Amid radical changes, Imperial Stock Ranch aims for permanence

(Feature story w/photos)

By MIKE VAN METER
For the Capital Press

MAUPIN, Ore. -- As near as Dan and Jeanie Carver can figure, their spread was originally called the Imperial Stock Ranch because its founder, Richard Roland Hinton, envisioned an empire that would outlive his name.

More than 130 years later, the Carvers are keeping that dream alive.

Anyone who's run cattle, grown wheat, raised sheep or managed forage where rainfall averages nine or 10 inches a year (about six inches in 2002) will tell you that dreams are well and good, but making them true is quite another matter. In an age where production agriculture is fast becoming dominated by imports and corporate operations, keeping a farming and ranching empire alive takes exceptional vision and tenacity.

R.R. Hinton was born on the Oregon Trail, grew up in Lane County and then moved east of the Cascades to make his dream come true. He first settled in a dugout cave two miles from the present ranch headquarters with less than $200 to his name, brought his bride to the place and had two sons born there, but he soon rose to prominence as a baron of both cattle and sheep when cattlemen and sheepherders were still shooting at each other. After building the empire, he sold the place to his son for $1 in 1915 and it continued to grow.

At one point, according to the history compiled by Jeanie Carver for designation by the National Park Service of the ranch headquarters on the National Register of Historic Places, the Imperial Stock Ranch covered 70,000 deeded acres in Wasco County alone. Some 25,000 to 35,000 sheep ran on the place, with another 500 cattle and 100 horses. North-central Oregon was the center of the Oregon sheep industry and R.R. Hinton developed the Columbia breed of sheep.

Since the Hintons' heyday, times have certainly changed. Nearby Kent and Shaniko, once boomtowns of the Columbia Plateau, are shells of their former richness. They're saved from being complete ghost towns only by the investments of city folks and motorists who cruise through on U.S. Highway 97. Imperial Stock Ranch once supported some 150 families. Today, four families are involved and many of the historic homes scattered along the dirt and gravel access roads are empty. Sheep, once a source of vast wealth, have only a tiny fraction of their former market.

Imperial Stock Ranch, though, still stands, and the same four commodities historically grown on the land remain, with cattle and wheat presently providing most of the income.

"It's been that way throughout its history," says Jeanie Carver. "The numbers have changed over the years, but it's always been hay, grain, cows and sheep."

The ranch owners' perspective on selling those commodities, though, has changed radically.

Dan Carver bluntly, even gloomily, sums up the past: "With any business, you want to look to the future. The future is not in production agriculture."

Given a chance to stand on a soapbox, he laments a box-store American economy where overseas lamb costs less than the Carvers pay to have their own sheep inspected, where Pendleton Woolen Mills has abandoned not only its Oregon manufacturing base, but its American manufacturing base, where neighbors "are leaving the land because it doesn't work," where Nebraskans suffer a suicide rate five times the national average, where the largest private landowner in the United States is not a rancher but media mogul Ted Turner and where the consumer's motto is five monosyllables: "As Long As It's Cheap."

Given a chance, Dan Carver sounds every bit the pessimist -- but that's not the whole story. After all, the Carvers are still on the land, their reputation is growing and city and country folks now pay good money just to visit the empire first envisioned by R.R. Hinton.

Much has remained the same on the Imperial Stock Ranch. A century-old granary is still used for its original purpose. Half-century-old machinery that Dan and Jeanie Carver describe as museum fodder still carry their load, and the original ranch headquarters still stands in defiance of time -- and has been well-prepared for a time someday soon that it will be fully restored to a condition reflecting its former prominence as a place to host political, religious, social and financial leaders. While less than half the size it was at its peak, the spread still covers 30,000 acres -- a little less than 50 square miles.

What has changed is the way the historic land, tools and practices are being turned into a living. For clues about the direction of the ranch -- as well as in the direction of the ranch's neighbors who struggle to figure out how to remain tied to the land -- one can take an easy two hour's drive south.

Bend, a town of 55,000 -- three-quarters of whom have moved from beyond central Oregon in the past 20 years -- is "90 miles and 100 years difference" from dryland wheat and cattle country, says Dan Hinton. Oregon's largest city east of the Cascades is something of a boomtown, with wealth earned in other climates being transformed into and spent on resorts, real estate, specialty stores and gourmet food in restaurants charging big-city prices for their goods. The distance of time and tradition provides the source of an optimism not apparent when Dan Carver is first on his soapbox. Folks to the south are buying Oregon Country Beef from the Carvers' neighbors, and Imperial Stock Ranch beef, lamb and wool products from the Carvers.

