At a farm in Florida, aid workers prepare for the field

ECHO Farm Director Stan Doerr holds capsules of protein and calcium powder made from the dried leaves of hardy moringa trees. Doerr became a major advocate of moringa cultivation after witnessing its impact on the hungry in Africa. Photo by: Julienne Gage

Last April, food riots engulfed the streets of Haiti and starving children cried helplessly in their mothers’ arms. So what was Haitian national Vildor Archange doing puttering around sunny South Florida in a golf cart? A lot of humanitarian good, actually.

The agriculturalist was on a three-month internship at a 50-acre farm in Fort Myers that is operated by the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, where he learned forestry and agriculture techniques that could help his compatriots fill their stomachs and break market dependency.

“This is the stuff I’d like to give back to Haiti,” said Archange as he pulled the golf cart up to a greenhouse and stepped inside to examine rows of tiny fruit trees.

Avocado is full of protein - “it’s good brain food,” Archange said, explaining that it takes just two years to grow this fruit tree by grafting, as compared to eight years when it is planted.

Archange is one of hundreds of international aid workers who learned sustainable agriculture techniques during ECHO Farm’s nearly three-decade existence. Today, soaring food prices and a worldwide recession make ECHO’s training all the more pertinent. Founded in 1973 as a Christian nonprofit organization aimed at enhancing food production in Haiti, ECHO networks with 3,000 organizations in 180 different countries by providing on-site training, a 300-variety seed bank, and literature on agricultural best practices. Thanks to heavy funding from Christian churches and philanthropists, ECHO is able to provide these services free of charge, and it will provide them to anyone regardless of religious affiliation.

“Every year several thousand people who are visiting Southwest Florida make a tour of ECHO’s farm one of their vacation activities. Many of those who are Christians go back to their churches telling what they saw,” explained ECHO Communications Director Danielle Flood. “The result is that in addition to individual donors, ECHO has developed quite a network of churches of all kinds of denominations around the country that send regular support.”

Just how far does that support extend? Dissemination of ECHO’s agricultural literature is a perfect example. Since receiving a grant to translate the ECHO Web site and materials to French and Spanish last year, Internet hits have jumped from 3,000 to 72,000 per month.

On-Site training

Literature is one way to learn, but ECHO supporters say the best training comes from getting down and dirty on the farm itself. During two ECHO conferences each year, aid workers can pick up a few quick farming strategies and network with colleagues in the development field. One of the four-day sessions takes place at ECHO’s Fort Myers headquarters in December, and the other is held at its satellite campus in Chang Mai, Thailand, in September. An internship program is open to anyone who would like to spend a few months to a year volunteering at the farm. Interns are provided a stipend as well as food and housing in exchange for tending the crops, replenishing the seed bank, and maintaining the organization’s vast agricultural library. A third training option is to sign up for an accredited study program that utilizes ECHO’s online resources and on-site research. Boston’s Gordon College already has such a program in place. It requires students to conduct two weeks of fieldwork at ECHO and in satellite communities in Haiti.

Van Ryan Haden was an ECHO intern in 2000. After finishing his service, he traveled to Indonesia to help farmers there experiment with greater rice yields. He is now incorporating his experiences working in model paddies of ECHO and larger ones in Southeast Asia into his doctoral studies at Cornell University and the International Rice Research Institute.

“ECHO really helped me to integrate my background in biology into a more practical set of skills which have potential to actually help other people. Book knowledge is great but practical knowledge is better,” he said in a recent e-mail.

Heidi Renkema learned a lot during her studies in Land Resource Science and International Development at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. However, hands-on training in tropical agriculture and limited tool management wasn’t so readily available. ECHO offered her both. Its warm-weather site is divided into highland and lowland farming areas, and the materials it uses are the ones poor farmers could easily have at their disposal. Spare tires and carpets serve as potting beds for rooftop gardens and tubes hooked up to a barrel full of cow manure can fuel a biogas stove for cooking.

“It’s really amazing. We’re surrounded by all these ideas and things. It motivates me to want to go out and work with people who can benefit from this,” said Renkema, who is currently looking for work at an international development organization.

Sara Henderson, another former intern under the yearlong program, took her ECHO skills to an orphanage in Burkina Fasso, where she helped install a smaller-scale ECHO style farm for children.

The orphans “had never farmed before, and they wanted to learn to be self-sufficient,” she said in an e-mail. “It was just so inspiring to see them set this whole thing up because we were training these kids to be the future leaders of the country.”

