We all value open space, wildlife habitat and the quality of life we enjoy here in Central Colorado. Working agricultural lands are instrumental to these values, including the rural feel of our community.
The best way to conserve these lands that are so important to all of us is to keep them working—stewarded by the people who know them intimately, love them and depend on them for their livelihoods. As we experience climate change and unprecedented growth and development, our farming and ranching community faces many challenges.
Recognizing the important role of agriculture in conservation, Central Colorado Conservancy takes an innovative approach by leading collaborative partnerships to build agricultural resilience. This helps ensure that working lands and the landowners who steward them will continue to be an integral part of the landscapes we depend on.
Innovative new virtual fencing project helps ranchers address evolving challenges
Agriculture may be one of the oldest trades around, but that doesn’t mean farmers and ranchers have stopped innovating. This is clear in Chaffee County, where our Agricultural Programs Manager Natalie Allio is partnering with the US Forest Service and local ranchers to launch a pilot virtual fencing project. A technology new to the grazing world, virtual fencing uses a network of radio towers and programmable animal collars to set virtual fence boundaries.
The Conservancy received a Chaffee Common Ground grant this spring to purchase the first set of towers for the region. Local ranchers are excited to try the technology, which will enable them to manage livestock to benefit soil health, protect riparian areas, target noxious weeds, mitigate wildfire risk and improve forest health. Ranchers also hope virtual fencing will mitigate conflicts between livestock and recreational land users. Such conflicts are on the rise as recreation booms in Chaffee County, bringing visitors who are not always familiar with or respectful of fence and gate etiquette. While virtual fencing can’t replicate the value of a rancher riding out to check on a herd, it can help ranchers meet new and old challenges, and ensure that they will be riding fence lines and tending to the land long into the future, rather than becoming an iconic vision from the past.
Sunnyside irrigation ditch: improvements to increase agricultural and watershed resilience
Without irrigation water, the ditch networks that deliver it and the farmers and ranchers who manage it, we would live in a completely different landscape. Keeping irrigation water on working lands is critical to watershed and ecosystem health. This was one of the main priorities to come out of a locally driven watershed planning effort by the Upper Arkansas Watershed Partnership, led by the Conservancy’s Natalie Allio.
With support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Natalie worked with the local agricultural community to identify key issues, challenges and opportunities their operations face around water. This process identified Sunnyside Ditch as a high priority for infrastructure improvements and an opportunity to demonstrate how improving water efficiency can bolster agricultural and watershed resilience. The project, which will improve water delivery along the ditch, aims to engage other irrigators and water stakeholders in planning efforts and wider conversations around supply, abandonment, infrastructure, augmentation, climate adaptation and development.
Conservancy collaborates and grows to increase support of working lands
Our team is growing to help meet the needs of local agricultural producers. Sarah Hamilton joined the Conservancy staff in April as the Agricultural Projects Manager based in Lake County. Her position represents a unique collaboration between the Conservancy, Lake County and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
As she works to expand existing Conservancy programs in Lake County, she will also support the Lake County Conservation District and team up with other local organizations to protect the area’s land, water and agricultural resources. The need for expanding the Conservancy’s agricultural team and building on existing partnerships was clear from Natalie Allio's ongoing work in Chaffee County. Natalie's holistic approach to conservation consistently shows how bridging boundaries can accomplish lasting and landscape-scale projects that protect agriculture and promote conservation in our communities.
New funding for soil health comes to Lake and Chaffee Counties
With help from Central Colorado Conservancy, both the Upper Arkansas and Lake County Conservation Districts were able to apply for Colorado Department of Agriculture’s new STAR program (Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources), enabling local producers to receive financial and technical support for implementing new soil health practices. These practices include intensive grazing for pasture health, planting new cover crop mixes and choosing local compost extract over synthetic fertilizers.
The end result of these diverse practices is the same—happy soil microbes, fungi and bacteria—and soil that can grow nutritious food, create drought resilient landscapes and act as an important carbon sink. UPCOMING soil health workshop: Celebrated grazier and author Greg Judy will cover topics such as building soil health with planned grazing, enterprise diversification and succession planning. Poncha Town Hall, July 15th-16th. Learn more and register here.
Connecting our community to local agriculture
A ranch in springtime can be a chaotic and bustling place—now imagine adding 90 kindergarten students to the mix. That is exactly what happened at Post Office Ranch outside of Poncha Springs this May, when Deane and Jim LaRue gave students a peek into what happens on a working ranch, showing them up close where their food comes from.
Our Hands for Lands volunteers cleaned several miles of irrigation ditches that supply water to over 800 acres of land for four local ranches. The program provides an opportunity to build relationships and engage community members with agricultural water issues.
After experiencing their first ditch cleaning, many volunteers have been known to return again and again with their own tools to finish the job.