For Kansas farmer Gail Fuller, success in his long-running campaign to improve his farm’s soil health is found in one shovel full of dirt after another.

Like a prospector sifting a pan of water for nuggets of gold, Fuller sorts spades of soil looking for … earthworms.

“Not too many years ago it was a challenge to find a worm, but these days I am finding three or four worms in every shovel,” says Fuller, who grows soybeans, corn and wheat in Emporia, Kan. “The presence of the earthworms is a big indication that your soil is healthy.”

Fuller’s wide-ranging efforts to improve his farmland earned him the 2013 National Conservation Legacy Award from the American Soybean Association (ASA). The award recognizes environmental and conservation practices by farmers who are able to balance successful farming with conservation practices. Judges considered Fuller to be the standout among those selected from three regional winners of Conservation Legacy Awards.

Fuller, who operates Fuller Farms, was also selected as the Midwest Region winner.

Fuller says he’s honored to be recognized for something that has become a passion. It also helps call attention to the conservation efforts of many farmers across the country.

“I’m on a journey that began with soil erosion control,” he says. “There’s still a lot to do and a lot of improvements that can be made.”

He takes farm sustainability seriously. And he is quick to point out the need to focus on a farm’s most tangible asset.

“What good is sustainability when we degrade the soil?” Fuller wonders. “Over the past century we’ve lost 40 percent of our topsoil. The payoff for protecting and improving the soil is lower inputs and protecting the most valuable resource we have.”

Fuller’s attention to conservation took a major step up almost 20 years ago.

“We’ve been 100 percent continuous no-till since 1995,” says Fuller. “We started originally with no-till as a way to stop soil erosion. We found that cover crops are a good moisture-management tool. But the further we go into those things, the more interested I began to get in soil health. Later, I began looking hard at nutrient cycling and ways to bring our soil back to where I know it should be.”

Fuller’s approach to conservation includes a study of the maximization of microbes in his soil. Two years ago he initiated biological testing to help bring the “predator-prey” balance of the soil’s microbes to a healthy level.

“Monocultures are not found in natural settings in farm fields,” he noted. “Soil scientists are starting to discover that compatible companion plants work together in symbiotic relationships to improve plant health and productivity. We're using between eight and 20 different crops in our crop fields every year.”

Fuller is also a big proponent of the roles livestock and wildlife play in soil health. He is rebuilding the quail population on his property.

“And I think livestock are vital,” he says. “Buffalo once grazed all over this land and it was at its healthiest point.”