Meet Solutions Pod: a series of live discussions with inspiring community leaders where we’re exploring ways to unlock our human potential, including health, environment, and society at large.
Our November Solutions Pod has welcomed a special guest Danielle Flood from ECHO, Florida.
Together with Justin Lewis, Taiwan and Anastasia Vozovik, United Kingdom, they had an in-depth discussion about sustainable farming and regenerative agriculture. You too can join the global conversation and watch the full interview on YouTube below.
In this article, we’re sharing the highlights of the conversation with Danielle.
Let’s dive in!
Hi Danielle, please introduce us to ECHO!
ECHO works to connect small-scale farming families globally with the resources, knowledge, and skills that will help them produce enough food for their families.
Many small-scale farmers are facing crazy challenges around the world: environmental, physical, generational, and traditional. They aren't growing enough food, which means they aren’t able to thrive, send their kids to school, pay for shoes, or medicines. They are stuck in this cycle of poverty and hunger.
If you can equip them with a piece of knowledge or a skill that they didn’t have access to, teach them that they can do themselves — these skills can never be taken away or stolen.
Then they can improve their lives forever, add value to communities around them, grow more and diverse nutrients for their families’ diets, and contribute more to the community's market. This is how the whole community thrives!
We’ve seen that investing in small-scale farmers is more efficient than almost any other type of community development. It’s related to health, water access, nutrition, and livelihood.
What resources do you have to teach people how to grow their own food?
It started with a textbook! In 1981, there was a group of scientists and businessmen who wanted to help those facing poverty. They knew that if they could share plants that have more nutrients than those that farmers have access to, then farmers have a chance to diversify what they grow. The problem was they didn’t have those seeds, so, instead of just educating about those plants they actually saved, cultivated and then sent free seeds.
From that time in 1981 till this day onwards, ECHO shares seeds of underutilized crops with small-scale farmers: over 350 varieties from Thailand, Tanzania and Florida.
For decades, we’ve been collecting knowledge, resources, and techniques that work well, learning them from creative farmers working across the world, testing them in Florida, and then share those that have promise with partner researchers in different farming communities.
We know that if we can be the risk takers, then farming families don’t have to. We take research and make it available to people who don’t have access to the research tools. We translate this information to nine different languages too.
Another main element of ECHO’s work is appropriate technology. No matter how much you can grow creatively, if a field of tomatoes doesn’t get to market then it doesn’t help anyone. So the idea is to help with post-harvest technologies, adding value, eliminating pests, creating optimal storage solutions so that families can sell at the right time and make the most profit for their livelihood.
Each community has a different challenge and it’s exciting when you know you have a tool to tackle that.
A valuable part of ECHO’s core is sustainability. How can that sustainability help in the long term?
If you consider every country that has steep hillsides, often the commercial interest will come and purchase the value land, so they end up having access to the most futile soil, the most well-watered garden.
Small-scale farmers have to push up into the hillsides to be able to have open land to feed their families. Steep slopes are especially susceptible to erosion, to water run-off, and to overgrazing. The challenge is the system works if the ground is covered and if the trees are doing their job.
However, if humans try to take the trees away to farm it can become a very challenging place to conserve the land and to grow the food sustainably.
So, a lot of the work we do on the hillsides is cutting contours into the hill and planting trees for the agroforestry system that catches the water and allows it to get into the soil. Then the trees can give the plants a little shade and create some more terrace naturally, like hillsides rather than letting the water and the soil run off. Erosion is a huge problem! Especially when people are trying to raise animals and agriculture together. You tend to have either overgrazing or over-farming.
Another challenging place where we try to offer solutions is urban areas: slam or refugee camps.
There is very little space, the population density is really high, and those farmers have very few resources. So, in those situations we talk about resource-based developments.
Common mistake is to concentrate on “what don’t you have,” but the important question is “what do you have and how can we use that to grow food in the specific environment?”.
In those cases we have done tire-gardens, where we fill them with waste aluminum or waste plastic and a little bit of soil. Then they can plant food plants in a portable bucket of trash. They can put it anywhere, on the roof for example.
