Absarokee to Africa
The notion of being able to grow 50 good-sized carrots in one square foot of a garden seems far-fetched.
Absarokee resident Wayne Burleson has done it, though, and he has the pictures to prove it.
Burleson and his wife, Connie, live on a small garden farm near the Stillwater River in the Absarokee area.
The pair are devoted to their gardens and are constantly working to find new methods to increase the yield and quality of the food they grow.
What motivates the Burlesons is not self interest, and it is not simply curiosity. What drives the Absarokee couple is the possibility of helping to improve to the lives of others, and it is for that reason that Wayne recently received a national award.
At the beginning of December, the Burlesons traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend an award ceremony on Capitol Hill at which Wayne was one of six people to receive the 2017 Volunteer of the Year award from the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance.
He received the award for all of his work with USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer program. Burleson has volunteered through Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA) nine times, visiting two African countries – Malawi (three trips) and Mozambique (six trips).
During his visits, Burleson helped local farmers implement techniques to enhance soil and grow more quality food.
The nine CNFA trips are only a portion of the work Burleson has done overseas.
In the last 10 years, Burleson has visited 10 countries during 20 trips (Connie has gone on about half of the trips).
Through Farmer-to-Farmer programs, he has also traveled one time each to South Africa and Guatemala, and he’s been to Nicaragua three times.
The Burlesons have also visited five countries through mission trips – Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mexico, and Jamaica.
When asked which place is his favorite, Burleson just said “all of them have their own special people, environment, and needs.”
NAKED LAND NO MORE
Burleson is a Montana State University graduate who did his master’s thesis on soils, studying how roots act underground. He worked for seven years in research, for 13 years with the U.S. Forest Service, and for 20 years as a consultant.
“All our health starts in the soil,” he said.
The Burlesons have learned this first-hand. Wayne feels that the garden helped Connie heal after a serious injury suffered after a fall this summer. He says that certain plants in the garden have helped her feel better now than she did before the fall. Wayne has used homegrown produce to lower his cholesterol and triglycerides.
In Africa, the people aren’t struggling to eat better food; they are trying to grow enough food.
Burleson describes the many areas of Africa he has visited as “naked land.” Through burning and over-working, the top soil in many areas is gone, making the land compacted and unable to hold water, resulting in erosion, floods, and environmental problems.
The bare ground is exposed to the sun, which exacerbates those issues. Using fertilizer is an expensive necessity for many African farmers.
Burleson has seen and experienced these problems first-hand and, through his work with soil, is trying to help solve them.
The solutions Burleson has created deal with creating and using “born again soils” out of compost and other organic materials. Through the compost, the soil not only becomes “carbon loaded,” it is also blocked from the sun’s harmful rays.
He has worked with growing techniques, as well – what he calls “shotgun seeding.” Through this technique, small areas can produce a large number of plants, hence the 50 carrots grown in one square foot.
While he acknowledges that not every project is a success, Burleson’s techniques have had some great results in the communities he has worked with. Gardens are flourishing and yielding large harvests.
Always searching out the next problem to tackle, Burleson has begun to move his focus from individual gardens to large fields.
As he explained, “the end goal is ‘Naked Land No More’ across much of the world’s croplands.”
TRAINING PEOPLE TO TRAIN OTHERS
During his Farmer-to-Farmer trips, Burleson does not only implement his techniques – he teaches the local population through lessons in agricultural theory paired with hands-on experience.
His goal is to teach people who then can go and train others. This way, he says, the information will stay and spread across the area.
The passion with which Burleson talks about his work is incredible. As he tells stories of the people and cultures he has encountered in his travels, his admiration is evident. He is proud of all of his students.
Through Facebook, the Burlesons are able to keep in touch with some of the people they have trained, following their progress through photos of prospering gardens.
And what about the next Farmer-to-Farmer trip?
Burleson says last week while he was in the nation’s capitol he was asked if he would visit Senegal in western Africa. He is seriously considering the offer, saying “if there’s a need, I’ll go.”
THE BURLESONS’ WORK
Wayne and Connie have published one book – “Gardening for Life No Money Required” – and a second is in the works.
They keep up a Facebook page (Gardening4Life), and they post gardening techniques and information on a blog as well (http://www.newwaystofeedtheworld.blogspot.com).
Burleson says they want “to teach anyone, anywhere in the world, that if you can change the soils and transform them into ‘born-again soils,’ you have the power to grow life-healing food faster, tastier, and stronger than ever before.”