. The 1945 census listed the Imperial Stock Ranch as the largest individually owned ranch in Oregon when James, without heirs, sold it to George Ward, who had worked on the ranch for years. It was from Ward that the fourth man, Dan Carver, bought the ranch in 1988.

Carver had a successful business in Stayton, and had bought a ranch in Dufur in 1978, a hay and grain operation he still owns. At the same time he heard that the Imperial ranch might be for sale, his first wife learned she had cancer. Dan says that each of their small children — Susie, Blaine and Ben — got a vote on whether to move forward and buy the ranch. The ayes had it, and the Carvers began the journey of running their new family business.

On a drive through his property, what the 69-year-old Carver sees today would be a lot like what the first man saw: many of the structures that Richard Hinton built still stand, his breed of Columbia sheep still roam and cattle still graze. The magnificent, ancient beauty of the land is untouched. But there are other things that Carver and his family see today that Hinton could never have imagined. That wool from his Columbia sheep would be gracing a fashion runway; that giant mechanical turbines could one day dot the landscape; or that people from around the globe would visit the ranch and his home would be an historic treasure. The Carvers have built on the ranch’s long-time operations of livestock, grain and hay with agritourism, direct marketing of meat, and a yarn business. And like a growing number of Oregon landowners, they have added to their balance sheet income from a wind exploration lease.


Above: a Columbia sheep. 
Below: The Imperial Stock Ranch rambles across a high plateau where Mount Adams (the largest mountain) and Mount Rainier (to its right) are visible.
// Photos by Randy Johnson

The mighty Hintons, scions of a ranching empire in their day, would be surprised to hear Carver call himself a small fry in the world of Big Ag. But it’s a profitable ranch, with success won by its owners’ old-school thriftiness and around-the-clock work, a diversity of income streams, and an understanding that evolution is necessary to keep the ranch economically viable. The Hintons, who diversified their livestock operation with grain and hay, would certainly recognize that, as would Ward, who saw the wool market collapse after World War II with the advent of synthetic fibers and made the decision to switch the ranch to cattle.

These forebears are all kindred spirits with Dan and Jeanne Carver, whose love and passion for this land defines them. Introduced by Jeanne’s sister after Dan’s first wife died in 1990, the Carvers have been married 20 years. In their operation of the ranch, the Carvers fight the same battles against globalization and industrialization that thousands of small family ranches and farms have fought. Indeed, it sometimes seems like a losing battle, with small farms and ranches decreasing each year in Oregon and nationally. The Carvers do not plan to be among them.

Over the decades, the Carvers have continued to build and diversify their ranch operation: Grains and livestock (Imperial has 700 head of cattle and 3,000 acres of soft white wheat and barley, all exported, plus several hundred sheep) account for 55% of their revenue; wool and yarn are 15%; and hay, subsidies and a wind-energy lease each account for 10%. Along with that, custom farming, hunting fees, tourism, and conservation programs generate small amounts of income.

Doing business in a way that makes the ranch sustainable both economically and environmentally is a bedrock philosophy of the Carvers. Dan has developed a conservation plan with the Natural Resource Conservation Service; the ranch helped restore the Buck Hollow watershed and 15 years ago changed to a low-impact no-till crop system, in addition to other ongoing conservation projects. Surging global demand and the rare confluence of record-high prices for both wheat and cattle in the past two years have meant good economic years for the Carvers.

“Right now, I wish I had a 1,000 more cows,” says Dan. “But you gear up for the bad years.” This is vintage cowboy philosophy and Carver is a believer. “Since the economy went south,” says Jeanne, “Dan has continually stayed focused on his basic principles of business: plan to weather the worst of times.”

“An old cowboy told me years ago, have a plan and stick to it,” says Dan.


Above: Dan and Jeanne Carter have spent more than 20 years diversifying the economy of the Imperial Stock Ranch. 
Below: Imperial Stock Ranch was founded 140 years ago by Richard Hinton. Many of the structures he built still remain. 
// Photos by Randy Johnson

The Carvers employ six fulltime men on the ranch and six women in the yarn and wool operations. Employing a dozen people is no small thing in this remote rural area. They liken themselves to being a small town, not only doing the many tasks involved in ranch work, but being their own fire, road, utility, medical and landscaping departments.

