For the Love of Seeds – ECHO Teaches Sustainable Farming + Provides Crops to Global Network

Holly Sobetski started working with ECHO as an intern in 2005, enrolled in their fourteen month agricultural internship program for recent college graduates. The program is specifically geared towards grads who are interested in becoming development workers overseas, helping small scale farmers in second and third world countries. Holly spent five years working in Cambodia, where she mainly worked with sustainable agriculture and providing nutrition education for Cambodian college students.

When she returned to the United States in 2012, Holly joined ECHO full time in their seed saving program based out of Fort Myers, Florida. Holly previously had little knowledge and experience about how to manage a seed bank, but she jumped right in and has learned a lot in the last five years. ECHO is a nonprofit organization that started in 1981 that strives to improve life worldwide by equipping developmental workers with agricultural resources and training. ECHO shares solutions within their network and demonstrates these solutions at their centers all over the world, focusing mainly on sustainable farming techniques. ECHO has global offices in Fort Myers, FL; South East Asia and both East and West Africa.

Holly works managing ECHO’s seed bank, overseeing the growing, processing and storing of seeds of underutilized crops — including ones that are drought and heat tolerant! ECHO promotes crops that grow well in subtropical climates and works to train local people throughout the world to do their own seed saving. So, in full, ECHO produces seeds, sends them out to its affiliated small farmers and then trains them how to do it all themselves. Literally, the circle of life.  ECHO’s seed program includes about 350 crops offered to its network, so that its affiliated development workers can order ten free trial packets from them each year.

Crops ECHO offers range from grains and fruit trees to vegetable seeds and “green manure cover crops” (including legumes, specific crops that infuse the soil with nitrogen and produce edible pods). Since storing seeds requires a cool and dry environment, ECHO has explored various cold storage options over the years… ultimately landing on CoolBot to help them preserve their precious products.

Holly describes the “100 Rule” for seed storage for us:

Temperature (in Farenheit) + Relative Humidity (%) = 100 or less for good seed storage

Not only is this ideal temperature challenging to achieve in Florida, but the added humidity factor makes it extremely difficult for optimal seed storage temperatures in tropical climates worldwide. “In the past, we’ve used refrigeration combined with dehumidification, which is both expensive and difficult… especially overseas,” Holly tells us.

“In 2009, ECHO’s office in Thailand started its own seed bank and they were having problems with condensation. They were using the wrong insulation material, and the A/C unit they were using couldn’t get the room below 60°F,” says Holly. “An intern from the United States who was working in the Thailand office at the time had worked with a program with UC Davis called HortCRSP, who suggested to use the CoolBot. Initially, we were all pretty skeptical about this new little device. They weren’t sure if it would actually work in Thailand’s climate. But because CoolBot came recommended by USAID, they decided to give it a try.”

CoolBot was installed in Thailand’s seedbank, and everyone was amazed that it not only worked, but worked great! ECHO later installed another CoolBot in its seed bank in Tanzania. Then they installed one in their Florida office to get ideas out to people, demonstrating and teaching them about alternative cooling solutions and storage, sharing knowledge about CoolBot’s technology with their network.

We really like CoolBot,” says Holly. “The fact that it’s a good low cost alternative to other systems makes it very exciting to share with our network. It fits with our goal of providing small scale appropriate ways of helping people. CoolBot has helped us a lot with our seed storage. Without CoolBot, seed storage would be much more cost prohibitive for us and our network. It’s been a really great technology for us.”

Although the CoolBot lowers the temperature in ECHO’s various walk in, seed storage coolers, they still face the ultimate problem of humidity in tropical climates. “Humidity causes the seeds to respire faster, lose viability and grow debilitating fungus,” Holly educates us. “So in addition to CoolBot, we need a de-humidification and/or to hermetically seal the seeds in order to protect them.”

So at ECHO’s international impact centers, they combine CoolBot with vacuum sealing in order to protect the seeds from humidity.  ECHO has all sorts of creative solutions for this humidity conundrum. In addition to demonstrating the many ways to store seeds, the ECHO team is full of problem solvers and innovators. For example, Holly tells us how they recently figured out how to turn a bike pump into a vacuum sealer!

“The air tight sealed bags and jars (sealed with the bike pump) combined with CoolBot are working very well, and it’s really fun to be able to demo those different ideas,” says Holly. They’ve also built earth houses out of bags of soil stacked up like an igloo, which helps with temperature fluctuations for seed and crop storage.

We were wondering, with all the work that goes into meticulously storing seeds, do the seeds travel well when shipped across the world? “We pack them in foil lined packets and iron them shut (heat sealing the foil). That way, the seeds are safe from humidity while traveling overseas,” explains Holly. “Of course we can’t control the temperature of the packages when they’re in the mail for a month, but typically they travel well and arrive safely. Obviously we wouldn’t want to expose seeds to high temperatures for long periods, but they will travel fine in the mail.”

“For a seed bank like us, we’ve got a huge amount of genetic diversity, so we hang onto seeds longer than a regular farmer would. From one season to the next, our farmers don’t need to have as strict of an environment for their seeds, although they should store the seeds as cool and dry as possible. CoolBot is most helpful for long term seed storage, where the value of seeds is higher,” Holly tells us.

ECHO has also been conducting “quite a few seed storage experiments, using different containers with different desiccants,” tells Holly. Several trials using vacuum sealing and desiccants, exposing seeds to various outside temperatures and humidity levels, have provided ECHO’s seed storage staff with some great data to learn from.

“Using the vacuum sealed jars with the bike tire pumps kept the seeds viability the longest!” Holly shares with us. “People can really be using this! It’s really exciting to see.”  In addition to seed storage, ECHO plans to set up a trailer for produce, so CoolBot will be serving multiple purposes for their organization. ECHO also offers tours of their demo farms in Fort Myers, highlighting their unique agricultural solutions. You can learn more about their tours here and about their technical resources, documents and seed ordering here.

ECHO is holding their International Agriculture Conference in Fort Myers this fall from November 19-21. During this event, ECHO will discuss challenges for small scale farmers and how to work together to improve their lives through a series of hands-on workshops at their farm.

Holly tells us how this year, they’re adding a new activity to the conference: an Appropriate Technology Fair, where they will be sharing information specifically about CoolBot!

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