January 25, 2007|Joe Robinson | Special to The Times
JULES DERVAES can’t help it. He’s afflicted by a condition for which there is no known cure or even a 12-step program, an uncontrollable urge to change his residential surroundings. He is a serial remodeler, his mind a malarial fever of future projects. But unlike other compulsive home improvers, Dervaes is not obsessed with new or wired makeovers. It’s the old-fashioned and nonelectric that drive him — and a determined bid to go off the grid in the middle of Pasadena that has won him followers in more than 100 countries.
“We even bought this ridiculous hand washer,” says the silver-haired, self-described urban homesteader. Dervaes is grinning as he shows off a tin tub on his back porch that comes complete with handle for human-powered agitating. It’s a recent addition to a stable of Rube Goldberg-like devices — including a bike that makes smoothies in a blender on the back fender — designed to help wean his family off electric sockets. His daughter Anais, 32, demonstrates the action. Kenmore executives need not panic.
The upper-arm workout continues in the kitchen, where there’s a hand-cranked blender and peanut butter maker. It’s a nippy pre-dawn inside the 1917 Craftsman bungalow because last year Dervaes and his three adult children, Anais, Justin, 28, and Jordanne, 23, switched to burning scrap wood in their chimney for central heating. But the most ambitious DIY display is the result of Dervaes’ restless tinkering with soil — a micro-farm sprouting from every arable inch of their front and back yards, where they grow more than 300 kinds of produce.
“We believe that a step backward is progress,” says Dervaes, a former beekeeper, teacher and constant gardener trapped in the wrong century. “Some people might feel we’re regressing, but I feel we’re progressing to a better life. We’ve lost that independence and the things that make us truly happy. The people that got us here must have done something right. We want to repeat that for the next generation.”
IN his reverse remodeling process, the interior of the house, which could use a coat of paint and a visit from Ding Masters, is secondary to what’s going on outside. The goal is self-sufficiency and sustainability, and the Dervaes family is well on its way. In a good year, they can harvest an impressive 6,000 pounds of heirloom tomatoes, broccoli, berries, peaches, red mustard, guavas and dozens of other veggies, garnishes and edible flowers — from only a tenth of an acre of usable land. On a quiet residential block where “Leave It to Beaver” lawns rule, the family can provide 80% of its food needs in the summer and about 50% in winter. At a time when large family farms are shuttering, they’ve managed to support themselves for 10 years from home micro-agriculture, mostly from sales of salad greens and edible flowers to local restaurants and caterers.
The city of Pasadena is impressed enough that it has given the Dervaeses two awards for their green exploits and in June will be including their residence on the town’s “Green City” tour of buildings with the best environmental practices. Besides growing their own food and turning up the muscle power, family members have installed solar panels, an outdoor shower whose runoff irrigates plants and a commode with a sink on top that provides washing-up water.
Their green work is “very original. It’s going to have a lot of practical application for a lot of people,” says Alice Sterling, Green Building project manager for the city of Pasadena.
Dervaes has gotten consulting offers, and someone wanted to turn what he’s doing into the latest home-based business franchise. But that’s not it at all, he says. “It’s more a personal model. It’s less about making money; it’s making pure value.” He gets fresh meals, helps the planet and keeps the family together, healthy, if not wealthy, and wiser than those in push-button existences.
Sound good? Don’t give up your day job just yet. Turning your gardening hobby into an income is something not everyone’s nerves are up to. The family’s sales are limited by cramped space and the hammerings of nature. The recent freeze wiped out their African blue basil and set their salad sales back a couple of weeks. Last summer’s heat wave took an even bigger toll. “It was brutal. We lost 90% of our heirloom tomatoes, which were supposed to bring us thousands of dollars,” Dervaes says. “That was our introduction to global warming.” He’s had to dip into savings to make ends meet.
But no one’s bailing. “It’s easy to be told what to do, but here there’s a bit of freedom,” says Jordanne, who oversees the critters — two goats, three ducks and two chickens.
Risk is the price of independence and the ticket to their larger mission, a quest part environmental, part simple living, part urban survivalist. “We think the planet’s in trouble,” Dervaes says. “It’s our attempt to save our corner of the world…. When you’re tied by umbilical cord to the grid and the stores, you’re in for a shock if it ever changes. We’re looking at, if there was a Katrina worldwide, what would happen? Then it’s back to do it yourself.”
