ECHO Farm Field Trip

After a long drive through the endless industrial warehouses, outlet malls, and grassy swamplands, our small UMiami field trip crew arrived at our destination: ECHO demonstration farm in Fort Myers, Florida.  According to its site, “ECHO is an information hub for development practitioners around the world. We gather solutions from around the world that are solving hunger problems and disseminate them to our active network.These solutions promote sustainable farming techniques, nutritional plants, and appropriate technologies. They are well tested and proven to be successful over and over again.” (www.echonet.org)  The thorough and exhaustive tour we were led on immediately after arriving proved their point.  The belt around the equator of the Earth known as the tropics contains some of the most abundant, diverse ecosystems, rich resources for medicine, and potential for human destruction and degradation.  I am not in any way saying that humans are simply nuisances to the pristine environment of this region, but that our heavy-handed attempts to settle these areas often reduce them to a severely reduced, even desolate state.

Our guide’s presentation and tour reinforced the perils that we set loose on this planet.  Our decision to grow 12 crops including corn, millet, rice, and soybeans as the overwhelming majority of our diet and animal feed leads to global monocropping and pervasive blindness to the extraordinary potential of the ecosystems we tear down to plant a bit of staple fodder.  Industrialization and neoliberal capitalism favor streamlined, efficient, repeatable, shippable production methods over everything else, including diversified small-scale localized food systems.  The perfection of industrial agriculture in developed Western world has led to a supply that is quickly and effectively distributed, yet 42% of our food is wasted, with 61% of that coming from the consumer end.  Meanwhile, in sub-Saharan Africa around 20% of food is wasted, with the majority being lost due to untimely or improper harvesting and storage.  Apparently, there is an imbalance that seems to be remediable by addressing the Western consumer’s lack of frugality and the African farmer’s ineffective agricultural technique.  However, though the West could learn a thing or two about composting, preserving, and simply being grateful for our abundance, our technocratic fossil-fuel dependent system has drawbacks that bely our entire society.  ECHO acknowledges that solutions to world hunger are contextual and interpersonal, requiring empathic understanding and self-empowerment rather than patronizing knowledge and money offerings.  The organization contrasts starkly with half-committed aid initiatives and intrusive corporate interventions.

Therefore, it seeks to design food-growing schemas that reflect the climate and needs of the regions it involves itself with.  Here are a few cool techniques and insights that ECHO incorporates into its project:

  • the demonstration farm grows 20 different cultivars of bananas, anticipating a potential bout of disease that could wipe out the banana industry in certain regions (90% of bananas are of the cloned Cavendish variety)
  • a duck house built over a pond containing tilapia, in which the duck manure stimulates phytoplankton which tilapia feed on
  • SRI system of rice intensification, a technique developed in Madagascar in the 1960’s in which rice is grown on mounds and produces 150% more than paddy farming
  • terraced farming with nitrogen-fixing plants at the base of each terrace to retain nutrients in the soil as well as insect-attracting plants (napier grass) to pull insects away from crops (interplanted with marigolds to push them away)
  • moringa, a tree whose leaves contain insane proportions of nutrients (vitamin A, C, Iron, protein among others) and thrives in hot, dry environments
    • moringa seeds can even be used to filter water, with one crushed seed binding to pollutants and cleaning one liter
  • appropriate technology, employing tools that don’t require fossil fuels and can be repaired and built using local resources
    • rolling water vessel an interesting little invention that could alleviate a lot of tired backs around the world
  • biogas digesters to convert the methane of manure into a cheap, practical source of cooking gas

They even recreated a Thai street food vendor with Som Tum (green papaya salad) and mango sticky rice falsely on offer!

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