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Global Farming for Change: The SWFL Hidden Gem That Can Help You Live a Healthy, Happy Life with Nutrient-Rich Foods

Global Farming for Change: The SWFL Hidden Gem That Can Help You Live a Healthy, Happy Life with Nutrient-Rich Foods

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Did you know that right here in SWFL (Southwest Florida) exists a 40-year-strong, non-profit global farm and education center that is home to the greatest collection of tropical fruits and vegetables anywhere in the U.S.? Did you know there’s a berry that is literally named “miracle fruit” that contains an enzyme that coats your mouth, making anything sour/acidic taste deliciously sweet for about 15–20 minutes? And that there’s another fruit that tastes just like creamy peanut butter? Both can be experienced at this farm—an operation that, in addition to work done in our own backyard, has aided family farms and local communities on five continents and in 190+ countries and, in 2019, training 5481 individuals and 114% more women than the previous year; that hosts family farmers from around the world for hands-on education and training and hosts university interns from around the globe to learn real-world solutions in the fight against global hunger. This hidden gem of a farm conducts virtual and in-person trainings (accessible to anyone) showcasing research from university professors, farmers, and other industry leaders in the arena of developing sustainable food systems, food security, nutrition, land and natural resource management, appropriate technologies, and more.

This farm is a hot spot to visit in Florida by horticultural hobbyists, novices, and experts alike, all seeking to learn about permaculture, agroforestry, tropical ecosystems, and sustainability. It’s a place that offers a Saturday produce market, an extensive nursery of rare tropical plants/fruits, a book and gift shop showcasing handmade, fair-trade art from small communities in Africa and Southeast Asia. It offers for all who come to the farm a schedule of gardening courses, guided educational tours, and an annual International Farm + Food Festival that hosts thousands of guests. Did you know that 70% of the world’s population depends on small-scale farmers for most or all of their food? The work done by this organization creates ecologically and culturally sustainable solutions, with exponentially produced food resources. Did you know that you have access to all of this—and more—at a single 45+ acre campus right here in SWFL?

Maybe you’ve been there as a student or volunteer, maybe you’re a rare-plant collector and have gone to find a unique Madagascar vanilla orchid or have attended one of the Farm + Food Festivals, but by and large, it is one of SWFL’s crowning gems and in many ways is still one of our best-kept secrets. It is Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) Global Farm, Nursery, and Education Center or ECHO Global Farm for short, located in North Ft. Myers (near the Caloosahatchee River at Exit 143 off I-75N).

The Mountain

“The Mountain” – a rare sight in southwest FL. This man-made, terraced hill represents a mock tropical highland ecosystem. Research is done here, growing everything from mulberries to Andean super grains like amaranth and quinoa, allowing small family farmers to receive an invaluable free education that helps them to help themselves.

ECHO Farms + The Garden Island – Connecting to a Piece of Home
Where do I start when describing ECHO? I think for me, it was about 20 years ago while studying at FGCU, after having recently moved here from Kauai, Hawaii. My home island is known as the “garden island” because of its overabundance of lush vegetation, tropical rainforests, high elevations swamps, ever-growing forests with wild fruits and bright tropical flowers, its abundance of waterfalls, natural landscapes with dramatic beauty, and world-renowned biodiversity (home to many indigenous and endemic species). With cliff-studded shores lines like the Na Pali Coast, ancient mountains forming places like Waimea Canyon (coined “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by Mark Twain, there’s no wonder it’s often used as a Hollywood backdrop for “exotic, far-off jungle scenes” in films such as The Blue Lagoon, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Jumanji, etc.). The garden island is also home to over two-thirds of the types of ecosystems found on earth; it is a true paradise. Much of the island is covered in rainforest and tends to be one of the more remote agrarian communities in the state. It’s speckled with farms both large and small, from mauka to makai (mountain to coast).

Growing Hope From The Ground Up

Hand-painted mural welcoming locals, tourists, farmers, interns, and plant enthusiasts from around the world upon entering ECHO Global Farm’s gift shop + book store + rare tropical plant nursery.

Our family farm was located along the river in Waimea Valley and truly looked like a scene out of Indiana Jones. Canopies of huge, old-growth mango, banyan, monkey pod, koa, and other tropical hardwood trees; massive networks of lillikoi (passion fruit) vines sprawled through the treetops, nearly blocking the light in some places and blessing us, as the passion fruits ripen and drop, with a forest floor littered with beautifully tart yellow round fruits. Wild bitter oranges, several species of guavas, tamarind, white gingers, nasturtiums, native ti leaves, and so much more all grow wildly and organically in storied canopy environments (what horticulturalist now call “food forests”). You will even find an endemic species of wild chickens clucking and crowing nearly everywhere on the island.

From the first time, whenever I walk onto the campus of ECHO Global Farm it’s as if I’m being transported in time and space to that same paradise in Hawaii where I grew up. Many hear the word “farm” and think of cleared fields with long, straight, never-ending rows growing fruits and veggies. However, as you transverse the maze-like paths at ECHO, you find yourself on the most amazing scavenger hunt. Amid a very similar canopy of old growth tropical trees, a dirt path cuts through a small grove of mature carambola trees, branches laden with juicy golden yellow star fruits. Meandering forward, you discover seven different simulated ecosystems such as tropical rainforest, urban environment, monsoon climate, arid terrain, low land, and upland. “The Mountain,” as they call it, is a 30+ foot tall, terraced hill built in the name of research in the fight against global hunger. All of this is so the home team can trouble shoot, conducting research and development and garnering knowledge that goes to the boots-on-the-ground farmers in those climates/communities around the world. Even with all their global connections, what keeps me enthusiastic as a volunteer at ECHO is that it creates a sentiment of connection to home.

