In 2012, Gail Fuller’s 2,000-acre farm was at ground zero for the drought that decimated corn production throughout the Midwest. His corn and soybeans had barely squeaked through the previous dry summer, even as many of his neighbors in Lyon County, Kansas, saw their crops desiccate and fail in the unrelenting sun. But when the drought persisted into 2012, Fuller joined the ranks of farmers who told the companies that administered their federally funded crop insurance they needed compensation for ruined acres.
On a hot day in early August, the company’s adjuster and his boss arrived to inspect Fuller’s land. Fuller and the adjuster greeted each other warmly — they had gone to high school together and the adjuster used to work for Fuller, spraying pesticides on his land. But Fuller grew uneasy when he saw the two men lingering over remnants of turnips and other brassicas he had grown to keep the soil healthy in between regular crops. Fuller had tried to kill off these cover crops before planting his market crop, as crop insurance rules require, but high winds interfered with the herbicide application and some of them survived. He feared the insurance company might not honor his claim because of restrictions the federal crop insurance program places on the use of cover crops.
Sure enough, the insurance company withheld a six-figure payout and canceled coverage on some of his fields. Stunned and panicked, Fuller called his partner, Lynette Miller, and blurted, “I’ve lost my insurance!”
Word started to spread across the county and even across the country, at conferences and via farming publications and talk shows. The recipient of numerous farming awards, including one of the American Soybean Association’s 2013 National Conservation Legacy Awards, Fuller is a leading practitioner of what is often called regenerative agriculture or agroecology, in which farmers try to produce food and fiber in harmony with nature. They pay close attention to the health of their soil and the entire farm ecosystem. They often eschew tilling because it disturbs the complex, soil-enriching community of microorganisms in the soil. They increase their farm’s biodiversity by reintroducing livestock to their land. Some reduce or eliminate chemical fertilizers and pesticides and avoid genetically modified crops. They also — and this was Fuller’s downfall — embrace cover crops, plants grown not for profit but to prevent erosion, build organic matter and carbon in the soil, and support the complex underground symbiosis of plants and microbes. The denial of Fuller’s claim and loss of insurance was seen not just as a personal blow, but as a signal that Earth-friendly farm practices can come with unaffordable price tags, potentially discouraging their adoption.