This interview is part of a series focused on female farmers in the United States and based on the feature 9 Female Farmers Changing the Fashion Industry.
On more than 30,000 acres in Central Oregon, Jeanne Carver and her husband Dan run Imperial Stock Ranch, a family owned and operated ranch. Established in 1871, the ranch comes with a history (its headquarters are actually a National Historic District) and the Carvers manage not only a successful ranching operation, but the notable fiber line Imperial Yarn. The company was chosen to provide the yarn for the Team USA Opening Ceremony uniforms at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, designed by Ralph Lauren.
Focused on sustainability, the Carvers have built a successful business focused on the health of the earth that their operation depends on. In the process, she and her husband have made using American-grown wool a reality for individuals, designers and companies, both big and small. We caught up with Jeanne to learn more about what drives her as a businesswoman and what she sees as the crucial steps for driving sustainable fashion forward.
What drives you as a businesswoman working in the world of wool?
Jeanne Carver: I don’t think of myself as a businesswoman; I think of myself as part of a team of ranchers. My husband and I have been working side by side daily for decades, managing and tending the relationships of soil, sunlight, water, grasses and grazing animals. We sold wool, along with other harvests from the ranch, as commodities for many years. That’s the way it had been done for about 130 years on our place. When selling wool as a commodity was no longer an option (1999), it forced us to think differently and the journey began down the road of value added wool product, and a new way of doing things. It also changed our lives, and taught us many valuable lessons.
What drives me? Opening my eyes every day to the views of nature — the incredible landscape the animals who thrive on it — is the greatest inspiration you could have, motivating you to carry on every day no matter how great the challenges. When you live this close to nature, you are constantly reminded of the gifts we’ve been given, and the need to honor those. That is our daily work. You need no other motivation.
Why did you as a business decide to make a connection between the sources of our fibers and the clothes that we wear?
JC: Because we are the source of fiber. We are the beginning… the roots of food and fashion. That’s not a decision for us, it’s a way of life; it’s embedded. It all begins with the land and the grazing animals who convert the protein energy in plants, to a new form of protein that clothes and shelters man: fiber. Once you harvest the fiber, and begin to transform it to something usable to man, you become intimately aware of the importance of each step. The spinning of fibers to yarns, and weaving or knitting those yarns to fabrics, that inspire design and the creation of wearable and usable pieces. We recognize the importance of every step along the way. In today’s culture, we know that many have become disconnected from the source, and only are aware of the process and origins at the fabric stage and beyond. That’s because the majority of people today do not live a life closely connected to agriculture.
We are agriculture. We are all about food, clothing and shelter, the things that give life to man. So it is very natural when we present anything, to make the connection to its source. It’s the story of that item, its history, and a key to its essence, that makes the experience of choosing and using that item richer.
You recently merged with Farm to Finery LLC, what will this merger allow your business to do?
JC: Imperial Stock Ranch/Imperial Fiber and Imperial Yarn have been on this value added wool journey for 16 years. With the visibility that came during the Sochi Winter Olympics due to working with Ralph Lauren, and their decision to reveal and tell our story, has come a huge demand for our yarns, finished goods and my time. We have grown at a rapid rate, and it has been a challenge to respond to that growth with our limited infrastructure and remote location. We were approached by the partners of Farm to Finery, to combine efforts, strengthening all of us through this merger. Imperial Stock Ranch has been building bridges between urban and rural citizens, between the American west (natural resources/raw materials) and the American east (processing and manufacturing), and with this relationship, will have an expanded commitment and capacity to grow opportunities for American producers, and manufacturing and retail partners.
What do you think that we need to do to increase awareness about sustainable fashion and the source of our fibers?
JC: Many individuals and companies are making huge efforts to be intentional in their sourcing and manufacturing decisions. I’d say it is very important for product development researchers, designers and sourcing directors to continue to ask questions about origins and processes that lead to products. And it’s important for every citizen to ask some of those same questions. We need to make continued efforts toward traceability, and continue at every opportunity, to educate people (kids/staff/consumers) about the source and journey of fibers to finished goods. We need to talk about the total cost of goods, not just the price tag. I encourage working closer to home, strengthening our own communities and this country, which allows us to continue reaching out a hand to other nations, lending support where needed. We need to involve more producers of raw materials in the conversation. The move from family farms and ranches to corporate and industrial operations, changed some of the basic approaches to tending land and animals. Today, the move toward being “sustainable” is not really new. It’s more a return to the ways of family farming and ranching. We need to support that shift.
Image credits: Photo of Jeanne and Lambs: Paul Thacker
All other photos: Imperial Stock Ranch