Jeanne and Dan Carver decided in late 1999 to begin direct marketing of lamb and fiber, a decision stimulated by a combination of factors, including increased competition from a flood of imports, the inability of American lamb to compete in the general market on price and the closure of regional processing facilities, which had succumbed to consolidation.
Imperial Stock Ranch has raised Columbia sheep for more than 130 years and was instrumental in commercial crossbreeding of wool and meat breeds of sheep in the late 1800s. Given the market pressures and the ranch’s sheep-raising heritage, the owners decided to secure their own markets, set their own prices and assure that sheep are profitable and secure in their position on the landscape. The Carvers, who believe cattle and sheep grazing together can make a positive impact on the health and vitality of soils and vegetation, have won many awards for their sheep. With the help of the Western SARE grant to fund “extras” like product design and packaging, display and point-of-sale materials, photography and the like, they set out to place Imperial Stock Ranch lamb and fiber in restaurants and retail settings.
The Carvers put some product out in 2001 and began exploring retail relationships. In 2002 and 2003, things “simply exploded.” Today, they sell 100% of their lamb and wool production, and customers report that they love the quality of the product, including the flavor of the meat, the feel of the wool, the fact that the products are natural and the message of land and sense of place.
“We’ve been told we’re the perfect ‘slow food’ whose worldwide message is: Taste, Feel…Remember,” wrote Jeanne Carver in the project’s final report. “We have told the ‘sustainable’ message’ thousands of times at every retail location, with every product sold, with every ranch tour hosted, every convention talk we’ve delivered and in countless newspaper and magazine publications.”
The Carvers say demand for this type of product exceeds supply and that they and others can grow as long as they’re willing to do the work that it takes.
The project team proposed the following objectives:
• Develop a comprehensive direct marketing campaign for sheep products, including lamb, fiber and pelts to shorten the distance from farm to consumer
• Search and develop relationships with small custom processors, given the departure from the region of large, conventional processing centers
• Develop retail products
• Develop relationships with retail outlets for those products
Lamb. The Carvers began by contacting USDA’s Oregon office to find a list of certified meat-processing facilities in the Pacific Northwest, pinpointing those close enough to make weekly delivery of “fresh meat” economically feasible, a challenge for many remote rural farmers. They then called for site visits with many questions about cost and cutting capabilities.
They found that not all slaughter houses want new business; some are in the retail business, which makes them a competitor in direct sales. Initially, they used a meat processor 60 miles from the ranch, but challenges, including competition, required selecting another, this one 160 miles from the ranch. Despite the distance, carcass yields rose 12% because business rose reducing cost per head for travel and the facility was willing to provide cuts chefs desired.
The next step was finding customers for the lamb. The Carvers emphasized the importance of building a few core customers who believe in the product. In their case, they have fresh spring lamb, locally grown and all natural, that comes from a historical ranch honored for its sustainable practices – in short, a lot of “sizzle.” They interviewed and developed relationships with restaurant owners and chefs, resolving details like offering the best cuts for optimum price and customer satisfaction and training of management and servers in telling the product story.
To complement restaurant sales, the Carvers approached a retail grocer in Bend, the nearest city of any size. The grocer agreed, and they delivered whole carcasses for the fresh lamb season (June to November) in 2002 and partway into 2003, when a new butcher refused to deal with lamb carcasses. Despite the lost market, the Carvers are selling all they can produce to restaurants. (An informal survey they conducted of the grocery store’s customers found that 56% say that foods that are 1) all natural and 2) produced locally 3) using environmentally friendly methods are very important to their purchasing decisions. Ninety percent of respondents expressed concern about food being produced with sensitivity to environmental impacts. The survey is helping to guide future point-of-sale materials and marketing planning.)
