It’s the holidays and things are getting a little crazy, but I want to bring you, my faithful reader, a report from the ECHO Agricultural Conference in Ft. Myers, FL. First, it was my first time to Florida and it proved that stereotypes all come from some kernel of truth. The weather was ridiculously warm and humid for December and there were numerous AARP members in convertibles.
ECHO is primarily a demonstration farm that trains people for agricultural missions. Many of the organizations that work with ECHO and that were at the conference come at agricultural work overseas from a conservative evangelical perspective. While I believe strongly in holistic ministry that includes the physical, spiritual, political and social aspects of life, I tend to come at it from a more social justice perspective. The farm itself is impressive with so many plants, methods and demonstrations packed into such a small space. ECHO is geared towards tropical agriculture because this is where both most of the world’s poverty and most missionaries are located.
Over the week we had lots of conversations between sessions, over meals and in cars. There’s no way to cover all the territory adequately. So, I’ll try to give you my highlights.
Cross Cultural Communication
This class was probably the most at odds with my own theology (to put it diplomatically). The speaker tried to tackle issues related to worldview, culture, religion and agriculture in one hour. I took an entire semester on this topic in seminary and still have a lot to understand. The speaker claimed that the underlying problem in other countries is one of worldview. It became clear that “they” had an incorrect worldview while the correct worldview was a combination of the scientific and biblical worldview. He also lumped all religions other than Christianity into the category of animism, claiming several times that Islam was essentially animistic. The statement was made several times that the problem was with other culture’s view of nature as something we can’t control. The solution was the biblical worldview, which was to subdue the earth, meaning control and manipulate it. This was a very disturbing workshop to me. I hope to explore this more in an upcoming post on why I think there is no such thing as a biblical worldview.
Third Culture Kids
This was probably the most practical and helpful workshop as a parent. I think there is something helpful in our globalized world about kids who are not at home in any particular culture, but have a real sense of the diversity and unity of humanity across cultures.
The Mennonite Central Committee has a project in which dams are created in African countries. Initially the dams fill with water during the rainy season. Then the eventually fill with sand as the water settles. This sand is then composed of about 40% water. The water captured in the sand does not evaporate and is easily accessible to local communities. An amazing innovative project. It challenged some of my assumptions and ways of thinking, turning over some of my expectations about water access and solutions.
Ralph Wiegand gave an excellent talk on the use of natural medicine, defined as the combining of modern and traditional medicine. In particular he has worked on the use of artemesia tea as a complete treatment for malaria. In contrast to the workshop on cross cultural communication Wiegand gave great weight and value to traditional knowledge.
A graduate from ECHO has developed a Nutritional Kitchen Garden at a hospital in Central African Republic where they teach nutrition, farm experimentation and agricultural knowledge and skills. Definitely one of the best presentations at the conference.
Compost and Soil Biology
I went to a workshop on compost and one on soil biology in the same afternoon. I’m no expert, but I do know some about both of these topics. You may recall the controversy about Soil Foodweb, Inc. in our class on compost tea at the farm. The leader for both of these workshops is sold on a lot of the claims made by Dr. Elaine Ingham and Soil Foodweb folks. Unfortunately I felt like composting was made overly complicated and discouraged people from doing it. They were more technical about the percent Nitrogen and ratio of bacteria to fungi. There are important rules of thumb for good composting, but they don’t need to be so technical in my opinion.
The Soil Food web folks also tout the benefits of Effective Microorganisms (EM). Basically these are anaerobic bacteria, what they called facultative anaerobes, that are beneficial to help compost when it becomes anaerobic. The example given was a poultry barn where the bedding has become anaerobic with that pungent ammonia smell. EM could be used to reverse those negative effects supposedly. It seems to me that the answer to bad management practices is not another product to fix it. That’s the way industrial agriculture solves problems (e.g. antibiotics, irradiation, etc.). Isn’t the answer instead to use better management practices to deal with the waste or bedding and manage composting more closely. I asked how EM were created or manufactured and was told that it’s proprietary. That should always be your first clue that something is bunk. If the answers to our agricultural and ecological problems are not open source they aren’t really answers. They’re just new ways to make money off of disasters (What Naomi Klein calls Disaster Capitalism).
It was a thought provoking and educational trip. I definitely enjoyed their farm and all they had going on. It is important to be in dialogue with people we don’t agree with, particularly those working in the same field, literally and figuratively.