Hungry to Learn: Staff from Thailand and Florida team up to train Laotian Pastors

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When Sang* became a Christian, his neighbor cut down his corn field.  The police didn’t come to his aid because they didn’t support his faith either. It was the pastor of his church that looked out for his family and helped him try to replant his field. Pastors in Laos deal with persecution each day, and many have been jailed for a time. They are also bi-vocational which means they are farmers, as well as pastors, to provide for their families. 

In late October, ECHO Asia Farm Manager, Sombat, as well as four other staff,  trained 70 Laotian pastors for three days at the Village of Hope, Thailand. Topics included Soil Health, Plant Life, Deep Litter Pig System, Banana Stalk Silage, and Livestock. Interns Dani Hurlbutt and Elizabeth Casey shared techniques that they learned on the ECHO Global Farm in Florida with the pastors.  “They were hungry to learn,” shares Dani. “When Sombat was teaching grafting they were taking close-up pictures and crowding in to see.” 

Below: Laotian pastors gather closely to ECHO farm manager Sombat as he teaches a seminar on grafting. Above: Sombat demonstrates an improved cookstove.

Below: Laotian pastors gather closely to ECHO farm manager Sombat as he teaches a seminar on grafting. Above: Sombat demonstrates an improved cookstove.

During the session on banana stalk silage, the pastors learned how to finely chop banana stalks, mix with molasses and sugar and let the fermentation process produce a nutritious feed supplement for pigs. The pastors commented that they used to boil the banana stalks for 2-3 hours to be able to feed them to their livestock. This technique will now save them both water and firewood, and improve the health of their animals.  

ECHO staff and volunteers were honored to share the knowledge with the pastors, and were greatly encouraged to learn from them as well. Then, every afternoon they taught nearly 80 children from the children’s home! It was fun and rewarding as the Laotian pastors were extremely enthusiastic and were very involved and engaged. The children had loads of fun too, getting muddy and learning how to garden!

Our local partner is already excited about next year’s training... and so are we!

Asia Team Expands

Outgoing Director,  Dr. Abram Bicksler

Outgoing Director,
Dr. Abram Bicksler

How do we say thank you for years of energetic and visionary leadership to ECHO?  Words can’t adequately express our gratitude to Abram Bicksler for his leadership of ECHO Asia during the past five years. We also celebrate the new opportunities Abram will have to reduce hunger and serve the poor in his new role as an Agricultural Officer on the Ecosystem Services and Agroecology team of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in Rome, Italy.  

We are also pleased to introduce Dr. Eduardo “Ed” Sabio as the new Director of the ECHO Asia Impact Center in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Dr. Sabio is a committed follower of Jesus Christ distinguished by  humility, integrity, team-building, and consistency. Ed has decades of experience in agricultural development, community-based development, natural resources management, program/project management, participatory monitoring and evaluation, and applied research. He recently shared, “A missing piece in many NGOs is the spiritual dimension of development which I found fundamental in ECHO’s work. My practical experience tells me that it is the air that breaths sustainable change and transformation.”

In addition, Dr. Sabio’s technical expertise in agro-forestry, livestock, variety trials, crop production, and value chains will be a significant help to the ECHO Asia team. 

A missing piece in many NGOs is the spiritual dimension of development which I found fundamental in ECHO’s work. My practical experience tells me that it is the air that breaths sustainable change and transformation.
— Dr. Ed Sabio
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Dr. Sabio, a Philippine national, has worked in 10 Asian countries and served in leadership roles with three international organizations. Ed was the Regional Director for Rikolto in Vietnam, the Country Director for Heifer International in the Philippines, and the Program Head for the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) in the Philippines. Dr. Sabio earned his PhD from Cornell University in Agricultural Extension and Adult Education.

Dr. Sabio began serving with ECHO Asia on January 7, 2019.

ECHO and University of Tennessee: Ongoing collaborations serving smallholders in Southeast Asia

By Drs. Tom Gill and David Ader, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture

Since 2015, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) has collaborated with the ECHO Asia Regional Impact Center on two agricultural projects in Cambodia. Collaboration is essential but finding effective partners who can build trustworthy networks has proven challenging for UTIA in the past. 

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ECHO Asia’s partnership with UTIA has leveraged the teaching-research-extension expertise of the University, providing reliable and responsive networks through ECHO to advance sustainable agro-ecological solutions for Cambodian smallholders.

ECHO has helped UTIA by training Cambodian farm managers and technicians. In November 2017, this group of managers and technicians traveled to ECHO Asia’s office and seed bank in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a one-week workshop. The workshop was led by Dr. Abram Bicksler (ECHO Asia) and Dr. Ricky Bates (The Pennsylvania State University). These managers and technicians worked with UTIA, Penn State, and a range of other Southeast Asian partners on the Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab project. The SIIL project is USAID-funded and Kansas State University-managed. The Cambodian farmers trained are leaders of agricultural technology demonstration parks throughout the country. The training helped them increase the potential capacity of these demonstration parks as places for learning and innovative research. 

ECHO’s Dr. Bicksler, along with UTIA researchers, delivered a workshop to 50 farmers at the University of Battambang’s farm.

