With a family ranch spanning 2,600 acres in Blooming Grove, TX, Gary Price is no stranger to sustainability and ecosystem services. About 45 years ago, Gary and his wife, Sue, had the opportunity to begin their ranching journey when a family friend transitioned out of the business. They started 77 Ranch and have been piecing together parcels of the Blackland Prairie ever since, along with their son, Gary Lee.
Called the most endangered large ecosystem in North America, the Blackland Prairie is home to some of the last tracts of native, pristine prairie lands on the continent. Much of the current 77 Ranch footprint used to be a cotton field, but Price restored it to native grass.
“Part of the original property had good native prairie. It’s been a great teacher,” says Price. “You can see the resilience of the prairie plants which allowed us to shift away from feeding supplemental protein or hay. The native, undisturbed land showed us early on that’s the way we wanted to go. I’m really glad we’ve gone that route. We know more about soil health and plants and how they all work together.”
Sue calls Gary a restoration specialist. With the mantra of putting more back into the land than he takes from it, Price believes ranching is about cheap grass.
“It finally clicked with me that we’ll never be able to control the rainfall, precipitation, or weather events,” says Price. “But we can influence how much water we can keep. We can save the ground, prevent runoff, and prevent soil erosion events. The Blackland Prairie can really heat up in the summer when the temperature is above 104 degrees with the top four inches of soil reaching 140 degrees on bare ground. We do our best to decrease evaporation rates and utilize the rain by keeping a good cover of grass.”
Gary and Sue believe strongly in partnerships and work with staff from their local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners in Conservation, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, and other organizations. They work to find overlapping opportunities with their participation in all these partnerships, so every participant gets as much from them as possible.
In early 2019, 77 Ranch enrolled in the first Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) pilot through their involvement in the Land Stewardship Program, a Noble Research Institute initiative. This pilot is one of many throughout the United States which will be ground truthing the ESMC protocols and processes prior to a market launch in 2022. Price has served on the ESMC steering committee, now the board of directors, since early 2017, saying he saw ecosystem services as the next opportunity. He also serves as a co-chair for the recently launched ESMC Producer Circle.
“For the past three and a half years, we have been doing the background work to build this ecosystem services market for agriculture,” says Price. “We’re now taking it to producers to show what can be done, the progress that’s been made, and the data produced through pilots. Many producers have heard about this but are skeptical because of what’s been done before. Bringing producers in is the next step to developing advocates for what we’re doing and seeing how the pieces fit together.”
ESMC’s first operating principle is to be producer-centric, meaning a market-based approach must work first and foremost for farmers and ranchers to achieve desired ecosystem service impacts. The Producer Circle will serve as an in-house focus group and advisory committee on the all aspects of program delivery, including development of outreach materials, pilot and protocol development, and program operations.
“This [ESMC program] is going to be great for agriculture as it incentivizes good stewardship and management,” Price shares. “These efforts help give our country and companies throughout the supply chain the confirmation that we’re heading in the right direction. I’m looking forward to the conversations with Producer Circle advisors and advancing this initiative.”