The several hundred all-white Columbia sheep (no black stockings on these babies) are Jeanne’s purview, and over the past decade she has created direct-market businesses for their wool, yarn and meat. A natural storyteller and writer, her energetic evangelizing for sustainable practices such as using local fiber has made her semi-famous in the state, in rural and urban circles. Last fall, designs made from Imperial Yarn and patterns headlined Portland Fashion Week.

Jeanne is as bubbly and energetic as Dan is low-key and cowboy cool, and there’s a good-natured range war that goes on between the cattleman and the sheep lady. He simmers a bit that his cattle ranch is now known as “the sheep ranch.” He considers sheep supremely dumb.

“I enjoy the historic significance of the sheep,” says Dan. “I just get worn out hearing about it constantly.”


If anyone could rebrand a cattle ranch a “sheep ranch” through sheer force of will, it would be Jeanne Carver.

The Carvers in 1999 started creating retail products from their raw commodities to survive. A small, lean whirlwind, the 58-year-old Jeanne has been working for a dozen years creating retail products from her sheep — artisan wool and meat (some of their beef is also direct market). She calls it her “sunlight story,” tying together the ranch animals that eat the sun-grown grasses, and that are being converted into food and fiber for people. The value-add is important because long ago the American sheep industry collapsed, and keeping alive the historic Columbia breed is as important to Jeanne as the revenue.

“It comes from our efforts to remain viable as a family ranch,” she said in a recent newsletter that she writes about ranch life, “to preserve the presence and relationship of sheep on the landscape and … to reach a hand across the rural/urban divide to work together for a richer future.”

Over the years, Jeanne’s fiber business has taken many turns: in 2004 clothing retailer Norm Thompson agreed to sell the garments that Jeanne produced in collaboration with local weavers and knitters. Portland designer Anna Cohen joined forces with Jeanne in 2008, and in 2009 they debuted the Imperial Collection by Anna Cohen at Portland Fashion Week, an apparel line designed by Cohen. They were back at fashion week last fall with a pattern-only collection designed by Cohen, with a final collaborative effort that included Earthtec, which makes fabric from recycled plastic.


Above: Jeanne Carver has built a yarn business to capitalize on the wool from the ranch’s historic Columbia breed of sheep. 
Below: Imperial Yarn products are sold nationally and internationally.
// Photos by Randy Johnson

The yarn operation is booming, and Jeanne says they can’t keep production ahead of sales. “I’m a work in progress and I’m not a businessperson,” she says. “I don’t necessarily want to go after as much market share as is possible.” Jeanne points with pride to the fact that since January 2011, Imperial Yarn has received no financial support from the ranch (part of the range war). It has grown to stand on its own, with Imperial Yarn more than doubling its sales in 2011 from the previous year. “A growing portion is e-commerce, but our bread and butter is local yarn shops all over the country,” says Jeanne. She has also sold to yarn shops in Berlin and London. Area ranches recently expressed interest in selling raw wool to her operation.

Employing women on the ranch is also a point of pride to Jeanne. Son Blaine’s wife, Keelia, is the full-time warehouse manager at Imperial Yarn, along with five other local women, in addition to Cohen being creative director. They call themselves the Imperial Yarn Girls (buttons available with orders) and have set up headquarters in the historic Hinton House, which the Carvers have restored (they live in the 1970s brick home built for George Ward). Jeanne spent 15 months researching and writing the application for a National Historic District designation, which the 22-acre ranch headquarters received in 1993.

Authors, environmentalists, yarn aficionados, Vogue Knitting and schoolchildren who have been known to serenade the sheep all have made pilgrimages to the ranch. Jeanne has embraced education and sharing the history of the ranch to anyone who wants to listen.

“The efforts … are simply our way of honoring the past as we constantly adapt and find the way forward to a solid future,” she says.

Finding a way to that solid future was part of the Carvers’ decision to sign a wind development agreement with Portland-based Iberdrola Renewables, a subsidiary of a Spanish energy company. Though the Carvers won’t say how much the deal brings them, it was enough to see that it could help secure the future of the ranch. Iberdrola also sponsored Imperial Yarn at Portland Fashion Week.

“Three years ago they descended like locusts,” remembers Dan. “Twelve companies approached us. The neighbors had signed contracts. I knew I was going to look at turbines no mater what. And wind income would help us keep the ranch in the family …. Times have changed, the economy has changed. Farmers are looking for other income other than running cows or raising wheat.”