How Does This Relate to Me and What Can I Do?
Those of us visiting and/or living here in SWFL truly are blessed. At times, it seems as though the pristine oasis that is Naples and SWFL is unaffected by so many of the challenges faced in other regions of the world. Yet we have heard the reports that just came from COP26 (the 26th United Nations Conference for Climate Change, in Glasgow autumn of 2021)—for better or worse, we are all interconnected on this planet. There are many ways to incite change; however, when you can find something that connects with you on a personal and emotional level you’re more likely to find meaning in it, and that meaning—and subsequent change—will be all the more impactful and sustainable.

Without doing a deep dive into the topics of food security/equity and global hunger, malnutrition statistics, and macronutrients vs. micronutrients, I will say that whether we’re in a resource-challenged village in East Africa, in Immokalee, FL, or right here in Naples, we all have biological needs for nutrition. We also all benefit from the many all-encompassing lifestyle aspects, explored and documented in Dan Buetnner’s book, Blue Zones. Staying physically and mentally active, being engaged in a hobby that keeps your interests and allows you to continue learning, having a strong and interactive social circle of supportive friends and family that keep you on your feet and having fun, genetics, the quality of the food you eat, and much more are all key components to living a long, healthy, and happy life.

Grow Nutrient-Rich Foods Right at Home—ECHO Global Farm + Nursery Can Help
Since the pandemic, we’ve seen both a need and renewed interest from people in growing their own food. To that topic I have a few recommendations:

  • Whether you have a large yard, a pool deck, or just a sunny window, try to pick plants that will give you optimum yield of nutrients for its footprint.
  • For many of us in SWFL, you’ll need to check with your community H.O.A. board about rules on plants before you start purchasing materials and digging holes.
  • Research which plants grows best in your area; consider temperatures, humidity, and how many hours of sunlight are available to your plants.
  • Educate yourself first. ECHO Global farms offers in-person gardening classes as well as virtual learning tools. Local farm owner and container gardening expert, Jonathan Way of Colusa Farms, is available for advice, private classes, and offers an amazing tower garden product. Jonathan’s first bit of advice, regardless of your experiences, is to ask questions.
  • Make it sustainable and not labor intensive. Besides classic potted plants and watering cans, there are many innovative ways to grow your superfood veggies that include hydroponic (roots in only nutrient-supplemented water), aeroponic (nutrient-supplemented water with roots in the air), aquaponic (like hydroponic, but makes use of a living ecosystem like a fishpond to obtain needed nutrients). If you’re interested in setting up any of those modern systems, ECHO can provide detailed education and resources to help.
  • Potted plants may be a good option for many. Jonathan from Colusa Farms can set up a beautiful, super functional, and totally self-contained, nearly zero maintenance hydroponics tower garden that he can stock for you with baby plant plugs. He’s got everything from kale to herbs and tomatoes.
  • Seek out education on permaculture and food forests. This not only helps you create a growing system that provides you with harvests all year long, but can also increase the efficiency and yield of your space by layering plants under a fruit tree canopy.
  • Find high yielding, delicious plants that naturally grow well in our climate, such as carambola (star fruits), moringa, katuk, chili peppers, cranberry hibiscus, longevity spinach, and more. ECHO Farms and Nursery is a great resource for this.
  • Seek out gardening clubs and plant enthusiast groups on social media and in real life. You’ll be surprised by the amazing people you can meet!

Our grandparents, great grandparents, and many generations that came before us knew the myriad of physical and mental health benefits, the key to joy and longevity, and the secrets of growing your own food. In 2022, let’s make a shift for a fresher, healthier, and more sustainable future.

Plant Overhead

LOCAL Resources:
Johnathan and Isabel Way
Colusa Farms
Edible Flowers

Local Delivery Service
Naples, FL

Danielle Flood
(PR Director)
ECHO Global Farms and Nursery, non-profit research and educational center

Saturdays, limited on-site farmer’s market. Weekly schedule guided farm tours. Online schedule for in-person gardening classes
North Ft. Myers, FL

1 The “urban garden” presents problem-solving opportunities. If you didn’t have access to farmable soil in a dense, concrete city setting and nothing more than trash for “garden materials,” could you grow food? For the researchers at ECHO, the answer is always a very creative “yes”! 

2 At ECHO, they’re bananas for bananas! Did you know that technically bananas plants are classified as an herb, are a distant relative of ginger, and will self propagate through the growth of rhizomes, thus allowing them to pop up like “weeds” in tropical climates. Truly the ideal low-maintenance food plant. 

3 Looking down from the “roof top garden” we see efficiency, innovation, and resilience in both the gardener and the garden. A baby kale plant pops up from a hole in a cinderblock, a passion fruit vine climbs an inorganic brick wall reaching for sunshine, and nutrient-dense superfood katuk grows nice and bushy out of a planter made from a discarded old tire and plastic drink bottles—fill the bottles with water and tiny holes at the bottom slowly keep the root system moist through diffusion.

Chef David Robbins | chefdavidrobbins@gmail.com
@chefdavidrobbins | 239.247.2244

Click HERE for Chef David Robbins’ Superfood Cocktail recipe.