Independent contractor, Chris Hazen of The Terra Firm, updated the San Miguel Board of County Commissioners Wednesday on potential participants in a grant program that awards landowners implementing water conservation and soil health practices. (courtesy photo)

Few in the American West have been spared the effects of the region’s long-standing drought, but on the frontlines of the sere conditions are those who work most closely with the land — farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers. San Miguel County created a program, Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) that compensates landowners for implementing practices in “drought resilience and other soil health improvement projects,” according to the county’s Parks and Open Spaces page n the county website. The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) got an update from the department’s director, Janet Kask, and contractor Chris Hazen, on their efforts to enlist landowners in the forward-thinking program.

The county was awarded a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to enhance the PES program, Kask explained.

“With the CWCB grant funding, we planned to offer a more comprehensive voluntary program to compensate agricultural producers and large landowners for long-term practices providing measurable water conservation and soil health benefits,” she told the Daily Planet. “This also ties in with the BOCC goals (and its) mission.”

The pilot program is seeking six partners and is currently in earnest talks with several interested landowners. Hazen, an independent contractor with The Terra Firm, is spearheading the administration of the CWCB grant in order to “continue with our soil health initiative,” Kask said.

“This will enhance our PES program going forward and as stated in our grant application, we hope to establish a program that is scalable and can serve as a model across the State of Colorado.”

While talks with landowners are ongoing, Kask and Hazen reported there have been delays.

“We're disappointed that we haven't had the landowner commitments that we initially set out to have,” Kask told the commissioners Wednesday. “We were looking at a total of six this year, but just based on active conversations Chris has had with certain landowners, some of them are on hold and hesitant to join and we do have somebody who's almost ready to go, but waiting for their USDA number. There are some criteria that the landowners need to meet and adhere to on our end.”

Norwood farmers Tony and Barclay Daranyi of Indian Ridge Farm are closest to qualifying as of Wednesday. Other participants close to being green-lighted are the owners of Laid Back Ranch and of Lizard Head Wilderness Ranch, Hazen said.

“Although not inked up we have three landowners that we've gone through the process of evaluating their property based on a firsthand tour showing us the areas where they have implemented the practices,” Hazen explained. “We've completed the mapping work or are finalizing the mapping work on those properties. Those steps are things that we've developed on the fly this summer in coming up with a framework to develop contracts for the county. Clearly, being on the ground, being able to take the information that the landowner is presenting to us, and putting it on a map is a little bit of a hurdle. We're using the county's GIS system to develop those maps and quantify the acreage totals of the practice areas. While we may not have hit four for this year I feel pretty confident in saying that we are at three and these are three landowners that are committed going forward.”

Some of the practices the county is looking for in property being proposed for participation includes cover crops, intensive till to no-till or strip till, improved fertilizer management, conservation cover /cropland conversion, forage and biomass planting/convert cropland to grass/legume/biomass, convert cropland to permanent grass/legume cover, windbreaks, nutrient management, and other practices as called out by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

According to the county’s website, “These practices generally provide benefits to the broader population in San Miguel County, including: water quality control, soil-water retention, air quality improvements and carbon sequestration.”

Some hiccups in meeting the goal of six participants include delays in submitting a USDA number, mapping challenges, the pandemic and other delays.

The CWCB grant totals $34,646, with the county matching at $34,646 for a total of $69,293.  

For more information, contact Hazen at The Terra Firm 970-708-1221, with questions or to schedule a meeting to identify partnership opportunities.