Agricultural Development: Florida Is Growing Food With Innovation

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An organic banana farm in Florida garners a corner of a niche market for growing food around the world.

When most people think of Florida, images of swaying palm trees, white sandy beaches, and that friendly Mickey Mouse character come to mind. However, if one were to wander off the beaten path, sustainable agriculture and educational programs aplenty can be found.

Just north of Fort Myers, Florida, on a back road, one can stumble across an exciting and innovative agricultural operation: ECHO.

ECHO, Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, located in North Fort Myers, offers a wide variety of agricultural services to people around the world. The organization’s goal is to assist poor farmers by providing beneficial information and networking opportunities. Additionally, ECHO provides hard-to-find seeds and plants.

“The organization does not ‘teach’ people how to farm, rather, they work to help farmers be more effective at growing food,” says Danielle Flood, communications manager.

The organization chose to base operations in Florida due to the climate and proximity to Haiti, as the group’s founders began their operations after gaining inspiration from a visit to the small Caribbean country.

“We have found the people of Florida to be extremely welcoming,” Flood says. “We have gained supporters from all over the country due to the ‘snow bird’ effect.”

Their first initiative, the ECHO Development Notes, is a quarterly technical bulletin sent to agricultural development workers, missionaries, teachers and scientists overseas. “We provide information on interesting plant species and researched techniques on methods for food growing,” Flood says. Each bulletin is available on Echo Net. Topics range from beehive designs for the tropics to seed-saving tips and technologies.

One of ECHO’s best-known programs is its seed bank, by which free trial packets of seeds are sent to communities worldwide. The bank contains more than 335 varieties of hard-to-find food plants, multipurpose plants and tropical crops. These seeds have been specially chosen for their unique ability to produce in difficult conditions: wet, dry or hilly geography. “The purpose of the seed bank is to diversify nutritional options for people across the world,” Flood says.

An additional initiative of ECHO is its “Technical Response Unit,” a group of staff members charged with researching problems and questions from their network.

One of the most innovative projects is the Urban Gardening initiative, where staff members work to find methods of growing food in urban areas. ECHO’s co-founder Dr. Martin Price has developed several methods suitable to rooftops, aboveground situations and small spaces. “Urban Gardening started at a local school in Collier County, and the project is continually growing,” Flood says.

Additionally, ECHO offers educational tours of the six settings of the group’s Global Farm. Visitors view rain forest habitats, visit farm animals, witness urban gardening techniques, and taste leaves and berries. Guests also can see various technologies that ECHO employs: biogas (turning cow manure into gas for cooking and lighting), a sawdust cooker, a simple solar food dryer, and more.

“We’ve had over 1,000 children tour our farm,” Flood says. “Overall, we see about 14,000 visitors a year. We think of ECHO as the most unique attraction in Lee County.”

While ECHO operates out of Florida, its reach is truly worldwide.

“We coordinate conferences in Thailand and Africa,” Flood says. “We do a lot of consulting for overseas regions and collaborate with farmers and researchers across the globe.”