Jeanne and her late husband Dan Carver have been innovative producers for many years at their 32,000-acre Imperial Stock Ranch near Shaniko, Oregon. In the 1980s Dan started working with the NRCS on a conservation plan for the ranch. Also, at that time he was introduced to Holistic Management and attended many workshops and began to integrate those practices into their operation along with a host of other conservation practices.
In 2005 they were part of a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) report that highlighted their Western SARE farmer/rancher grant to develop an innovative marketing concept for the wool they raised. That innovation has continued over the years to develop a much larger brand influencing millions of acres across the West as well as the US wool industry and the methods for measuring carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services to educate consumers about their role in supporting good land management practices.
The net impact on our ranch (the one with the most data) for the last three years in the high desert with less than 8 inches of annual precipitation is that we capture about 60,000 tons of carbon/year in the soil on our 32,000-acre ranch while producing beef, lamb, and wool. That means we draw down more than 218,000 Tons of CO2!–Jeanne Carver
The Rise of Responsible Wool
The Carvers have continued the heritage production activities of the Imperial Stock Ranch, which has been raising sheep, cattle, grains and hay for over 150 years. In the late 1990s, with processing infrastructure and demand for wool declining and lamb markets changing, they decided to market their sheep products in a new way. They found a USDA-inspected local meat processor which allowed them to market their lamb to high end restaurants that were interested in supporting their sustainable practices with a focus on animal welfare. They also shipped their wool to the closest mill that could process it into boutique yarns that they sold as part of knitwear kits to a national specialty product distributor, as well as to local yarn shops. With more requests, Jeanne also worked with local designers and fiber artists to create handmade woolen and lambskin clothing that was sold at boutique shops in resort towns. With this business model the Carvers estimated they cleared 30% more on their lamb price than on the conventional market.
That innovation continued over the years and led to the watershed moment where Imperial Stock Ranch wool was used in the Ralph Lauren designed Team USA winter uniforms for the 2014 Winter Olympics (a choice that has continued through the 2022 Winter Olympics). Following quickly on that success was Patagonia reaching out to Jeanne in 2015 to rebuild their wool supply after having some issues sourcing in their sustainable wool program in South America. “I said to them ‘Why don’t you give us a chance in the US to be part of your supply chain?’” said Jeanne. “With that involvement, we began working with Textile Exchange in their final development of a new sustainable wool standard that includes strict criteria for the handling of sheep stock, land conservation, and worker safety. In reading the draft of their standard, we saw that our practices already matched their requirements. We became a pilot audit site in the final phase of development of the global Responsible Wool Standard (RWS).” The RWS had broad stakeholder involvement including Nature Conservancy, animal rights groups, producer groups from around the world, as well as many brands like Patagonia. She knew what the potential for being involved in this marketing could yield to the wool industry in the U.S., and felt it was a real opportunity to show good practices for land and animal care and de-risk wool brands given more consumer concern about agricultural practices. When the Responsible Wool Standard officially launched in 2016, Imperial Stock Ranch became the first ranch in the world to be certified.
As demand continued to grow for RWS wool, Jeanne launched Shaniko Wool Company in 2018 to scale the supply of U.S. wool meeting this prestigious standard. Shaniko Wool became the first farm group in North America certified to this sustainable wool standard with their combination of Merino and Merino/Rambouillet sheep.
It is fitting that in 2023, Jeanne received the American Sheep Industry (ASI) Innovation Award for her lead in bringing wool produced in the U.S. under RWS certification, a voluntary third-party standard that is leading the world in protocols that are changing the industry.
Early Monitoring Pays Off
As the issues of monitoring protocols and third-party verification continue to be discussed and increasingly important in agriculture and industry, Jeanne and Dan (who passed away in 2021) are in the enviable position of having some tools already in place. Since 1989-90 when Dan collaborated with the NRCS and Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to evaluate their operation, they had species counts, yield data, agency testimony and observations of changing trends. “Dan was an engineer by training and was always looking at this ranch as a system,” says Jeanne “and we were seeing the results on the land of our infrastructure investments.”
As a result of his Holistic Management training and collaboration with the NRCS and SWCD, Dan put in miles of fencing to control grazing pressure and allow for adequate plant recovery. The Carvers also developed water infrastructure and built 150 sediment catch basins and spring developments, creating off stream watering points which caused springs to flow again and beavers to return, as well as perennial grasses to repopulate. Dan also controlled herd movement through strategic salt and mineral supplement placement.
The Carvers also looked at how they were managing their 4,000 acres of dryland crop ground, where traditional summer fallow farming methods were being used with every other year planting. The result was that 2,000 acres were then left bare and susceptible to erosion and weeds/invasive species. They knew that more trips with tillage to control the invasive weeds meant you were losing soil moisture to evaporation.
In 1996 Dan parked the plow. “We decided we were never going to plow again,” says Jeanne. “We invested in a no-till drill and converted entirely to no-till. We used our livestock to graze the crop residue and create a mulching effect. Then, we seeded in the next crop. We’ve done annual plantings or perennial grasses. We rotate different crops like barley, wheat, and triticale. We also have a standing cover crop with all the stubble, and have eliminated the bare ground which made us susceptible to erosion.”
