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Emporia, Kansas, farmer Gail Fuller started his Fuller Field School seven years ago to educate others about regenerative ag. He wants his soil healthy and full of life—from microorganisms like nematodes, protozoa and mycorrhizal fungi working unseen below the earth to the beneficial insects and livestock above. (Journal photo by Amy Bickel.)

Unlike his conventional counterparts, Gail Fuller doesn’t focus on maximizing yields. 

The Emporia, Kansas, farmer thinks differently than the age-old mantra that, with 10 billion people expected on the plant by mid-century, farmers must feed the world.

“I’m sorry if you are buying into that crock,” Fuller says bluntly. 

Instead, Fuller made the decision to base his profitability and success on the health of his soil.

“Soil is life and life is soil,” he said to a crowd at his annual Fuller Field School in Emporia last month. “We have 60 years of topsoil left and that was as of 2012. If we continue this current production model, we might not be able to feed the world by 2050 because we might not have all the soil left to do it.”

Lessons from Gail

Fuller started the school seven years ago to educate others about regenerative ag, a concept growing across rural America. He wants his soil healthy and full of life—from microorganisms like nematodes, protozoa and mycorrhizal fungi working unseen below the earth to the beneficial insects and livestock above. 

“We want to get our soil to function more like it was 100 years ago,” he said.

Fuller offered these tips to attendees.

1. How much is your soil worth?

While a religious no-tiller since 1995 who had dabbled in cover crops, Fuller’s committed cover crop journey began in 2003 when he realized no-till alone couldn’t solve his erosion problems.

Using Natural Resources Conservation Service figures from Kansas, Fuller estimates from 1981, when he started farming, to 2003, he experienced 5 tons of soil erosion each year—or a loss of 145,000 tons of topsoil.

Figuring in hauling, he estimated the loss at $2.9 million. 

“If farmers had to include that on their bottom line, how many farmers would go broke? All of them.”

2. No bare ground

“We have something growing 24-7.”

Fuller gave a few principles to follow: keep the soil covered, use a diversity of plants and animals, grow a living root and adapt.

His cover crop mix varies depending on each field’s needs and the season. For instance, a field with extensive weed issues might be seeded to cereal rye and hairy vetch. Other fields have high mixes that contain 60 to 70 different species. 

3. Cover crops save money

Not only does Fuller have more productive soils, his input costs have decreased, he said. 

He has cut back on herbicide. Fertilizer costs have declined by 90 percent. 

Early in his cover crop career, he planted more legumes to capture nitrogen. He still uses some legumes but said he is experimenting with his mix to keep carbon in the system and the nitrogen cycling.

4. Integrate livestock

Fuller’s operation incorporates cattle, sheep, chickens and pigs to help bring diversity and boost soil health. 

Every animal grazes differently, he said. They deposit valuable manure. 

The chickens are part of the insecticide for the sheep and cattle, he added. Chickens break down cattle manure and eat larvae. He hasn’t used insecticide on his cattle for at least eight years and sees more dung beetles.

Meanwhile, the 500 to 700 broilers he raises provides $10 a head profit. The farm also has 200 laying chickens.

5. Weeds tell a story

“Every weed is an indicator that something you have managed is allowing that weed to come in there,” Fuller said.

For example, bindweed means the soil might be lacking oxygen and calcium, he said. To help take care of the perennial, he might plant an aggressive, cool season cover like cereal rye and hairy vetch. He added farmers won’t wipe out bindweed with one cover. It might take a few years.

6. Don’t antagonize the insects

“We do everything we can to promote them,” he said.

When Fuller began planting cover crops, the abundance of bugs concerned him. “I thought, ‘oh my, what have I created. I’m not going to grow a crop forever. They are going to eat everything.’”

However, he learned, for every yield-robbing pest he has in the field, there are 1,700 insect species that are beneficial predators. 

7. Trust the system

Fuller doesn’t spray pesticide, even when sugarcane aphids hit Kansas in 2016. 

Agronomists recommended he and neighbors spray their fields. Fuller said some of his sorghum fields had a companion mix that included buckwheat, mung bean and cowpeas. With lacewings and lady beetles in his fields, he decided to trust Mother Nature.

Checking his sorghum a few days later, he found no aphids. 

“I thought I had bested Mother Nature,” he said, but a week later found the sugary goo on the plants that aphids leave behind. It plugs up combines, and Fuller didn’t expect to have much of a harvest.

“I walked in it a few weeks later and the field was full of honeybees,” he said. “They cleaned up the mess, and we harvested a good crop of sorghum.

“Patience—that is really hard to do when your livelihood is on the line and Mother Nature is attacking. Going home and going to bed is not very easy, trust me, I know.” 

8. Set your own goals

“I can’t tell you what your goals are,” Fuller said.

Nor can the seed dealers, he added.

Farmers should assess what they want to accomplish and design a cover crop mix that fits that field. 

Then, do your homework, Fuller said. Keep in mind what crop you are harvesting.

For instance, covers like hairy vetch are hard seeded and may persist for two or three years. 

“That is great for me, but for a wheat farmer trying to combine his wheat and it has hairy vetch in it, the elevator might not think much of that.”

Conventional farmers might out yield the regenerative farm, but Fuller argues he and other like-minded growers can be more profitable.  

“We are hell-bent on winning the coffee-shop talk,” Fuller said. “But what matters at the end of the day? Farmers using cover crops and cutting back on insecticides are giving up some yield, but they are more profitable. That is where we need to be focused today.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or abickel@hpj.com.

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