A John Deere Publication
Three smiling farmers at a table with a clipboard

A 'dibbler' is used to plant Burleson's abundant no-dig garden that grows entirely in compost.

Rural Living, Sustainability   April 01, 2024


A Mission of Abundance

Master gardener evangelizes the power of compost to food-insecure communities worldwide.

by Martha Mintz

Doing more with less has been a long-standing trend throughout Wayne Burleson's life. He's also driven to solve pretty much any problem that happens to mosey into his peripheral. It's hardly surprising then that his first Farmer-To-Farmer mission to Africa in 2008 resulted in him finding a new challenge to work—humanitarian gardening. It's made for a very busy and fulfilling retirement for the 81-year-old land management veteran.

"I've always felt physically and mentally pulled to people in need. In a Christian sense I feel like it's my destiny to make a difference even if I'm just a small cog in a bigger effort," he says.

The bigger effort he refers to is spreading his knowledge of compost and soils to help people in need around the world grow food without expensive inputs.

"As I stumbled around trying to be helpful in Africa I got an education that modern ideas won't help there because they don't have the same resources we do," Burleson says.

Unlocking potential. Instead of defeat Burleson saw a challenge. He returned home intent on finding solutions just as he had when he was a range scientist helping producers double their production through grazing strategies. He took minimalist gardening courses and worked to further simplify the strategies.

Then he started growing food in 100% homemade compost.

"Soil scientists will say you can't do that because there's salt in compost. I filled buckets with 100% compost, punched a few drain holes and they grew like crazy," he says. It was a critical discovery. "Anybody can make compost anywhere in the world just using household rubbish."

After his initial visit and another trip where he and his wife Connie spent 5 months living in Africa he learned African farmers were spending as much as 80% of their income buying inputs to grow crops conventionally.

His work with compost provided a way to eliminate that cost for many. In the past 15 years Burleson has made more than 24 trips to 12 countries teaching farmers and gardeners how to make and use compost. It's often used to grow crops on land that has been completely degraded.

At home in Billings, Mont., Burleson's own backyard garden grows in just 8 inches of homemade compost. It's completely self reliant as it sits on a layer of cardboard serving as weed block.

"You can make soil for free. Anybody can do it. You can make it in a bucket, a box or a sack," he says.

Above. Teachers are an abundant crop. Francisco Rosario (R) explained soil food webs and compost making to classmate Demetrius Robinson nearly as well as Burleson who taught him in his local Rescue Mission gardening classes. Wayne Burleson sees compost and healthy soil systems as part of a bigger picture. "I want to make people healthy. Let's get healthy soils that grow healthy plants to feed healthy people," he says.


Growing lessons. Sharing is abundant among Burleson's students. He credits his teaching model. "Learn it, do it, see it and believe it," he says. The next step for many is to teach it.

In Africa the hot weather meant he could make compost in just 10 days. Students would make compost then plant beds of carrots with and without. It made believers. His interpreter in Rwanda, Gaston, delivered the message so many times he went on to teach the practices all over Africa.

"He sends me photos of beautiful fields of food and says, 'Mr. Wayne, this is your legacy to us,'" Burleson shares. A recent message reported Gaston had harvested over 600 cabbages and that 'Children and teachers enjoyed good food for many days.'

In his basement Burleson has a large photo of 60 bucket-toting, cheering farmers in Zambia. He'd been teaching for several days and the word got out. On compost making day the farmers all showed up with buckets and the necessary ingredients.

"We had a compost making party. They took it home, watched it turn into black soil in a matter of days and planted their crops into it," he recalls. Soon after he got a message from one of those farmers. They said, 'We're making a profit, please come back to Zambia!'

He's received hundreds of pictures of thriving farms throughout the world that are integrating his teachings. They're able to grow enough to feed themselves and have product to sell without having to spend income on inputs.

When not on another continent Burleson serves as garden manager for the Montana Rescue Mission in Billings. He teaches well-received garden classes to many of the shelter's residents.

He recorded his practices and adventures in the book Gardening For Life-No Money Required but has no intent to slow down.

"I'm still healthy so I'm going to keep teaching," he says—a credit to the power of good food. ‡

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