Jeanne and Dan also looked at how their land management practices were affecting wildlife habitat. “We’ve had our yield data as well as data from our agency partners including species counts,” says Jeanne. “For example, we had salmon counts in the streams running through our property. In 1990, ODFW (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) reported only two salmon had returned to spawn in Buck Hollow Creek. Buck Hollow used to be a tremendous fishery. Knowing only two salmon had come home to spawn was such a huge wake up call for us. Dan became a leading voice among neighboring ranchers about our responsibility for water quality on our ranches. We became part of the Buck Hollow Watershed Project created by the local Soil and Water Conservation District which developed a 10-year plan with all 27 landowners in the basin as well as other agencies. In 20 years of working together with a whole watershed approach, we had record numbers of salmon returning to spawn, and that cooperative project was a forerunner of the Oregon Plan with each watershed across the state creating a group of stakeholders to work together protecting Oregon’s waters.
Increasing Importance of Data and Measured Impacts
When the Carvers took their harvest direct to market beginning in 1999, it was logical to pair their heritage and sustainable practices with the product. The Imperial Stock Ranch became the face of sustainable American wool. Shaniko Wool continues that legacy, bringing more family ranches under certification and leveraging their collective work of land stewardship. Jeanne says, “In 2019, when a potential brand customer asked me if we destroyed the land by raising livestock, it was very upsetting. Since the day I ever met Dan, he worked to see the land win. He knew that the healthier the resource, the healthier your business, and the greater chance you had for the future.” Jeanne continues. “We knew we had made a difference. But we hadn’t yet measured it. When I was asked that question, it showed me we needed to take the next logical step and actually measure the impact of our ranching practices.”
Jeanne set out to bring evidence of their work on the land. She started asking around to find the scientists who could work on the project and found Dr. John Talbott of Oregon State University. John had worked for the U.S. Department of Energy in designing and deploying carbon capture technologies. He had a great deal of expertise in land management and resulting ecosystem impacts including carbon sequestration, as well as an understanding of carbon markets.
“I told him I wanted to measure the ecosystem impacts of our ranching operations; and if we were capturing carbon on a net basis, I wanted to know how much,” says Jeanne. “John put together the research model we are now using. We do soil testing down to 60 cm (24 inches). We know that the first 20 cm (8 inches) is what we impact with our activity. We also take biomass samples at each monitoring site and sample twice each year — early growing season and after the growing season. We look at soil type, vegetation communities, slope, elevation and use to determine where to site our sampling points, and establish more than the recommended number of monitoring sites to ensure our protocols and data are credible. We’ve added the use of soil moisture probes to support water holding capacity and infiltration. We use the leading computer models to account for our inputs and help us get to net values. I tagged this the Shaniko Wool Company Carbon Initiative and we began measurements in the spring of 2020.”
They established their research model at the Carver ranch in north central Oregon, and now have three years of data. “We’ve also moved our research protocols across the other nine ranches in our farm group who supply Shaniko Wool (with a wait list of other ranches who want to join), collectively managing 2.6 million acres and producing 500,000 tons of sheared wool every year. This data is also allowing us to work with Agoro Carbon Alliance as we build quality carbon credits for voluntary markets.”
“John has brought in PhD post-docs working on this monitoring and research full-time as well as GIS consultants,” says Jeanne. “We have laid down more than 350 sampling points. For the first time in my life, we know exactly what we have been able to achieve in terms of both carbon emissions and carbon sequestration on our ranch. The computer models account for our inputs like fertilizer, electricity, equipment, fossil fuel use and methane emissions of livestock.
“The net impact on our ranch (the one with the most data) for the last three years in the high desert with less than 8 inches of annual precipitation is that we capture about 60,000 tons of carbon/year in the soil on our 32,000-acre ranch while producing beef, lamb, and wool. That means we draw down more than 218,000 Tons of CO2! We have a negative greenhouse gas emissions total because we are increasing our biomass and feeding the soil which, in turn, grows more biomass. The next generation now managing the Imperial Stock Ranch is also holding a 10-year contract for that carbon capture. This continues Dan’s legacy. What’s also interesting is that wool is 50% carbon, and that carbon is permanently stored.
“The concept of ecosystem service markets is more developed in Europe than in the U.S. I believe in working landscapes that help communities and the planet at the same time. Grasslands are incredible carbon sinks, and I want us as livestock managers, grazers and land stewards to have the opportunity to be rewarded for measured and verified ecosystem deliverables. This work gives us the opportunity we need to support well managed grazing and its importance to the human community and the planet. We need grazing animals on the land and to show that managed grazing can return positive results.
“We also have a new opportunity to earn economic value on voluntary carbon registries as long as the results are measured and verified. We have to meet the required criteria for approved management plans and the required reinvestment in the land itself, but those are things we do as ranchers already. Now, in addition to selling wool to brands who will pay a premium for good land stewardship and animal husbandry through third-party audited standards like the RWS and more recently, our dual certification to NATIVA Regen, our work with Agoro Carbon Alliance is bringing a framework for deeper investment by brands. Companies who wish to move toward their 2030 sustainability targets can make an investment into regenerative agriculture at scale through the purchase of carbon insets with a project like Shaniko Wool.”
Jeanne says, “This is the greatest work I’ve even been involved with. Being able to sell the ecosystem services we provide is a game changing opportunity for family ranches.”
Hear Jeanne speak at the 2023 REGENERATE Conference on November 1-3, 2023 in Santa Fe, New Mexico!