"Our product goes to green thinkers," Dan Carver says.

"Green thinkers" reflect what the Carvers see as the good things going on for farmers and ranchers in America. In those good things, they see three positive forces at work:

(1) Being green -- that is, values of clean water and clean air that are encouraged by the reality that sustainability is the key to long-term ranch survival on the arid plateau as well as elements of the farm bill.
(2) Entertainment -- in the form of museums and an ancestral connection to the land. Even longtime city-dwellers still knew a grandmother who raised chickens.
(3) Land values -- which if incorporated into the product can help contradict (if only a little) the old saying that a farmer lives poor and dies rich.

"They can have a piece of our beef or our lamb and be John Wayne for a day," Dan says.

Sustainability has drawn national attention to the Bakeoven area, which covers much of the region between Maupin, on the Deschutes River, and Shaniko. The Buck Hollow Project that brought 50 neighbors together for stream restoration now brings federal researchers to document the environmental health of the region, salmon to restored spawning beds and beavers, which migrated 15 miles to take advantage of the water and wood springing from the abundance. It didn't take many years of hosting humans attracted by environmental factors for the Carvers to start charging. Now folks gladly pay for the experience. Elk herds that in a conventional production environment might be driven away provide targets for hunters -- and another source of income to the Carvers. Connections with their daughter and son's (Susie and Rob Miles) rafting business in Maupin help draw more tourists, and nowadays all tours are handled out of the Imperial River Company.

Sustainable farming practices have paid off in pure productivity as well. Dan Carver says that since going to no-till wheat practices seven years ago, they've been able to maintain annual cropping with yields gaining on what used to be possible with traditional summer fallow. Every tenth of an inch of precipitation is precious -- much too precious for what every trip with a plow used to sacrifice to evaporation. Improved chemicals since no-till practices were heavily encouraged two decades ago mean that not only are yields up substantially overall, but costs are down just as substantially.

Cattle graze on the stubble, an uncommon practice which draws mixed reactions -- but Dan's calculations made the decision for him. "I looked at the residue we were leaving on the ground and counted out the value at $40,000 a year," he says. He believes based on his experience that hoof action on the ground, a factor keeping the practice of grazing stubble outside the mainstream, is a long-term benefit.

"These practices have helped us to utilize the entire resource better," Dan Carver says. "Our machinery and chemical costs have gone way down." Sustainable practices also pay off in animal health: Last year, 612 calves were weaned, and not one of the calves required veterinary care.

In the past, Dan figures less than 20 percent of the acreage of the ranch was fully utilized. Now, he says, that fraction has been expanded to better than 80 percent and he hopes for more -- all while keeping cows out of the creeks during the summers and enriching the tilth of the soil.

Quality has begun to attract attention from pretty heady sources, including several Bend-area markets and eateries -- and the head chef at Sunriver Resort. The Carvers were invited there without having made a hard-sell -- word of mouth brought the invitation.

"As the little guy, I was ready to get blasted," says Jeanie, "but he said 'You're absolutely right -- that flavor profile is perfect spring lamb.' "

The road to building new markets for beef and lamb was far from easy. Dan's words are, characteristically, blunt: "You have to give up your social life and your wife ... your private life is non-existent."

The toll the marketing work takes is most apparent when Jeanie Carver speaks of the emerging wool end of the family business: "The bottom line is if you don't get up and do it yourself, it won't get done."

Jeanie's relentlessness in developing specialty yarns, products and fashions can be exhausting merely to listen to. Jeanie Carver rarely lets up when discussing the struggles of finding a place to process wool (they finally settled on Canada), how to put sheepskins to proper use (the small meat processor would have thrown them away, but now they're locally made into gloves, vests and othe custom clothing), on arranging displays in resort gift shops and on striving to draw the attention of the fashion industry.

Then, coming up for air amid a sea of wool hats, felted jackets and soft sheepskin mittens, she finds a smile. "I'm really convinced we're positioned to go a long ways in the boutique world."

If agricultural economics, like life and politics, is a pendulum, then will -- someday -- renewed appreciation for quality and things grown locally mean that the the historic Imperial Stock Ranch is the cutting edge of a future very different from "As Long As It's Cheap"?

"That's a good question," Dan says while maneuvering the pickup across a cattleguard. Gazing across silent wheatfields covered with hoarfrost, stubble and a few dozen cows, he muses about still-private discussions about potential new markets and new uses of product from a 30,000-acre factory. He's still on the soapbox, but even without being able to speak the specifics, there's little doubt that the person standing on it believes the future is full of hope.


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