The Voice: Spring 2001

The Voice

ECHO alums work in agricultural department

By Sonya Jongsma Knauss

Alums Dan Sonke and Dawn (Bakker) Berkelaar described ECHO's work to President Carl Zylstra during his visit there earlier this year.Two Dordt alums have been contributing to the fight against world hunger through their work for a unique agricultural ministry in North Fort Myers, Florida. Dawn (Bakker ,'96) Berkelaar and Dan Sonke ('94) say their work is a good way to combine their interests in missions and agriculture. The Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) is a non-profit, Christian organization that has a unique ministry to overseas missionaries and agricultural development workers. It works as a support for other mission organizations, using its resources to network and share ideas about tropical agriculture.

“There really aren't many resources available for people who go and work in areas with really poor people and climate troubles,” Berkelaar says. ECHO publishes materials related to tropical agriculture and development, sharing ideas on how to improve agriculture in developing countries.

Since beginning work for the organization last July, Berkelaar has divided her time between technical writing as assistant editor of the quarterly publication ECHO Develop-ment Notes (EDN) and researching technical requests that are sent in from overseas.

“The questions vary,” Berkelaar says. In one week ECHO might receive several dozen requests for information on topics as diverse as “What information do you have about frog farming?” or “How can we process palm oil?”    

While the ECHO staff researches and responds to requests daily, sometimes these requests also lead to research resulting in an article for EDN, says Sonke, who serves as Director of Information and Seed Programs. He wants to include an article in EDN that gives information on growing grapes, which are not tropical plants, in a tropical climate.

“One of the biggest forces for ideas comes from the question and answer service we maintain for missionaries,” he says. “A missionary in Kenya wrote to us and said, 'I'm thinking about growing grapes here and wondering if it's even possible. What can you tell me?' We put together a package of information from our library, the Internet, and some contacts we knew. We've had others ask the same question over the last few years, and so now we're planning to write an article for the newsletter.”

Another way ECHO ministers to overseas missionaries is by providing them with samples of seeds. The organization has a warehouse with hundreds of different kinds of seeds which they send out in small packets for missionaries to test in their gardens to see if it's possible to use as a new crop.

“We try to introduce them to new seeds they may not know about and that may work well with their climate,” Sonke says. “It's not like we're scouring the jungle for plants and trying to see if you can eat them or not. These are things that are well-known crops in some parts of the world. They work well and maybe could be used similarly in other parts of the world.”

One example of this is the moringa tree, a plant that has been used for centuries in India, but was less well known in Africa and almost unknown in Latin America. The plant is very nutritious and has many uses, including for food or to bolster other crops.

Berkelaar's husband, Edward, who also works at ECHO, has been doing experiments to double check results of research done in Nicaragua on the effect a spray made from moringa leaves had on vegetable crops. They found thirty percent yield increases for a whole range of crops. Berkelaar found that radishes had a ninety-four percent yield increase and beans had a sixty-five percent yield increase.

“There's so much talk of genetic engineering in crops, but there are simple things that could really increase crop yield,” Berkelaar says.        

Sonke says he has mixed feelings about the global economy which is developing, but he says it has to be dealt with as a reality. People deep in developing countries are finding that to survive, they must interact with global markets.

“We encourage people to introduce new crops for nutritional reasons, but we're also aware that economic forces are much more persuasive than mere nutrition or health reasons,” Sonke says. “We are very open to helping people come up with ideas for a new, marketable crop, as opposed to merely subsistence crops.”

Sonke, who plans to return to his studies at graduate school next fall, says he really felt the Lord's leading during his time at Dordt to prepare him for his work at ECHO. “I've always had a strong interest in horticulture and missions,” he says. “When I first heard about ECHO, I immediately thought it sounded like a place I wanted to spend some time.”

ECHO is currently going through a five-year planning phase and is talking about ways it can strengthen some links they have with college agriculture departments, such as Dordt's.

Berkelaar feels that ECHO fulfills a vital role. “For people who feel called to agricultural missions, ECHO has a unique ministry.”

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