ECHO’s Dr. Bicksler, along with UTIA researchers, delivered a workshop to 50 farmers at the University of Battambang’s farm.

The workshop discussed agricultural diversification options to improve smallholder farming systems. In this lowland, rainfed region of northwest Cambodia, smallholder farmers have faced frequent challenges. They struggled with managing cattle and providing high quality fodder in their rice-dominated systems. Workshop sessions addressed the following issues: silage production for improved animal nutrition and health, production of high quality fodder through diverse species’ cultivation, the use of living fences for control of cattle in the dry season, and the use of grafting for improved production of vegetables in the rainy season. 

A critical constraint to strategic farming is the availability and knowledge of high performing and well-adapted seeds. Dr. Bicksler provided information to farmers about low-tech options. These ideas included seed storage, well-adapted monsoonal seed varieties, high quality open-pollinated vegetables and other nutritionally supplemental crops for smallholder diets.  

Collaborations between UTIA, ECHO Asia and other partners in Southeast Asia have proven fruitful. Moving forward, the partnership hopes to further investigate options for Cambodian smallholders. One proposed next step may be documenting smallholder “wild gardens”. These typically-overlooked spaces could be assessed for opportunities to learn and improve smallholder management.

Growing Seed Banks Across Asia

ECHO Asia Seed Banking Initiatives Grow in Scope 

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Multiplying opportunities are arising to equip partner organizations and the communities they serve with ideas, training, and best practices in seed saving and banking. Plans to help with establishing two seed banks within the Ayerwaddy Delta expanded. The excitement about the concept and the expressed needs of the pastors and development workers serving in these communities has given rise to a network of four seed banks in Myanmar.

One of ECHO Asia’s key roles in this collaborative project with the Myanmar Baptist Convention was providing a 2-month internship for seed bank managers-in-training.

ECHO Asia’s New Small Farm Resource and Training Center

ECHO Asia’s New Small Farm Resource and Training Center

New Location Paves Way to Equip More People

Plans began to relocate ECHO’s seed bank and research work from Mai, in northern Thailand, to a larger and more accessible site near Chiang Mai, positioning ECHO Asia to better serve the region.  This new location improves accessibility to resources, increasing the Asia Impact Center’s capacity to host more training events and demonstrate additional agricultural practices. 

Growing a Network of Community Seed Banks 

For those on a lower budget and lacking access to the necessary technologies, and reliable electricity, ECHO Asia explores, tests, and experiments with appropriate seed bank options for local communities within the region. 

These include earthbag building techniques and buried clay cisterns for temperature stabilization, bicycle vacuum sealing technologies, and locally available desiccant materials for drying seeds.

Applying the training received from ECHO seed bank staff in Thailand, two trainees returned to Myanmar to establish their own community level seed banks. They constructed a modest seed bank ‘cold room’ and used earthbag building technology to lower and stabilize temperature. Raised beds have been planted for growing out seed varieties and supplying the seed bank.

It was at this site that ECHO Asia hosted a Seed Saving Workshop in January that brought in dozens of local farmers and national development workers, to train on-site and learn about seed cleaning techniques, storage technologies, and seed biology.

Visit ECHOcommunity.org to find out more about future events or to connect with ECHO Asia!

Raising Hogs on Banana Silage in Myanmar

Farmers use what they have to make what they need for their family’s nutrition.

By Patrick Trail

Small home gardens are common to nearly all households in Myanmar’s Karen communities, and may be second only in occurrence to the pig that can be found being raised underneath so many homes. Like many other countries in Southeast Asia, land in Myanmar is as hard to come by as the protein that needs to be produced on it, making hog production a viable and popular source of animal protein. It would only take a few minutes for a visitor to realize the importance of agriculture to the Karen people. 

Being omnivores and efficient consumers of household waste, pigs are well suited for integration into small farm systems where space and resources are limiting factors. Even one or two pigs can become costly to feed and will require, in many cases, expensive purchases of commercial feed. 

“We seek to provide appropriate options for using on-farm resources, encouraging farmers to use what they have, to make what they need.”

For this reason, ECHO seeks to provide appropriate options for using on-farm resources, encouraging farmers to use what they have to make what they need. At our most recent Myanmar Seed Saving Workshop, our team met an attendee who had participated in our first Myanmar training event in 2013, where he learned to make fermented banana stalk silage for hog feed. We were delighted to learn that for the last four years he’s been promoting its use! 

Now a Program Manager for World Vision Myanmar, our friend is working to spread this technology to communities within his reach. 

ECHO Staff members Sombat and Boonsong making pig feed from banana stalks in Thailand. 

ECHO Staff members Sombat and Boonsong making pig feed from banana stalks in Thailand. 

One of his ongoing projects, which began with four participants, encourages the production of fermented banana stalk silage to supplement any purchased feeds needed for raising hogs. Through trial and error (and the creation of their own appropriate silage chopper), he and his coworkers have found that they can reduce the need for purchased feeds by up to 75% by supplementing with their own farm-generated feeds, thus improving production margins tremendously. The program now has 120 participants and is expanding to additional communities!