NORTH FORT MYERS — A couple of seeds in Southwest Florida are spreading a long way to developing countries across the world.
Rachelle Albright, who grew up in West Africa, knows firsthand about the need to equip people with agricultural skills to help reduce hunger in those countries.
Albright has been working at ECHO, a 31-year-old nonprofit, Christian organization headquartered in North Fort Myers, for about a year.
ECHO is dedicated to training Third World agricultural development workers to be more effective in helping poverty-stricken farmers grow their own food under difficult conditions.
The 50-acre farm, at 17391 Durrance Road off Bayshore Road, east of Interstate 75, re-creates several climates around the world and grows 272 varieties of produce in difficult conditions.
ECHO works with about 3,000 organizations around the world. It offers conferences, workshops and study courses for its members. It has three research centers — in East Africa, South Africa and Thailand.
“There is a huge need for what ECHO does,” Albright said.
On a recent morning, Albright, 23, who is from Georgia, weeded the land to plant sunflower seeds at the rain forest plot. The 10,000-square-foot rain forest area is designed to have limited space, as well as shade and daylight competition.
Staff members and volunteers grow seeds at the farm of plants that have a potential for producing under difficult conditions, such as too dry, too wet or too hilly for most crops. The farm has five environmental settings, a community garden and urban garden, ECHO spokeswoman Danielle Flood said.
Flood said ECHO gives free trial packages of 10 seeds overseas to leaders. Then, the packages could multiply into thousands of plants.
In 2012, ECHO distributed an average of 2,432 packages of seeds, an increase of 2,366 packages in 2011.
Around the corner from the rain forest plot, there is an estimated 2,000-square-foot urban garden.
Flood explained how edible plants, such as basil, sunflower, tomatoes and peppers, are grown on top of carpet, representing urban areas around the world where there is no land to grow. The roots are growing into the carpet.
The farm recycles material to grow food in, such as using a tire as a pot. It also uses cans and bottles as soil mulch. In the past 31 years, the farm grew from 5 acres to 10 times its original size.
The farm offers public guided tours and has more than 300 volunteers per year to supplement its 55 staff members.
David Miller and his wife, Bonny-Jean, enjoy spending their spring break to help others. David Miller, 24, a horticulture technician at Berry College in Northwest Georgia who formerly worked in the landscaping business, said he and his wife are devoted to serving others.
And that was exactly what the duo did on a recent morning.
Using shovels, the couple arranged dirt near 15 raised beds, which were lined with plastic. Later, they planned to poke holes in the plastic-lined raised beds to plant seeds, including pumpkin, seven-year lima bean and seed regeneration.
“I love my job, but it’s all ornamental trees,” Miller said. “I have more of a passion for farming food and doing it in a responsible way, in a way that feeds people and teaches them to feed themselves.”
After picking up tips from volunteering at the farm, Miller said he is interested in going overseas to teach his newly learned techniques to others so that they can start growing their own crops.
“I feel responsible because this is my passion to go out and serve others for God’s glory, specifically,” Miller said.
Naples-based Hope for Haiti, a nonprofit organization, supports the work of their colleague.
Tiffany Kuehner, Hope for Haiti president and chief executive officer, said it’s rare to find an organization that fills an important niche of pushing agricultural development and livestock forward in a way that is focused on sustainability and increasing food availability.
A lot of the work that ECHO does applies to what Hope for Haiti is doing too, using innovation in agriculture.
“They are a wonderful resource,” Kuehner said.
Hope for Haiti staff in Haiti is in frequent contact with ECHO when there are questions or new ideas. Often, Hope for Haiti staff members spend times reviewing ECHO’s library material.
“Hopefully, they are coming out with new innovations that may change agriculture as we know it in developing countries,” Kuehner said.