The size of the ranch and its high elevation made it ideal for wind exploration. The Carvers are one of eight landowners in the area who have signed with Iberdrola. If wind development goes forward, there could be up to 202 wind towers on Imperial land, generating as much as 303 megawatts. Income to the ranch would be considerable. The project is still under evaluation, but Iberdrola says it plans to submit a site certificate application to the state early this year.

“Here’s how I see the evolution [of the ranch’s economy]. The homesteader couldn’t make it. The little guys are still disappearing,” Dan says. “I look at sustainability in its true form. There are three parts: social, economic and environmental. If you’re going broke, you’re not sustainable.”

“It might happen, and it’s just as likely not to,” Jeanne says. “The future of this ranch is secure regardless of wind power.”

Above: Blaine Carver is the ranch’s heir apparent. He is in charge of day-to-day operations while his dad, Dan Carver, is in charge of the books.
Below: The Imperial River Company on the Deschutes River in Maupin is owned by Susie and Rob Miles, the Carvers’ daughter and son-in-law. The business markets tours to the ranch, along with serving its lamb and beef. 
// Photo by Randy Johnson

Numbers and business deals are only part of the story about how a small family ranch survives. Critical to having a future is whether there is a next generation to take over. The agriculture industry is aging and younger people are not flooding in to replace them. Imperial Ranch has both a son and a daughter involved.

“I grew up working for Dad. I fell in love with it at a pretty early age,” says Blaine Carver. “Susie and I both want the ranch to go on forever.” (Brother Ben is a watershed coordinator in Colorado.)

Blaine, 34, is Dan’s heir apparent. He runs the day-to-day operations at Imperial in partnership with his father and also owns an adjacent ranch of 1,000 acres.

Like his dad, and George Ward and the Hintons before him, Blaine sees the economy of the ranch continuing to evolve and he has his own ideas that don’t exactly match up with the elder Carvers’.

Blaine doesn’t want the ranch to consume him the way it does his parents. “I call them the Intel generation,” Dan says. “Jeanne and I work seven days a week. Blaine and his wife try to give workers the weekend off.”

The younger Carver does not apologize for not wanting to work the ranch 24-7 and will look for a successful business plan that supports that. “I’m newly married and I want to spend time with my wife,” Blaine says. “So part of how you get there is doing better financially … I want this ranch to run well enough that we all have time to have a garden, have successful marriages and families, go hunting … This stuff is also important work, it just isn’t classified as ‘ranch work.’”

His sister, Susie Miles, and her husband, Rob, are the owners and operators of the Imperial River Company in Maupin, which offers lodging, dining, event services, rafting, hunting and fishing on the Deschutes River. With financial backing from the Carvers, they bought the property 10 years ago, and six years ago added a wing. It’s decorated with locally made quilts and art, and serves Imperial Ranch meat, along with tours of the ranch. “I’ll someday take over the tours at the ranch,” says Susie, who is 36. She adds that she and the Carvers are in the planning phases of other things, but like the rest of her clan, doesn’t give too much away. “Transitions take time,” she says. “That can be the hardest thing.”

“How to transition and getting along with our family…. It’s the hardest thing we do,” agrees Blaine. “Raising cows is easy.”

He admits he’s not tied to Jeanne’s beloved wool and yarn operation. “But I think it’s cool,” he says. “The same with direct marketing of the meat. I believe in it. However, [it’s] a 24-hour-a-day job and it doesn’t pay that well. I would love to see those programs keep going, but I may not be the person doing them. I would only see wool continuing if someone like Keelia wants to do it. I would support it 100 percent.”

Blaine sees a continuing decline in the cattle market and the need to prepare for that, and believes fee hunting on private land will get bigger. “I really see hunting as one of the key future points of this ranch,” he says. His own operation is mainly hay and hunting rights, and he also signed a wind lease with Iberdrola.

“[Wind income] perhaps would allow us to do what we do even better; however, it will not change our business that much,” he says. “The added income would ensure that you always made decisions with the best interest of the land and animals in mind, rather than the bottom line. One of the biggest income streams for ranchers is the government. If you had wind income or something like that you could get out of those programs and make smarter farming decisions.”

All reigns are temporary so it is inevitable that the fourth man eventually will hand over the ranch to the fifth man and the sheep lady will bequeath her animals to her successor. That next generation will find its own way forward. Imperial Stock Ranch has one beginning, and it will have many middles. What the Carvers work for is a ranch with no end.

For more history on the ranch, visit Wasco County’s historywebsite.

This article won a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists in the business feature category.

Robin Doussard is the editor of Oregon Business. She can be reached at [email protected].