In 1981, Dr. Martin Price saw that there was a lack of access to seeds of underutilized tropical food plants, a need that was already felt all over the world by small-scale farmers. To meet this need, the first ECHO Seed Bank was born. Forty years later, providing seeds of underutilized and neglected crops to small-scale farmers, development workers, and missionaries has remained one of ECHO’s main priorities.
What started as a humble collection of seeds on ECHO’s campus in Florida, has grown into a worldwide source of impact.
The first intern Dr. Price selected after he arrived at ECHO was Elise Hansen Tripp. She shared the bottom floor of an A-frame house with an office and a start at a collection of relevant books. Seeds that were little known at the time were collected and grown on the original five-acre property. Dr. Price, his wife Bonnie, and Tripp started storing seeds in Tripp’s refrigerator, which was the first Seed Bank. Only the three of them were there to sort and store the first varieties of seed by hand, but they made it work.
“I remember harvesting the seeds and putting them into envelopes,” Tripp said. “We talked about how to store seeds well, and that ‘we’re going to need some seed storage in the future.’”
In the late 1990s, the Seed Bank was growing to be too large for the refrigerator in the A-frame. A donation made it possible for ECHO to receive a larger capacity refrigerated storage container to properly house the seeds.
A climate-controlled area is one of the factors in storage that help best preserve the thousands of seeds ECHO holds. Other factors include pest control, appropriate containers, and annual germination testing. ECHO’s storage facilities are kept at 45 degrees Fahrenheit with 45% humidity, airtight containers are used for the storage of seeds, and germination testing is done annually to determine if a specific batch of seeds is still able to be used and sent out.
In 2002, ECHO purchased a neighboring property and acquired the garage that has now become the Seed Bank. The storage container was attached to the garage, making space for seed packaging and offices.
Forty years from the first Seed Bank, staff and volunteers are still sorting seeds by hand to carefully preserve, package, and send them out throughout the world. A large walk-in refrigerator, a processing and packing room, and more office space allow for ECHO to do more with seed banking training, dozens of volunteer sorters, and germination testing.
ECHO now also has regional seed banks which act as genetic banks for many varieties of underutilized seeds, depending on what seeds are appropriate for the geographical area. Each year, development workers can request ten packets of seeds for free. The ten packets help farmers test out the various crops, and those seeds bring substantial change.
“People have received one seed packet of moringa with just ten seeds, and that crop spreads throughout the community just from the one seed packet… it’s a small thing that has a huge impact,” Holly Sobetski, ECHO’s Florida Seed Bank manager, said.
Seed saving is taught so farmers can store their own seeds while being able to control pests and increase the viability of their seeds for future planting seasons.
“We want them to be self-sufficient and sustainable,” Sobetski said, “as much as we can teach people how to do this on their own, it’s going to help them.”
ECHO seed banks have been around for 40 years and have grown to meet the needs of those it serves. Across cultures and continents, the mission and goal of the seed banks have remained the same — to preserve seeds of underutilized crops for the benefit of small-scale farmers.
With improved seed saving, a farmer can improve their health and nutrition, increase their profit at the market, and ultimately increase their livelihood for years to come.