ECHO Global Farm CEO and president, David Erickson, likes to tell a story about a lightbulb moment for the organization that benefited thousands of impoverished residents in Tanzania.
At the root of the solution: Meeting people where they are.
A couple years ago, the team recognized the opportunity to train mothers from rural villages who were in a medical center while their children recovered from corrective surgeries. As their kids healed, the moms worked in the center’s garden, learning how to grow and prepare chaya, moringa, cassava and other nutrient-dense perennials. The Tanzanian women discovered that the plants, many of which were new to them, weren’t only easy to tend and grow year-round, but they also delivered more nutrients than common crops. ECHO Global Farm sent the mothers home with cuttings and seeds to plant and share with neighbors. They also trained the garden staff, so they could continue teaching others who came through the rehab center.
For 40 years, ECHO has been connecting dots—between science and farming, between resources and needs, between Fort Myers and the world. They cast a wide net that gathers information to equip small farmers in some of the world’s most impoverished areas with the knowledge needed to pivot from a state of barely surviving to thriving.
In modern times, despite climate change, rising sea levels, wars, water and supply shortages, COVID-19, wildfires and other environmental challenges, they stick to their original model of improving world hunger through innovation and research shared with gardeners and small farmers. “Why bother with small-scale farmers?” Erickson asks. “Because there are more than 500 million of them, and they are positioned most proximate to global hunger and engaged in the most marginalized lands … People are willing to work, they just need the direction and ideas.”
At their North Fort Myers ECHO Global Farm headquarters, the group can experiment, test techniques, take the risks, make the mistakes and adjust the methods so that the small farmer in Thailand, who cannot afford to be without a crop for one year, doesn’t have to. Within ever-changing test gardens that recreate eight tropical microclimates and living conditions, a small army of 500 annual volunteers and 39 staff members—including agricultural scientists, engineers and community development PhDs—tinkers with resourceful ways to grow, process and store food. In the Lowlands Garden, a mango orchard may test which varieties dwarf best; or there may be a deep-litter system for hog-rearing, where instead of keeping pigs on concrete, farmers dig a hole and fill it with organic bedding that turns to compost and absorbs the stench. Elsewhere on the farm, vegetable gardens are built out of old tires and cinder blocks in the Urban Garden. Up a small hill, in the Highlands Garden, you may find terracing models using rocks as barriers and another with planted trees along the slope to prevent erosion while providing foraging fodder for livestock. And, in the Community Garden, cleverly themed plots grow ingredients for specific dishes like salsa or lasagna. For students, it effectively drives home the cause and effect of gardening and eating. Connecting dots.
The ideas are gathered from various nonprofits and research groups worldwide, but testing the methods first happens in Fort Myers, where ECHO germinated in the ’70s with Indiana businessman Dick Duggar. After a trip to Haiti exposed him to dire poverty and hunger, Duggar returned motivated to help. Fort Myers, where he had spent time, provided ideal growing conditions for experimenting with farming practices that could be replicated in Haiti. “This area is warm enough and coastal enough to grow things like lychees, mangoes and passionfruit—tropical plants that may be harder to grow even in Sarasota or Tampa,” PR and communications manager Danielle Flood says.
In 1981, Dr. Martin Price, a biochemical researcher, left his job at Battelle Labs in Ohio and joined ECHO Global Farm, driven by a mission to use science and technology to help the impoverished. The farm started with Martin, his wife, Bonnie, and one volunteer. They admit ignorance at first, coming in with a lofty faith-based mission but not much experience with how to get there. Inspired by a book Martin picked up—Underexploited Tropical Plants With Promising Economic Value—they started with plants, encouraging people to adopt nutrient-dense, unsung fruits and vegetables. “Before that, I couldn’t have named more than 10 tropical fruits,” Martin says with a laugh. They partnered with local rare fruit groups to get planting knowledge to share with farmers in the Caribbean.
And, so ECHO Global Farm grew with Martin gathering and disseminating ideas. “Networking is one of the biggest words to describe what we do at ECHO,” Bonnie says. Martin, who led the organization for 27 years before retiring in 2008 (he still volunteers weekly), started creating a journal that he’d get out into the world through partnerships with groups like the Peace Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The journal met a need—for the people who wanted to help the impoverished farmer and the farmer who needed to feed his family. “Even in the poorest places, many people have something in their yard,” Bonnie says. “We were showing them how can they take the moringa from a tree and put it in a soup, or how can they make a water pump using a bicycle.”
Since then, the farm has grown from 5 to 57 acres and expanded its focus beyond Haiti to include Africa, Asia and Latin America—tropical areas where malnutrition is prevalent but could be prevented. “Food grows in the tropics and people should be able to grow enough food to feed their families,” Flood says.
