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A Farmer Takes a Stand for Soil Health—And Pays a Steep Price

Gail Fuller, a third generation Kansas farmer with a quick smile and a conviction that farming is “the greatest job on Earth,” lost his federal crop insurance because he was using regenerative agriculture practices.

He won his battle against the insurance company—but not before he’d laid off his employees, sold much of his equipment, faced family condemnation, missed a crucial reunion because he was planting alone—and finally, declared bankruptcy.

My family struggled with the changes I made, and they still struggle—my dad thinks I went broke because of cover crops,” he says of the rift that events caused within his family.

But Fuller, 58, believes his grandparents, if they were living, would feel differently. Cover crops decrease soil erosion, which costs $8 billion globally every year, while increasing organic matter and biodiversity.

  • This much is clear to me: soil health and human health are on parallel tracks. My grandparents understood the value of the earth. They would have been patting me on the back.
    Gail Fuller
    Third generation Kansas farmer

A River on Fire Inspires Environmental Awareness

The regenerative farming movement, with a focus on creating a healthy and functioning ecosystem through animal and plant diversity combined with practices such as no-till and planting cover crops, often comes face-to-face with an industrial Goliath trifecta of chemical fertilizers, weed killers and insecticides.

(Video courtesy of Gail Fuller)

The challenges Fuller met echo challenges encountered by farmers globally. This is the focus of the Naandi Foundation’s work in India: to try to make regenerative agriculture convenient and affordable, and to be able to see the results quickly.

Fuller was environmentally aware as a child, influenced in part by birding trips with his grandmother. At age six, he saw images of the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, on fire. He couldn’t imagine how a river made of water could burn.

Cuyahoga River Fire Nov. 3, 1952. (Courtesy of Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University Library)

A desire for better yields inspired him to try no-till in the 1980s, “but there was not widespread knowledge about how to do it yet, and we failed.” He tried again in 1994 but his yields were still dropping, so he gave up the effort again. Then he began to experiment with cover crops. Not seeing results, he quit again in 2000.

“Eventually I realized me removing carbon from my system was causing my system to collapse. I realized I knew nothing about soil. I didn’t know soil was supposed to be alive. I didn’t know earthworms were good for anything except fishing. But I came back to cover crops in 2003 and everything clicked.”

And then came 2012. “It was the second hottest and driest year on record, the kind of year that insurance was designed for,” Fuller said. “I was in a real bind. It was a major drought, and my corn fields were burning up and I needed field for the livestock. I needed the insurance company to come appraise it so I could get the cattle on it.”

Gail Fuller’s cattle at Circle 7. (Photo courtesy of Gail Fuller)

When they came on a hot day in early August, they saw cover crops—turnips and other brassicas he’d grown in the off-season to keep the soil healthy and prevent runoff—growing next to drought-suffering corn crops. Fuller had tried to kill the cover crops off with herbicide application before planting his market crop, as crop insurance rules require, but some had survived.

They asked for documentation on when he’d planted and when he’d sprayed for weeds, which he provided.

“On Oct. 29,” he says, still recalling the exact date, “I received a certified letter in the mail. They denied all my claims. They cited poor management practices. They saw the cover crops as weeds.”

An Ugly Time

Embroiled in a legal process, he had no crop insurance, and was disqualified from received an operating line of credit. He laid off his employees and worked the fields himself.

“Every time I needed something, I had to sell one or two of my cows,” he recalls. “My family wanted to say, ‘I told you so,’ but they didn’t. Most of my neighbors didn’t like the way I was operating.

man and woman standing side by side smiling.
Gail Fuller and partner Lynette Miller. (Photo courtesy of Gail Fuller)

“It was an ugly time. I went downhill pretty fast, physically, mentally and spiritually. With no employees, I was working by myself. And operating on very little income. Meanwhile from Oct. 29 until mid-May 2014, I’m spending 10 hours a week just on the legal battle, digging out of paperwork, talking on the phone. You become very isolated very fast.”

He missed a crucial family gathering: his family found his grandfather’s tractor, and his brother and son cleaned it up and presented it to his dad on Father’s Day. “I wasn’t there because I was planting,” he says. “My kids were pissed at me. My brother was killed in a farm accident a few months later so these were our last family photos with him, and I wasn’t there. It was a horrible time.”

Even when he won the case, all the insurance company was required to pay was what they originally owed Fuller, though he’d lost much, much more in the interim. And in 2014, when he needed crop insurance for two fields of soybeans, they denied again for the same reason.

“I called them and said the rules have changed and this is no longer valid, but it was going to be another fight, so I quit, downsized to 400 acres and left the game.” He has now gone to direct marketing through Circle 7 by Fuller Farms.

Fuller met Jonathan Lundgren when he was on his regenerative farming learning journey. The two of them were driving back from a conference in a snowstorm when they hatched the idea for Ecdysis Foundation.

“I’ve been saying we need an Ecdysis in every state, and I don’t even know if that’s enough,” Fuller says. “Every place is different, with its own conditions, and there is so much about the insect world we don’t know.”

He is full of both gratitude and regret for the direction his life took.

Life at Circle 7 Fuller Farms. (Photo courtesy of Gail Fuller)

“All of this struggle gave me the push to do what I’m doing now. I also know regenerative farming is the right way to go. But some things I would have done differently,” he says. “I gave ten years of my life to this battle when I could have watched my kids become adults and my parents grow old. If I were to do it over, I would just declare bankruptcy from the start, not fight to survive.”

A farm-to-table dinner at Fuller Farms. (Photo courtesy of Gail Fuller)