This month, we’re speaking with Kevin Fulton of Fulton Farms.
Kevin operates a holistically managed organic farming operation near Litchfield, Nebraska. This diversified farm includes a pasture-based, multi-species livestock operation, along with grain, hay and custom grazing enterprises. Fulton Farms has drawn visitors from around the world to experience its unique approach to farming, which has been featured in numerous publications and documentaries.
Kevin has spoken at events from New York City to Los Angeles, educating consumers, farmers, animal advocacy groups, and university students and faculty. In 2014, Kevin and his children received the Farm Family of the Year Award from the Nebraska Sustainable Ag Society.
Many thanks to Kevin for taking some time to share his perspective with us on a variety issues that farmers such as himself are facing today.
Q & A with Sustainable Farmer Kevin Fulton
How did you become involved in farming?
I became involved in farming at a very young age. I started doing farm chores and other tasks at around 5 years of age. Besides having a diversified farming operation, my father also had a thriving veterinary practice which I helped in as well. We always had lots of animals around.
As I grew older I became heavily involved in FFA (Future Farmers of America) leadership activities and developing my own farm enterprises. I bought my first farm when I was still in high school, and also had my own cow herd, which I started at the age of 10. After high school I went to college and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Science. After that I worked for the USDA, got my M.S. degree, and then coached and taught at several universities. I came back to Nebraska and took over the family farm in 1994, and have been farming and ranching full time since then.
Tell us about your farm (animals you raise, size, pastured?)
Located in the Loess Hills and Clear Creek Valley of central Nebraska, our primary enterprises are cattle and sheep, along with organic corn, soybeans, cover crops and hay. The cattle and sheep graze year-round and are grass finished. The land base is a combination of native rangeland, irrigated cropland, and irrigated pastures. We have a wide diversity of native plants and wildlife on the farm. The land is certified organic and holistically managed. There are a number of historical sites on the farm such as sod dugout sites, wagon trails, buffalo wallows and a timber claim. We’ve hosted visitors on the farm from all over the world.
Why is farming humanely and sustainably important to you?
First and foremost, it’s the right thing to do if you respect the animals and the land. It’s also congruent with the values that were taught to me by my parents and other mentors along the way. When properly managed, this way of farming is better for the animals, the land/environment, the farmer, the consumer and the community. It can also be far more profitable. What’s not to like about that?
… it’s the right thing to do if you respect the animals and the land.”
What does a good, sustainable farming model look like to you?
Is your operation different from other sustainable farms? If so, how?
Not all models look alike and there are many different levels. We take sustainability a step further and strive for a regenerative model. We don’t want to just sustain at any level, but rather we aim to continually improve our farming operation, essentially producing more with less or fewer resources. We do this by reducing our inputs and increasing output, but at the same time improving soil health. It all starts with the soil and transcends upwards to the plants, animals and ultimately, to the end user, the consumer, in the form of nutrient dense food that isn’t contaminated with chemical residues, antibiotics and other unnatural substances. We regenerate using biodynamic methods and biomimicry to build soil health and fertility without synthetic fertilizers and toxic chemicals and pesticides.We manage using a holistic framework. My operation is very different from conventional farming operations, but similar to many other regenerative models. We’ve been at this for about 18 years now, so I think we are ahead of the curve in some ways, but it will always be a work in progress, as we strive to take things to a higher level.
We’re seeing more and more products that are labeled “organic.” What has this term come to mean in the marketplace and how is it confusing/misleading for consumers?
I think that labeling in general is often confusing, and often times it’s intentional to attract more customers and increase sales. The organic certification requires strict standards. Much of the problem lies with the ability to enforce those standards, particularly with the high percentage of imported organic products. Fortunately, enforcement is starting to improve.
It’s still best to buy as much food as you can locally from organic farmers, or from those that meet your standards. It’s important to build relationships with farmers that you can trust and ones that provide transparency.
Be particularly skeptical of people who claim that they are “beyond organic.” Most people make this claim because they do not want to go through the certification process, which is quite rigorous, and often times when questioned, they aren’t even familiar with the standards or even close to meeting them. It’s just another example of disingenuous marketing.
We are hearing a lot about the impact of tariffs on U.S. farmers, particularly in the Midwest. How has this impacted your business? Any predictions on how all this is going to end?
Fortunately, I’m somewhat immune to much of the impact because I am not selling conventional products into the global commodity markets. In fact, the tariffs could actually benefit me because the U.S. doesn’t export organic grains. We only provide for about 30% of the domestic demand so the majority of organic grains are imported.
Many of my neighbors and friends are commodity grain farmers and they are heavily impacted by the tariffs. And I do not believe it will end well for some of them. We’re already seeing the negative effects with suicides and bankruptcies on the rise in the farming sector. We have seen an increase in the price of steel products with the tariffs but fortunately I do not buy a lot of new farm machinery. Our inputs are just a fraction of what they would be if we were farming with conventional practices. We purposely started moving in this direction about 18 years ago to insulate ourselves from the market volatility that we have no control over. That was the best decision I ever made in this business. That strategy has paid off.
How do you market and sell your products? Direct to consumers, CSA, through retailers?
Over the years we’ve sold our products through many different avenues. Because we are a long way from major population centers and have limited labor resources, we have not done a lot of direct marketing. That is something we would like to change in the future.
We have generally sold truckloads of cattle to many different grass-fed beef companies over the years. Our organic grains are contracted and shipped by trucks to organic buyers, and then loaded on railcars and sent to the end users. Some is used for organic livestock feed and some is food grade for human consumption. We use most of the hay for our own livestock and sell the excess privately to other livestock producers. We’ve also done a lot of custom grazing and grass finishing over the years as a way to fully utilize all our forages.
Would you support a bill to end extreme confinement (cages and crates)? Why or why not?
Yes. In fact, I have done a lot of advocacy work over the years speaking out against extreme confinement of farm animals, as well as working on campaigns to end the use of cages and crates in several states. I would also support moratoriums on CAFO’s.
What would you like farm animal welfare groups (like Crate Free Illinois) to understand about farmers like yourself? And what is your key message/messages for our members?
The solution to most of our problems regarding climate change, environmental concerns, carbon footprints, animal welfare, soil health, food integrity etc., lies in the reasonable middle ground, despite what the extremists on both sides would like you to believe.
Agriculture has been demonized by the non-agrarian sector in many ways. Some of those concerns and criticisms are justified, and even shared by farmers and ranchers like myself.
Agriculture has been glorified by the extremists within the industry as a sanctimonious mission to “feed the world” in an effort to justify many practices that have unhealthy consequences when it comes to human health, environmental health and animal health and welfare. Many farmers like myself despise the industrial model of food production for these reasons.
Extremists usually have little understanding of the issues and it is blatantly obvious in much of their work. Most of it centers around a personal agenda. Despite what some may claim, we can never have sustainable or regenerative farming systems without animals in the equation. Whether you choose to eat those animals is a personal decision. This premise is not my opinion but one of the very basic laws of Mother Nature. Every ecosystem on this planet evolved and thrives because of that symbiotic relationship between plants and animals. That’s ecology 101. No matter how hard some might try, strategies based on personal agendas will not trump Mother Nature. Biomimicry is the key and that contradicts the extreme positions on both sides.
Lastly, consumers should continue to demand transparency and accountability from the agricultural sector.
Those that have nothing to hide, hide nothing.
Author bio: Christy Slaby is a life-long animal lover who resides in Illinois. She has been involved in both companion animal and farmed animal advocacy for several years. Christy joined the Crate Free Illinois team as a volunteer Social Media Coordinator in October 2017.