Gail Fuller is a farmer by occupation; he also is equal parts philosopher and futurist. This Emporia, Kan., farmer quotes an ancient philosopher: “To be a successful farmer, one must first know the nature of the soil,” he says, quoting Xenophon of Athens, a Greek author who wrote those words nearly 2,500 years ago. From Fuller’s point of view, “knowing the soil” has slipped pretty far down the priority list in today’s agriculture. But it is job one at Fuller Farms.
“Soil health has become the main focus of everything we are doing with our farm,” Fuller says. “I have been continuous no-tilling on 100% of the farm since 1995. We realized that no-till wasn’t the final step – it was just the first step in our journey. The next step was bringing in cover crops, starting in 2004.”
Gail Fuller has become a leader and great source of information on soil health, says Brian Lindley, executive director of No-till on the Plains. “He has evolved into a clearinghouse of cropping information through relationships he has formed with other producers and scientists worldwide.”
Fuller is a popular speaker, drawing crowds who hear him talk about his successes – as well as his failures – in pushing the envelope to build soil health. He also admits to being a bit of a polarizing figure when he shares his forthright – some would say blunt – opinions about how agriculture should change course to meet its future challenges. “Most farmers think I’m an idiot,” Fuller says.
But then, most farmers haven’t yet had the chance to follow Fuller out to a secluded spot in a random field to watch him slip a spade into the soil. East-central Kansas isn’t known as a garden spot – technically, these aren’t even Corn Belt soils – but Fuller’s shovel turns up the kind of ground that would make any gardener proud. It’s black and blocky, and full of fat, juicy earthworms.
“When I started no-tilling, I was told that in about three years the earthworms would show up – that would be the key to no-till, getting the earthworms introduced,” Fuller recalls. “Now, if I don’t dig up a spade full of soil and find three or four earthworms, it’s a bad day,” he continues. “We want as many as we can get. The only way to get the earthworms is to have a living root in the soil; and that’s our goal, to have something living on every acre, all the time.”