This time of year, it's easy to focus on our holiday gift lists, decorations, family obligations, and the food that's on our tables, usually in overabundance.
A visit to ECHO farm in North Ft. Myers will help you look at your holiday bounty through a different lens and consider the estimated 925 million people who are hungry.
ECHO focuses on reducing worldwide hunger by educating its visitors on sustainable farming techniques.
You would never think as you're cruising along I-75 that only a short drive off one of the exits, a harvest of innovative farming approaches, information, and goodwill is just waiting for you to see.
The farm is divided into seven different areas according to different climates around the world, including the rainforest, tropical highlands, lowlands, urban gardening and more. Within each area, we felt briefly as if we had been transported to various third-world countries, as we looked around and saw exotic crops and farming approaches not so common in the United States.
A few examples: In the lowlands area, there was a duck hut built above a tilapia pond. The idea is that the ducks' manure drops into the pond, providing nutrients to the water to help the tilapia grow more heartily. In turn, farmers who take this approach have access to tilapia, ducks, and duck eggs as food sources, said Danielle Flood, ECHO's public relations manager.
We also saw edible plants that farmers can grow in many different climates but that they may not traditionally consider, such as cranberry hibiscus and moringa, the latter of which is a green that is highly nutritious and almost entirely edible. Even the seeds of the moringa are useful as they can purify water, said Flood.
We tried the leaves of the cranberry hibiscus, and they had a pleasant fruity aftertaste; Flood said they're tasty in salads.
We also saw a water pump made, like most other things at ECHO, out of reusable materials, such as old water jugs and bike wheels (old car tires are also apparently a big part of sustainable farming). You have to step up and down on the water pump's controls to get it to work.
ECHO also has a newer region focusing on community gardens and includes items like papaya, kohlrabi, bok choy, hot pepper and oregano. That region allows ECHO to help areas that want to build sustainable gardens. I recently wrote about such a garden in Anna Maria that's using plants from ECHO.
Those who visit ECHO and share their knowledge around the globe find farmers are open-minded about their new knowledge, although they initially feel tied to their traditional ways. "Experimentation and innovation are not as common," said Flood. Still, once you show how sustainable growing techniques can help feed their families, they respond well, she added.
Flood pointed out that ECHO does not create the innovative farming approaches seen on the farm. However, they have the chance to share them with approximately 14,000 visitors a year, including the general public and those working in sustainable agriculture. In fact, ECHO will host its annual conference in December.
Although ECHO staff members may not always know the full impact of the knowledge captured at the farm and via its online resources, Flood shared a few stories. One man in West Africa attended an ECHO conference in 2010 and put his new knowledge into practice using special conservation techniques. By the next conference, he had tripled his income, began to grow fruits for the first time, and had seeds of such high quality, his government began to buy seeds from him.
In one Asian country, an ECHO visitor who works with people who live on rafts was able to show the community how to do "raft gardening" - essentially, growing food from carpets that hung off the sides of their rafts.
Tours at ECHO are $10 for those 13 years of age and older, $5 for those 6 to 12, and free for those under 6. You can find out more online about ECHO's daily tours. ECHO also has a bookstore and nursery; I bought a $4 pack of seeds for cranberry hibiscus, hoping to extend our experience from ECHO into our home garden.
ECHO also has regional centers in Thailand, Tanzania, and one that will open soon in Burkina Faso in West Africa.