What are the tours that ECHO does?
We are an accidental tourist destination. What happened was in the 80’s, as we started doing those farming experiments, people started coming in and asking questions, as ECHO farming was so different to traditional agriculture in Florida.
Our founder Dr. Price would take those people around and show them what he was doing. The word started spreading, and so more and more people would come to visit.
By 2006, the demand had grown so much that ECHO was offering three tours a week. Dr. Price and the team decided to start charging for the tours, hoping to reduce the number of visitors. Yet, in the first year the numbers have actually doubled! It was a sign that people wanted to know what ECHO was doing, and it became clear that ECHO is meeting an educational need in our community.
For the last 13 years we’ve offered these tours that have become a local attraction. Over 10,000 tours per year! We have recently become an AirBnB experience where you can feed the goats by hand and learn about sustainability here in Florida.
Can you tell us about the new ECHO app?
Our library of resources in Florida started as a way to assist those working internationally.
When people cannot visit ECHO physically, we assist them online in multiple languages. Yet, going online can be a challenge for many. We looked into it and realized that mobile usage has far outpaced PC usage globally. Hence, someone who’s never had a PC is likely to have a smartphone, and those can even work in the fields.
The app that ECHO has launched holds our resources in a very lightweight format: downloadable and low-bandwidth. We use file-transfer protocols for mobile to mobile where you can have the resources appropriate to you on your phone. Then you may wish to use Zapier or Whatsapp to transfer and share with someone offline.
We want to make these valuable resources most effective and available to anyone who needs them. It’s been very exciting to see people say: “I read more this week than in the past six months”.
In a nutshell, ECHOcommunity app is the eco-community mobile application available for IOs and Android (currently in English language only but next year other languages will follow). This app is not just for small-scale farmers, but it’s something for everyone who is looking to improve their knowledge.
So for people at home who are thinking about doing their own community garden… Can they actually get a sample of seeds from you to kick start their journey?
Absolutely! ECHO offers free trial packets. It depends on the size of seeds but a packet holds from 10 to a 100 seeds — enough to plant a 50 foot row to evaluate the seeds. We want people to try.
It’s the only way to know if it can grow well in the specific community and if it does — do people actually want to eat it? Sometimes different cultures have different taboos. For example the color of the food. Some communities do not eat greens because the animals do. It’s important to meet cultural contexts and fit in the community’s lifestyle.
Pioneer community garden serves a low-income community, providing plots to community members for free, so they can work on them whenever they are available. The individuals get training on how to grow the plants that in the future they can sell and make some income.
There is a deep fulfillment in growing food to eat. I am from a fast-food family, and through my adult years, I have grown to love real food. I believe it’s a part of every human being to feel more tied to the things you worked hard on.
There is always something happening at ECHO. What is your next step?
Due to the limitations of the Coronavirus, we had to amend our conference which typically welcomes 200 people in Florida. We shifted the conference to a virtual experience and 700 people came! We held different breakout sessions throughout the day and discussed a range of different topics. It was amazing and we plan to make it a part of our process growing forward.
We are looking to fundraise for a team that would cultivate resources specifically for the South Asian subcontinent and languages therein. We’d love to add more value to the experience of those in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and surrounding areas. That’s one thing we are growing towards. Stay tuned!
How do people become an intern with ECHO?
We have different levels of training.
The internship program is a 12 to 14 months’ experience. It’s for post-graduate students with any Bachelor's degree and a residency in the US. The interns become farmers for a year in Florida. They face the same challenges as farmers do. If what they plant does not grow — they ask why. If something grows too well, like okra, then they have a lot of okra to eat, poor guys!
Our interns also get an animal to integrate into their small farm system, so they learn how to maneuver. It’s a very intensive, hands-on experience here in Florida.
We also have a volunteer program which is a similar experience but for a shorter period of time (1-3 months). This is designed to let people “get their feet wet” and learn valuable skills. We also welcome people who have a career internationally, maybe trying to switchgear. Sometimes people come to ECHO to stay, study, and adapt our training to their own needs. In return they share their skills via seminars and training sessions. It works like a trade-off.