Myriad conditions get in the way, though. ECHO targets some of the biggest obstacles, starting with the loss of knowledge. “Population growth has pushed small-scale farmers onto land not regularly farmed, requiring new-to-them methods,” Erickson says. Metropolitan migration and the loss of practices like foraging further diminish people’s ability to feed themselves. Of the eight zones the farm is split into, five focus on climate challenges: hot, humid lowlands (like in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and coastal West Africa) and rainforests (Brazil, Central African Republic) with too much rain; highlands (Ethiopia, the foothills of the Andes), where farmers work on steep hillsides; monsoon areas, like the Caribbean and Florida, with dry winters and rainy summers; and semi-arid tropics, like dryland Kenya, with too little rain.
Every garden aims to be a self-contained, sustainable system, with forage banks planted near animals, livestock manure helping to fertilize the soil, and leaves and other biomass used to create mulch. Smaller ecosystems within the gardens show farmers how they can have nutritious foods—like Lagos spinach, lime leaf and dwarf mangoes in the Thai Kitchen Garden—within reach of the home cook. At every turn, the ECHO team thinks practically: What do people have available around them? What can they feasibly do? What will make their lives easier or generate income? Creative solutions are tested and taught in the Appropriate Technology Village, where volunteers MacGyver ways to make bricks, seed banks, dehydrators, water pumps and no-till planters out of lo-fi, readily available materials. The team also maintains a bank of 350-plus seeds farmers can count on flourishing. “It’s one of the biggest heartbreaks for a farmer to go down the road and not know if they’re getting the right seed, if it’s viable,” Bonnie says. “That’s the kind of thing that can ruin a whole crop.”
To maximize their reach, over the past 12 years, ECHO has created impact centers in Chiang Mai to better reach farmers in Thailand, Burkina Faso for West Africa and Tanzania for East Africa. The centers are staffed by locals who use demonstration gardens to teach hands-on about growing, harvesting, processing and preparing food. As the trainers teach, they also learn, so ECHO’s training program is ever flexing and adapting. “The two always go hand-in-hand,” Erickson says. “We’re not saddled with some illusion that we are the end-all authority.”
All of that information is available online through the robust ECHO community. Around 40,000 people from more than 190 countries log on each month to access the resources the nonprofit has amassed in its 40 years. It’s a living platform where farmers exchange ideas and ECHO staff respond to questions submitted through the conversation forum with tailored answers. “We have meetings around everything, ‘This farmer is looking for soil amendment in Niger and wondering where he can find corn husks,’” Flood says.
In 2021, ECHO trained 6,350 individuals in practical, sustainable, regional farming methods. To gauge its impact, the nonprofit hired an accountability research firm five years earlier. “We wanted to determine: Are they putting to practical use and, most importantly, sharing what they learned? How and to how many?” Erickson says. After five years, the firm had established an equation to quantify the impact: On average, each trainee shares with 40 other people, who in turn each share with their family of about five. In 2021, the multiplication factor amounted to 1.3 million individuals. “It’s an awesome thing—that reach and impact,” Erickson says. “But when you consider 800 million went to bed hungry last night, it’s just a good start.”
In connecting those dots between the world and Southwest Florida, the nonprofit upholds its commitment to its home community. “For building capacity to be effective around the world, we must also serve the world here,” Erickson says. “There’s a richness and rightness to that.”
After locals began stopping by to ask to tour the gardens, the team started formally offering and charging for public tours in 2007. They also host food festivals with gardening workshops, farm dinners and plant sales. They work with schools for STEM field trips, sell plants, and share gardening know-how and resources with local organizations like St. Matthews House. “We’re not a producing farm, but a research and demonstration garden,” Erickson says. “But in the process, we have some produce. We donate our ‘first fruits’ to local food banks.” Community Cooperative in Fort Myers and Misión Peniel in Immokalee are among the recipients of their harvests.
Although the team refrains from wielding their mission as an instrument for religious conversion, faith and the gospel lie at the foundation of the trust they have built. They quietly do good and teach survival through word and seeds, as they like to say, as the stewards of God’s creation. “We see ECHO as being the hands, feet and heart of God,” Bonnie says.
ECHO is quick to say there is no magic bullet for solving the issues around hunger. Other well-intentioned organizations follow the packaged-food model, in which premade meals with a long shelf-life are formulated to deliver key nutrients and delivered to communities in need. And while Erickson says that has its place (more so for disaster relief), he feels it robs people of their independence and dignity to do it on their own. ECHO Global Farm subscribes to the ‘teach a man to fish’ philosophy. “Longer-term solutions equip and enable people to survive and thrive,” he says.
For Erickson, ending hunger is not only a matter of having food but also learning to eat healthily, a failing in underdeveloped and impoverished regions of the world. “Economic poverty often leads to a diet heavy in starches because that satisfies hunger, but it’s not nutritious,” he says. Having enough healthy food connects the dots to better education and quality of life. ECHO works on the theory that the interchange of ideas and knowledge is the answer, the hope. “We do not own any of this,” Erickson says. “We are charged with being the stewards.”