By Carolyn Neuhausen 04/08/2010
On a quiet street off Orange Grove Boulevard, about a mile from the Rose Bowl and Old Pasadena, members of the Dervaes family pull about 6,000 pounds of edible flowers, vegetables and fruits from the raised beds and pots on their micro-farm each year.
Jules Dervaes and his children Justin, Anais and Jordanne have been growing their own food on their one-tenth of an acre lot since the 1980s. The family produces 99 percent of its entire diet in the family yard in what Jules calls the “100 foot diet,” since produce and eggs travel 100 feet or less from their source to the Dervaes’ kitchen.
The Dervaes’ urban homestead, Path to Freedom, symbolizes a victory in cutting out food miles from their carbon footprint. What makes this feat all the more remarkable is the family’s ability to use water-conserving techniques to grow their produce.
Food miles are “the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is ultimately purchased or consumed by the end user,” states a paper published for Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
The farther a product travels from its source to a store, the more gasoline, energy and packaging is used to bring that food to the consumer. The longer food takes to get from the farm to the consumer, the more nutrients it loses, since food starts losing its full nutritional value after being picked. For this reason, consumers have been growing their own vegetable gardens and attending local farmers markets in increasing numbers.
“Food miles are important [because of] the carbon footprint that’s hidden in our cheap food. It’s like ‘look at our cheap food’, but someone’s paying somewhere for something because it’s not cheap when you ship. [Food] coming from Chile or New Zealand, that’s a lot of trucking. If you can’t see it [the cost] right off the bat on your bill you’re going to see it in the health care bill for the planet,” said Jules Dervaes.
When the Dervaes’ harvest a surplus of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and peas, they sell the surplus to restaurants in Pasadena such as Marstons, Elements Café and a catering business, Kitchen for Exploring Foods. At the most, Dervaes produce travels a mile and a half to get to these restaurants, which also represents minimal food miles.
At zero food miles for the family, Path to Freedom is certainly environmentally friendly, but the Dervaes’ have used other methods and systems to decrease their environmental impact and increase their Earth friendliness.
Animals are a part of closing the sustainability circle at Path to Freedom. A food chart produced by the Dervaes family shows that, in a good year, they consume 60 percent of their harvest, 30 percent is sold to restaurants and 10 percent is fed back to their farm animals. The homestead farm is entirely sustainable, because the family re-uses and composts droppings from their two goats, five ducks and eight chickens, which enriches the soil for next year’s garden. Because the urban farm produces enough food for the family and the animals, the Dervaes’ don’t even need to use their cars or gas to get food from an animal-feed supply store. Everything they need to keep their farm fed and producing happens in their yard.
In an effort to decrease their environmental impact, Jules Dervaes took advantage of Pasadena’s many city rebate programs, upgrading his three major appliances to Energy Star brands, taking advantage of compact fluorescent light bulb giveaways, installing solar panels and planting trees. The solar panels provide two-thirds of the Dervaes’ electricity, and Jules chooses to pay an extra few cents per kilowatt hour to get wind-powered electricity through the city grid at night.
Running a farm in their backyard hasn’t always been easy for the Dervaes family; drought, natural aridity and California’s growing water shortage have posed problems and harvest shortfalls in recent years.
According to the state of California Web site and the state Water Control Board, statistics show California entered a severe drought in fall 2006. Three years later, the state may be gearing up for a fourth year of drought and is planning to reduce urban water usage by 20 percent by 2020.
The Pasadena Department of Water and Power placed a mandatory limit on watering to one day per week this rainy season and, as of April 1, residents can only water three times a week before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m. — the latest efforts in a years-long water reduction effort.
The city charges households for water usage on a tiered scale: what used to be scaled in three blocks has now expanded to five, with five different costs of water. The more water used, depending on water meter size, the more a resident’s water bill.
The Dervaes’ at one point were in the fifth tier scale, costing them plenty of money and jeopardizing their ability to continue affordably growing their own food. But the city gave the family a chance to explain their unique needs for a lot of water and their conservation methods. The family wrote the city explaining the steps it was implementing to curb water usage and was granted relief, making farming more affordable.
In fact, the Dervaes’ have cut their watering bill to $600 annually, and they did it by reusing water, reducing water use and using old irrigation methods.
Rich soil is the key to having a bountiful garden and getting the most out of scarce water resources, which is why the Dervaes’ have mulched and composted their soil extensively. Over the years they’ve added so much natural fertilizer to their soil that they now have a foot and a half more soil than their next-door neighbors.
“We don’t waste anything and we have five composting areas around here. When you put the good soil [dirt with animal fertilizer] on the plants they immediately have a kind of insurance against water stress and drought because the soil’s good and the plants have good root systems because they go down,” said Dervaes.
To learn more about conserving water, Jules Dervaes and his family turned to the Internet. Researching old methods of irrigation, they found a system used in ancient China, Rome and Egypt and still used around the world to this day. The system is called “ollas,” the Spanish term for bottle or jar.
Ollas irrigation is based on burying unglazed clay jars in planters or garden beds, near produce, and filling the jars up with water. Unglazed clay pottery leeches moisture, making it a poor container for holding water for long periods of time. When the ollas are buried to the throat in soil, the jar loses water, dripping deep in the soil, near the roots of the plants. It acts as a constant drip irrigation system, but because water is below the surface, it’s not lost in the sun’s evaporating rays and the plants get only the water they need.
The family’s “computerized, automatic-timed waterer,” son Justin, also waters the garden beds by hand, using a watering wand and a hose, which means water is used appropriately where it’s most needed. Each type of plant is watered based on its needs and its size. This customized watering is much different than the sprinkler irrigation systems used in large commercial farms, where sprinklers shoot water over acres and water is lost to evaporation and scatter.
The Dervaes’ reuse their water as well. During the summer, family members use an outdoor shower shed and biodegradable soaps, so water is rinsed off into the ground, nourishing fig tree and sugarcane poles; clothing is washed in an Amish-style crank washbasin, water and biodegradable detergents siphoned off to water their avocado tree.
The family uses a sink-toilet combo from Asia; after washing their hands in the sink with clean water, the toilet bowl fills with that slightly used water, making the sink and toilet functional, water-saving and totally sanitary.
According to Jules Dervaes, citrus, once established, historically does well being dry farmed in California. However, dry farming in semi-arid conditions does not allow for lettuces, carrots, peas and other crops.
A testament to the power of a good rainy season, Justin Dervaes last hand-watered the family’s pea crop at 8 inches of height. They are now well over 8 feet tall, all based on the generous and steady rain Southern California received this winter.
For more stories on the Dervaes’ ongoing micro-farming and conservation efforts, visit urbanhomestead.org.