The Echo Heard ‘Round the World
Growing one’s own food is a bit of a lost art. It is a challenge to educate the non-farming masses—in Florida and the rest of America—about how to create backyard gardens. But imagine how much harder food cultivation is in Third World countries, where access to clean water and other natural resources is severely limited. For more than three decades, the nonprofit ECHO Global Farm has been aiming to change that, one region at a time.
Located in North Fort Myers, the ECHO International Headquarters contains a global farm and research center, a seed bank, and one of the largest collections of tropical food plants in the United States. ECHO’s Regional Impact Centers bring agricultural resources to small-scale farmers in Chiang Mai, Thailand; Arusha, Tanzania; and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
“Helping people grow food around the world is an incredible blessing,” says Danielle Flood, a spokesperson for ECHO. The organization’s mission is to help the 925 million people worldwide for whom hunger is a daily reality, and to give them the kind of independence that comes from being able to farm under tumultuous circumstances. ECHO serves as a hub for promoting sustainable farming techniques and appropriate technologies, and it helps 9,000 individuals and organizations in 155 countries every month.
“We bring together people who work in post-war or challenging places where people are displaced. For example, in Uganda, which is closest to our Tanzania center, in early November we trained 64 people,” Flood says. “Many of the people who presented there shared a lot of hope. Someone new to agricultural development in an area in conflict would have gone away hopeful to see techniques that they could implement.”
At the North Fort Myers site, visitors can take a 90-minute walking tour of the grounds to see innovative farming techniques in action. There are rainforest habitats, a simulated rural school, urban gardens, and a variety of animals such as goats, chickens, ducks, and rabbits. About 10,000 people take these tours annually.
“The tour is a fascinating educational opportunity,” Flood says. “I think our urban garden is probably the most inspiring because the idea is that the hardest place to grow anything is where you don’t have land, like on a rooftop or a sidewalk. So we have tire gardens, wading pools, feed sacks, and old boots. Basically, any recycled containers we can use have plants growing in them. It is impressive.”
Beyond the farm tours is the annual ECHO Global Food and Farm Festival in March, which has been running for 24 years. Attendees can taste exotic foods, virtually experience life in foreign countries, visit a “farmers’ market” with local products, and watch live cooking shows.
“It’s really amazing to see the hunger and thirst for the information we have at ECHO. The knowledge we provide can be as simple as teaching grafting to a woman in Tanzania, which helped her small tree nursery become more valuable. Because of what she learned, she’s now funding her children and grandchildren in school,” Flood says. “When I lived in West Africa for two years, we’d go to the well every day to bring water back to the home. So many people in the Western world don’t even realize that access to clean water is such a luxury.”
Water is a luxury. Farm tools are luxuries, too. What happens when both of these are in short supply in struggling countries? To help provide an answer to this dilemma, ECHO just built an appropriate technology center at the farm, scheduled to debut in mid-January.
“The idea of this center is to use what you have to make what you need,” Flood says. “So it’s not about external investments like buying a tractor. It’s about, ‘How can you use what you have to make something quicker or more affordable?’ This will highlight challenges in food, water, and shelter, and ways you can make them sustainable.”
These appropriate technologies can be applied anywhere, and for people in the United States wishing to start their own urban gardens ECHO’s local extension agency offers plenty of resources. ECHO does community garden consulting and has already outfitted hundreds of gardens within its five-county Florida area.
“The idea is really to equip any organization we can that has the outreach to assist the poor,” Flood says. “Seeing the faces of people who are actually learning and implementing the things ECHO does is pretty amazing. We are seeing real change.”
ECHO Global Farm: 17391 Durrance Rd, North Fort Myers, 239-543-3246; echonet.org.