Profiles: Using Talents and Trades to Practice Sustainability

Learn what an agronomist, inventor and water witch all have in common with practicing sustainability.

| January/February 1977

In celebration of little-known MOTHER-type folks all over.

Backwoods Agronomist: Dr. Rene Haller

Back in 1959, a cement company with 500 acres to spare (near the port city of Mombasa in Kenya) decided to use its surplus land to grow vegetables for the families of its 500 African workers. Rene Halter — a Swiss agronomist who, at the time, was working on a coffee plantation in neighboring Tanzania — was given a contract to organize the project.

An energetic experimenter, the then 25-year-old Haller not only succeeded in growing vegetables on what had always been considered uncultivable bush land, but managed (through crossbreeding) to develop a strain of chickens that could withstand Mombasa's arid climate. In addition, Rene brought sheep and goats into the area to clean up acreage not under cultivation, and began stocking the land with wild elands, impalas, and daika. ("The latter three animals are mainly leaf-eaters," Dr. Haller explains, "and I'd like to introduce hippos and buffalo here to eat the grass. We want to find out how much biomass an area can accommodate.")

Five years ago, when the cement company became uneasy about the ugly scars their limestone excavations had left on Mombasa's scenic north coast, Rene was given a further assignment. He was asked to beautify the area in an economically productive way.

Dr. Haller started by planting a variety of drought-resistant trees...trees that now cover a 65-acre area. (The largest of them, already over 60 feet tall, are now being harvested.) Next, he created picturesque fish ponds that have — over time — attracted a wide variety of tropical birds and animals. Rene has since expanded the fish farm by building inexpensive cement-and-asbestos tanks. ("Give me a cubic meter of water," he boasts, "and I'll grow a hundred kilos of fish.")

The spent fish tank water is used for irrigation, and all organic matter is composted. Even filter dust from the cement factory — which is rich in potassium — is used on the farm. "It raised our corn yields by 20 to 24 percent," Dr. Haller Says.

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: April 28-29, 2018
Asheville, NC

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!