Regenerative gold medal winner
By Kerry Hoffschneider
Jun 5, 2018
Colleen Fulton won a gold medal in the Public Speaking Competition at both the Nebraska District FFA and State FFA Convention competitions this year. Her speech was entitled, “Regenerative Agriculture.” However, long before Colleen achieved these awards, her father Kevin Fulton, a farmer and rancher near Litchfield, Neb., went on a journey through agriculture that led him to change to the regenerative approach that has had a lasting impact on all his children – Colleen, Cami and Timothy.
Kevin attended High School in Loup City and assumed leadership roles at a very young age – everything from FFA president, captain of the football team to president of National Honor Society. He then went to college at Kansas State University to achieve a bachelor’s degree in animal science. He later went on to graduate school where he earned a master’s degree in exercise physiology and spent 27 years in competitive weightlifting – all over the country and world. That led him to a career as the Head Strength and Conditioning coach at the University of Massachusetts.
“Then I came back to Nebraska in 1993 because my dad was getting elderly and he was pretty much retired. I rented the farm ground from him. That was 25 years ago,” Kevin explained. “We had some grassland back then; but, dad had it rented out to some ranchers who brought cattle every year and I rented the farm ground. I raised corn and alfalfa and I did not have any livestock initially.”
“As time went on, I became disillusioned with conventional farming. Then corn dropped to $1.70 and I was selling hay for $30 a ton. That was a low point. The real turning point was that I had come back to farm and thought I would be an independent businessman. Instead, I was beholden to all the companies selling me ag inputs. After I paid everyone else, there was nothing left for myself. I realized there was nothing independent about the farming situation I had been in for the past eight or nine years and it was not at all what I had signed up for,” he said adamantly.
Around this same time, Kevin started going to meetings to hear the late Terry Gompert, an Extension Agent in Knox County, Nebraska speak, “Terry was an outside of the box thinker. He was a very big influence in my life in getting me to go down a different path. That’s when I started to move to a grass-based operation. I did things like convert prime, irrigated crop ground back to grass. Needless to say, that raised some eyebrows.”
One of Kevin’s next steps was bringing in truckloads of cattle and starting to finish cattle on grass, “Things progressed quickly. Before long, I was finishing several hundred head of cattle on grass. I also eliminated tons of inputs like chemicals, fertilizer and seed and I did not irrigate nearly as much. I also did not have to have crop insurance anymore. I still did some hay and pretty much got out of the row crops after a couple of years. My diversity became what I put on all that grass. We started with cattle and then other people who were doing it encouraged me to get into other species. So, we got into multi-species-grazing sheep, goats and cattle. Then we added poultry and started with a mobile chicken house. We had all this productive grass due to our changes in practices and started doing custom grazing and brought in 600 to 800 head of cattle custom-grazed and custom grass-finished.”
Kevin also pursued organic and no-till crops with cover crops on his diverse farm that includes an array of landscapes such as: native prairie, buffalo wallows, creek bottoms, steep hills, flat ground and many historical sites. He eliminated the synthetic chemicals and fertilizer and a lot of the tillage. He was also one of the very first farmers and ranchers to grass-finish cattle under pivot irrigation.
“There are 400 farms in Sherman County,” Kevin pointed out. “What if every farm added one more person? That would be a huge impact on the local economy. I am saving several hundred thousand dollars a year in input costs in the direction I moved. I do not have a problem with paying one full time person and three or four part-time people. I started farming at 2,800 acres and have reduced to 800 acres. I am making substantially more income with fewer acres because we have intensified and stacked enterprises. We also save a lot in property taxes.”
Colleen said, “Growing up with my father’s vision of agriculture has not only helped me become more open-minded; but, it has also led me to become very involved in agriculture. Dad has inspired me to speak about topics like regenerative agriculture, even if I might face opposition. Most importantly, he has taught me to be proud of the way we farm. I’ve learned to embrace the fact that we farm differently from our neighbors because I know that we’re a part of the solution of producing healthy food in a holistic way.”