How the gardens grow

Former interns and volunteers send back new ideas and information from the field, thus creating an endless stream of new agricultural techniques. During his final days at ECHO, Archange showed that he had gathered a bounty of them to use upon his return home. For example, he noted that it only takes gravity and a little tubing to irrigate a vegetable crop with limited water. To do this, he hung a bucket from the common point of three poles, poked a hole at the bottom of the bucket, sent several small hoses up through it, and then ran them in between rows of vegetables, slitting the tubes at intervals to allow the water to sprinkle onto the plants. Just one bucket of water a day is required to tend two 50-foot strips of plants. The ground water to fill that bucket is easily obtained with a “treadle pump” made out of cement, spare tires, rope, and wooden two-by-fours used for pedaling.

“Instead of giving you $5, it’s better to show you how to make $1,” said Archange. These days, he travels between Haiti and the Dominican Republic sharing blueprints for ECHO’s simple but effective farming technology with local farmers.

Archange was quick to point out that low-cost tools aren’t the only successful part of this trade. Remedies to hunger and sickness may be growing right under people’s noses. For example, planting hardy hot-weather trees like moringa and tamarind in the midst of crops deters soil erosion, puts nutrients back into the ground, and helps diversify human diets. The pulp found in tamarind pods is an excellent source of calcium, iron, and Vitamins C and B, and its crushed seeds can cure dysentery.

Stan Doerr learned to implement ECHO strategies even before stepping foot on the farm to serve as its director. He was working with World Vision in Mauritania, helping poor farmers when he met his wife Beth. She was an ECHO alumna who passed along some of the farming and nutrition strategies she gained back in Florida.

“In Mauritania, we saw some ideas that came from ECHO, things like moringa and the urban gardening techniques that radically changed people’s quality of life within 12 months,” Doerr said. “It was to the point that babies were healthier and bigger at birth, mothers gave more milk, chronically ill people were getting over their diseases faster, and income was being generated.”

Doerr became a major advocate of moringa cultivation after witnessing its impact on the hungry in Africa. This subtropical tree is so hardy it can grow in just about any hot climate. Once dried, its leaves can be ground into powder and added to bread dough or porridge.

“Three tablespoons of moringa power have 27 percent protein, more calcium than half a liter of milk, more potassium than nine bananas, more Vitamin A than carrots, and more iron than spinach,” he explained. “I gave a bag of this powder to the mother of a severely malnourished baby that was a year and a half old and weighed just nine pounds. I told her to put a spoonful in the food three times a day. Within a month, the child doubled his body weight and began walking and playing with the other children.”

Higher yields on fewer resources

Perhaps one of the most mind-boggling aspects of the farm is its system of rice intensification, a technique interns like Haden were able to help implement in Southeast Asia. By planting rice seedlings in small clumps dispersed throughout a field, farmers can irrigate with minimal water rather than flood their fields. For farmers in Cambodia, the technique has resulted in 50 to 100 percent increases in yields.

“Obviously with the price of rice tripling in the last few months, it’s going to make a significant impact,” said Doerr.

ECHO supporters are careful to point out that the food crisis mostly tied to the increased cost of transporting food.

“The shortage of food is not in the market, it’s in the home,” Doerr said. “You have to find ways of making food available at a price that people can afford and increase production so that they can take advantage of those increased prices.”

That’s exactly what Archange is teaching communities back in the Caribbean.

“Eighty percent of the eggs and chicken consumed by people in Haiti come from Dominican Republic, but Haitians could be enabled to produce their own food,” said Archange.

They don’t even need land to do that, he noted as he walked through ECHO’s rooftop garden models. In one example, the top of a bamboo chicken coup was used for growing cabbages that were fertilized by chicken manure. In others, spare tires have been turned into large pots for growing vegetables and even mango trees. Also, increased vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide and insulates buildings.

Driving his golf cart back toward the barn, Archange spoke of his eventual plans to make a scaled-down version of ECHO Farm on the 10 acres of land that he owns in central Haiti. But he remained committed to the more immediate work of traveling to poor Dominican and Haitian communities to offer crash courses on fast, grow-anywhere crops.

“Education comes first,” said Archange. “It might take a little while, but I’m very optimistic about that.”

For more information on ECHO’s conferences, internships, and study programs, visit

About the author

  • Julienne Gage

    As a freelance journalist and broadcast news producer based in Miami and Washington, Julienne contributes regularly to Devex. Her graduate studies in anthropology and journalism included research on youth development in Latin America and immigration in Spain.