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Sustainable Agriculture

Customers Flock to Creative Ranch Products, from Lamb to Pelts

With more than a century of sheep ranching tradition on their 30-acre central Oregon ranch, Dan and Jeanne Carver were determined to continue raising sheep—along with 800 head of cattle, hay, and 3,000 acres of no-till grain—despite declining lamb and wool markets. With a Western SARE farmer/rancher grant, they investigated markets and launched a product line focusing on uniqueness and quality. Today, their sales include lamb for high-end restaurants, wool in yarn-and-pattern kits for hand knitters, and ready-to-wear woolen and lambskin fashions.

With a lack of processors, the Carvers were forced to find custom outfits willing to develop out-of-the-ordinary retail products. They found a small meat processor 160 miles away and captured restaurants by using many messages—fresh, locally grown, “natural” spring lamb from a ranch awarded for its conservation practices. “That’s a lot of sizzle,” said Jeanne Carver.

Annually, the Carvers deliver a season’s worth of wool to Alberta, Canada, where it’s processed to their specifications. Once washed and dyed, the wool becomes yarn for kits featuring the Carvers’ own knitwear designs. They sell their kits through a dealer who publishes a catalog circulated to 100,000 crafters. Repeated requests for finished garments from their wool encouraged Jeanne to work with area designers and knitters to create handmade woolen clothing sold in resorts and specialty shops. To use the whole animal, they began tanning hides and added lambskin fashion items to their clothing line.

“The marketing project has increased awareness and visibility of what we grow, how we grow it and, most importantly, how we manage the land,” said Dan Carver, referring to a bevy of practices to safeguard the environment, such as installing fencing to reduce herd size, building dams to create watering holes for domestic stock and wildlife, and protecting springs with fences while re-directing water into troughs.

Their project has evolved to an economic force employing regional designers and fiber artisans. The Carvers estimate they clear 30 percent over the price of lamb sold on the generic market, and the profits on the wool are remarkable, while keeping the yarn affordable. “Our customers love the quality of our product, the flavor profile of the meat, the feel of the wool, and the message of the land and sense of place,” Jeanne said.

 

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