Fiber. Marketing fiber, say the Carvers, is more challenging than marketing meat, mainly because of the high cost of processing, limited options of facilities and competition from imported textiles. As with the meat, they researched facilities, finding one 180 miles from the ranch that could custom scour and process a load delivered once a year. They eventually closed their doors, so the Carvers explored other options, finding a facility in Canada that stores the wool at no cost, washes it with no chemicals and dyes and custom blends colors specific to the products.
Sales focused on wholesalers, and the Carvers soon found strong interest in a local wool product. Their search led to an Oregon company that turns out to be the largest volume yarn and fiber dealer in the Northwest and the largest supplier to spinners in the United States. With the dealer’s guidance they created a hand knitter kit that includes the pattern and fiber to make the garment, hiring a designer and photographer for needed professional touches. The Fall/Winter 2002 catalog included 11 Imperial Stock Ranch designs. Eight more were added for 2003 (see www.woodlandwoolworks.com, then click on knitting, then Imperial Stock). One Imperial design has become a top seller.
The success and visibility of the hand-knitting designs generated requests for custom-made products from the wool. With the decision to develop ready-to-wear designs and place them in a few retail stores, the Carvers now give a substantial amount of work to three designers in the region employing five hand knitters and one machine knitter. They also commission two fiber artisans to create wearable art pieces.
Pelts. This has proved to be the most difficult piece of the marketing business. Because the lamb processors saw no market for offal, including the pelt, the Carvers began bringing the pelts home with a mind to capture their value. They selected one of three tanning options they researched, sending 50 pelts at a time. After encountering cheaper imports, they decided to take the next step and fashion a final, distinctive product. Lambskin fashion items for women have now joined the classic woolens in the Imperial Stock Ranch ready-to-wear line available in boutiques. The effort is just beginning, but the Carvers are optimistic that, with a little marketing help from the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the lambskin items can become a specialty international export product for Oregon.
The Carvers cite significant impacts from the project on their ranch, agriculture in the region and agriculture in general. They have been featured in numerous local, regional and national newspaper and magazine articles; they have received numerous requests to speak at various events and conventions; and they have been asked to conduct ranch tours by several groups, including livestock producers, government agencies, rural developers, historians, wine groups, spinners and the Slow Food Convivium.
“I believe the marketing project has increased awareness and visibility of what we grow, how we grow it and how we manage the land,” said Jeannie Carver. At the same time, it has also supported the local community economically, from artisans to photographers to printers to models, even the local post office.
She also cites a positive impact on ranch income, for example a higher profit margin on Imperial Stock Ranch over the generic market. The Carvers are increasing their breeding stock to meet customer requests for product, which has led to several now buying the ranch’s beef. While the fiber market required higher startup costs than the meat, the cost are curving down, and the income is still far greater than from the generic fiber market.
“The Imperial Stock Ranch marketing project has touched hundreds of people,” said Carver. “We have increased awareness of buying local. We have increased awareness of opportunity, of risk and of the hard work necessary to make it successful. In our region, we have increased the awareness of agriculture in general, helping to overcome the urban-rural divide that has crept into our society in recent decades. We are having a positive impact on healing the severed relationships between people and the land, to the origins of food and to family and sense of place.”
Educational & Outreach Activities
The list of the Carvers’ media appearances, conference presentations, radio broadcasts and ranch tours is extensive.
“One of the huge benefits to agriculture from a marketing project like ours is the positive story of land stewardship and safe, healthy food production,” said Carver. “Our story is one of land, history, family, food, fiber…and people are as hungry for the story to feed the spirit as they are for the food that sustains us.”
Several producers have called the Carvers seeking counsel on direct marketing and what it involves. Among them have been alpaca growers who are attempting to join efforts to market their fiber in a manner similar to Imperial’s.
Acceptance of the market project by other producers appears to be high. Some have approached the Carvers offering them product to market. Many apparently perceive that such an effort requires too much work.
“In our experience, most ranchers would rather have someone else to the marketing for them,” Carver said. “Even though the opportunity is there to capture more value economically, the tradeoffs in time and effort seem too great.”
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.