By Vanessa Caceres
There are plenty of farms in Florida, but ECHO Global Farm is in a category by itself.
The North Fort Myers Educational Concern for Hunger Organization — ECHO — specializes in discovering and sharing farming techniques that help fight global hunger. ECHO has become an “unintentional tourist destination,” said tour guide Russ Luther. The farm began to offer tours only after so many people wanted to see the work being done there. ECHO also grows the largest collection of tropical fruits and vegetables within the United States.
During a tour, visitors watch a short video that explains how, in many of the world’s more marginal climates, growing food can be a challenge. That means one person in seven around the world is going to bed undernourished, according to the video. Visitors also learn that while ECHO’s headquarters are in North Fort Myers, it has three other locations around the globe, including its latest location in West Africa.
After the video, visitors can take a short walking tour around the farm — all within about an hour. ECHO’s Global Farm tour winds through sustainable farming setups constructed to function in seven of the world’s most challenging climates, including rainforests and tropical highlands. There’s also an urban gardening demonstration that shows how those living in heavily populated areas can still grow their own food.
Through its field work, ECHO discovers and refines sustainable farming techniques that enable farmers dealing with different challenges to maximize what they grow—and be able to better feed their families. ECHO then shares the techniques through a global network and via the demonstration area in North Fort Myers.
“It looks like a nice garden, but there’s lots of research going on,” said Luther. “Science is happening every day.”
In one area, guests see a permaculture with ducks living in a hut above a tilapia pond. The ducks’ waste falls right into the pond, which fertilizes it and creates phytoplankton. The tilapia then eat the phytoplankton. In turn, a community with this kind of set up can eat the well-fed tilapia and the ducks, says Luther.
“An entire community can be involved with the maintenance,” he said.
Another area at ECHO has the highest point in Lee County — it’s a whopping 45 feet high. The area represents hilly areas of the world like Haiti, where sloped gardening is a way for farmers to grow their food. With the use of Napier grass grown around the edges, farmers have a living fence that feeds their livestock. Then, at the top of the hill, they can grow mango, Meyer lemons, papaya, cranberry hibiscus and other crops, says Luther.
The tour guide will then lead visitors to a fenced-in sugar cane area containing chickens. “Chickens poop — and poop is good for the garden,” Luther said. The chickens provide natural fertilizer for the sugar cane, and also aerate the soil, help with the irrigation and eat bugs and weeds. “They do all the farming,” Luther said.
Goats are common farm animals in many of ECHO’s target areas around the world, but goats also can nibble crops down to nothing. ECHO shows how goats can live comfortably in a homemade enclosed area. Farmers can use goats for milk, meat, money, manure and even methane, the latter of which refers to collecting manure and using its organic matter for methane, which can be used to produce energy.
The ECHO tour also introduces visitors to a variety of edible plants that might seem exotic to many, including moringa (a plant that has more protein than eggs and more iron than spinach), cranberry hibiscus (an edible flowering plant loaded with vitamin C and antioxidants) and the neem tree, nicknamed the “tree of 40 cures” for its various medicinal properties. Some communities in Florida, such as Anna Maria, use plants grown at ECHO in their edible community gardens.
After the tour, visitors can check out the nursery and bookstore, where items for sale include produce grown at ECHO, seeds or seedlings for the unique plants grown there, books about international sustainable farming, and beauty and hygiene products made from neem and other plants.
In addition to the regular farm tour, ECHO also offers an Appropriate Technology tour, which demonstrates how simple items can be transformed to make the lives of farmers around the world easier.
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