Close to a billion people around the world do not get enough food. “Seventy-five percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species. ” So reads a sign at ECHO, in North Fort Myers, FL. Furthermore, it is pointed out that many of the poorest people around the world live on soil or in climates ill-suited for those plant and animal species.
For generations, missionaries worked with small farmers around the world, but they lacked someone to provide them technical backup, and they lacked a central clearing house to exchange ideas.
Created in the 1970s as a way to help the people of Haiti, ECHO evolved into an organization that creates partnerships around the world to educate and share technologies, techniques, plants and seeds with small-scale farmers and urban gardeners.
They once sent students to Haiti. Now they bring college graduate interns to Fort Myers to get practical education before going to these poor countries. The interns are responsible for managing the North Fort Myers farm and seed-bank, giving tours, and responding to requests for seeds. Their work is supplemented by a growing army of volunteers.
The farm has six agricultural “zones” that replicate climate zones in tropical lowlands, tropical highlands, monsoon areas, semi-arid areas, the rainforest, and the urban garden.
Not all plants grow well in all areas. Furthermore, sometimes people don’t recognize the value of the plants that grow where they live. ECHO, working with its partners on the ground in these communities, identifies promising food plants. They grow these plants on their farm and distribute the seeds.
Uneducated farmers will eat all their harvest or use hybrid seeds that produce new seeds that are infertile. ECHO’s partners teach them which seeds to use and how to store a portion of their harvest for the next season.
They also develop ways for farmers to use local materials to irrigate and fertilize their land and protect it from insects and other predators. They use “primitive” materials to create useful technologies.
Not everything works. Danielle, our guide, said “ECHO fails so the farmers will succeed.” Feedback is important. They learn from the farmers in the field what works. For instance, a single carambola fruit may produce seeds that create seven different varieties of carambola, but only one of those may be really useful for long-term agriculture.
Agricultural development workers come from around the world spending time at the farm and its library of over 4000 books and pamphlets, meeting with others and attending seminars.
ECHO began to publish its findings in 1982 and sent them to 32 interested individuals; their annual report says ECHO Development Notes now goes out to over 3500 people in 180 countries.
Tours are available of the farm. Cousin Doug, a semi-retired pastor from a “mega church,” is now involved in “planting” churches around the world. When he and his wife Jane visited, we were fortunate to be given a guided tour by staff member Amy and Danielle, a staff member who had served in Africa. All four of us came away fascinated by what ECHO is achieving.
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