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.”
Earthworms are the most obvious indicator of soil health, but Fuller is focused far beyond that, extending his concerns to the microbes and other unseen forces in the soil. “Gail realizes that the soil is an ecosystem,” observes Ray Archuleta, NRCS conservation agronomist based in Greensboro, S.C. “He shows us how to farm in nature’s image, how to collaborate with it, how to give more than you take.”
Fuller describes his foray into soil health as a journey of understanding. “When we first started into cover crops in the late 1990s, it was because we were just looking for something to cover the soil, to help slow down our soil erosion,” he says. “When we came back to cover crops in the mid-2000s, I learned more about nutrient cycling and water infiltration, and to get to things like that we needed more than just a monoculture.”
He learned to use mixtures of cover-crop species – Fuller calls them cover crop cocktails – designed to provide specific services in the soil. “We started out with three- and four-way mixes, and now it is not uncommon for me to plant a 12- or 15-way mix.”
The mixes can be separated into broad categories:
Each brings its own contribution to soil health. Brassicas boost earthworm populations, for example, while some grass species favor the highly desirable arbuscular mycorrhiza fungi that assist plants in gathering nutrients from the soil.
Fuller is venturing into biological soil testing, having sent samples to Ward Laboratories where they undergo a phospholipid-derived fatty acids (PLFA) test. PLFA measures an essential structural component of all microbial cellular membranes, and PLFA analysis is a technique widely used for estimating the total biomass and community composition of soil microbes.
“Through those tests, we have learned that our predator/prey counts in the microbes are to the point that we no longer need seed treatments,” Fuller says. “The cover crops and companion crops draw in beneficial insects to control pests, which has allowed me to greatly reduce my pesticide use since we have good predator/prey counts above the soil. Now, we’re seeing we’ve also got those good counts below the soil surface.”
Fuller is backing away from seed treatments on all his cash crops. “We’ve not used seed treatments on our wheat for a couple of years, “ he says. “We started going away from it on soybeans last year, and won’t put seed treatments on soybeans for 2013. And we’ve got one company that is going to sell us some corn without seed treatment.”
That’s a common theme at Fuller Farms – looking for any way possible to reduce purchased inputs.
“Because of my focus on soil health, I am lowering my inputs,” Fuller says. “That not only is a benefit to my bottom line, but it helps to improve the environment that surrounds my operation, and the global environment.”
The key to cutting back on inputs is the big change he’s been able to make in soil organic matter (SOM). “When I made the switch to no-till, my SOM was in the 1.7% to 2.5% range,” Fuller recalls. “It now is in the 3.5% to 4.7% range. That alone has increased my water-holding capacity by 81,000 gallons per acre.”
Using cover crops to help improve the mineral cycle allows Fuller to reduce his need for commercial fertilizer. “I reduced nitrogen needs by 25% in 2011, and in places, I reduced nitrogen an additional 40% for 2012,” he says. “Solvita respiration tests are showing that my soils are capable of producing well over half of all my fertilizer needs. Those numbers will improve as I continue to build my microbial communities and increase SOM.”
Fuller points out another benefit: “Using cover crops and companion crops to grow my nitrogen, I not only decrease my demand for commercial fertilizer but organic nitrogen is much more stable in the soil than inorganic nitrogen,” he says. “I also am able to recycle phosphorus, which allows me to apply less commercial phosphorus, thus reducing runoff into area water supplies.”
Erosion control is a big part of protecting water quality. “NRCS data shows that conventionally tilled fields in my area erode more than 5 tons of soil per acre per year. Continuous no-till loses an average of only 0.5 ton of soil per acre per year. Adding cover crops and companion crops with my cash crops is going to allow me to not only lower that number further, but also begin to rebuild soil.”
Switching his operations to no-till eliminates at least two passes with equipment, and adding cover crops eliminates one more pass with a sprayer. “The benefits of that are two-fold,” Fuller says. “I use less fuel to make, deliver and spray the chemical, and have happier neighbors because of less chance of drift.” He says he also gets compliments from neighbors about less dust, as well as how pretty his cover crops are when blooming.
The wildlife also are benefitting from cover crops. “I have one landowner that only owns the land because he likes to hunt deer,” Fuller says. “He has been trying to establish food plots for the last several years. I finally convinced him that we have 80-acre food plots; he doesn’t need to be planting the one-acre food plots anymore. These diverse mixes are just a buffet for deer, turkey and quail.”
One of Fuller’s initiatives is rebuilding the quail population. “We are starting to see bobwhite quail numbers come back in all of our fields. The cover crops do an outstanding job of bringing in a wide array of insects, helping the quail to thrive.”
He’s also adding a livestock component to the farm, using some of the cover crops as forage. “I think livestock are a really important part of this equation,” Fuller says. “The buffalo roamed the prairies centuries ago, but we have really gotten away from having livestock on our ground. I think livestock are a key element in nutrient cycling.”
His farming philosophy emphasizes the importance of stepping back and looking at the big picture. “I want my kids to hand this farm to their kids in much better shape, and with much more pride, than I am handing it to mine.”
To accomplish that, Fuller says we need to focus less on sustainability and more on the soil. “What good is sustainable when we’ve lost 40% of our topsoil in just over a hundred years?” he asks. “We need to regenerate, we need to rebuild our soils.
“Life begins and ends with soil,” he says. “Without healthy soil, we can never have healthy water, healthy air, healthy food or a healthy life.”