As the Dervaes family sees it, we’re losing independence, wits and the planet as we become dependent on conveniences, technology and dwindling oil reserves. Instead of throwing up our hands, we can fight back, they say, with changes right at home. “One day all the little changes could add up to something significant,” Dervaes says.
He admits he has drawn the line at shaving with a straight razor like his son Justin and eliminating TV (for DVDs and football), his truck (fueled by biodiesel) and the fridge — “that’s a little scary.”
THE roar in the distance could be a wild river, but it’s commuters on the 210 freeway, only 130 feet away from the maze of trellises, pots and greenery in the Dervaes’ backyard. In the blue twilight before sunup Jordanne follows bugle call, the staccato bleats of two pygmy goats, to an enclosure where the duo is delivering the morning’s reveille. The animals have the thick midsections of llamas and wooly coats to boot, and tear into a breakfast of homegrown greens. One is a dairy prospect, but for the moment they’re more like pets. Jordanne calls them pack goats, because they’re avid hikers. “They follow me everywhere. I feel like Heidi,” she says.
Reaching inside a wooden pen, she pulls out a tan-colored egg laid overnight by one of their ducks. Duck eggs are one of the specialty products that the Dervaes family sees as the best bet to make money with limited acreage. The high fat content of the eggs is prized by pastry chefs, Jordanne notes, which helps them fetch $6 a dozen. At an egg-a-day clip, the ducks are poster fowl for the slow-food movement.
You begin to understand the relationship between family size and farming at Dervaes Gardens. Doing it yourself means a lot of people doing it themselves. Everyone here is a multi-tasker. “People say, ‘What do you do?’ ” Anais says. “I kind of resent that question because we wear many hats. One minute you’re a cook, next you’re a secretary, then you’re a manager.”
Justin farms and runs the energy side, making biodiesel for their truck in a garage still for less than $1 a gallon with castoff vegetable oil from local restaurants. Besides livestock duty, Jordanne designs — hold on to your hand-cranked blender — the family’s two websites. It seems there’s one thing do-it-yourself back-to-the-landers can’t do without: people. No homesteader is an island.
The main website, pathtofreedom.com, spreads their back-to-basics, farm-where-you-are message to some 71,000 visitors a month, while dervaesgardens.com details their produce offerings. Dervaes even has his own blog.
The convergence of Luddite and digital is “the biggest irony of all,” says a chuckling Dervaes, who’s got a great sense of humor for a man of calamitous predictions. “We’re saying go simple, go slow, then the computer’s here churning up all that information.” They generate 60% of their own energy.
The first sheet of sunlight pours onto the yard, spotlighting 30 rows of raised beds that contain salad greens and assorted vegetables. Some are topped by domed covers to keep the leaves from nearby trees and cold out. While Justin picks an order of edible flowers for a local caterer from a row of planters, Dervaes commences salad harvesting. “We have 10, 15 varieties we can get today,” he says. “This is red mustard.” He lifts a corner of a cover and clips the top off a swatch with a pair of garden shears.
Inside the beds, the growth is dense, with leaves of perfectly equal height. Dervaes trims some mizuna like a skilled barber. His touch goes back generations. Belgian forefathers landscaped royal palaces, and his grandfather was a gardener in the U.S. Dervaes did landscaping and lawn maintenance for years.
Before the serial renovating kicked in he had a lawn and the family ate burgers like anyone else. But that began to change in the early ’90s as Dervaes got back in touch with his gardening roots. He tore up the grass and planted veggies and wildflowers. His diet got healthier. Gardening remained a hobby until 2000, when some genetically modified corn turned up in food at a Taco Bell and pushed him over the Johnny Appleseed edge.
“I said, ‘Hey, my food supply isn’t safe!’ ” he recalls. He decided, ” ‘We’re going to grow as much as we can on this property for a living.’ I was going to live off this come hell or high water.”
After three attempts, they had to write off the investment in blueberries. The kiwis never took. But they got good enough at edible flowers and vegetables that they were able to sell to local restaurants. “It became a real possibility that this could be more than a pipedream,” Dervaes says. “People thought, and I did too, that we couldn’t make it on such a small piece of land.”
Jim McCardy, owner and chef at Marston’s restaurant in Pasadena, was impressed when the Dervaes family came cold-calling with some of their baby greens. “You could really tell they were in the ground a couple hours earlier,” he says. “You can taste the difference.” He takes whatever salad and garnishes the family has, checking in with them on Mondays to see what produce is available and planning his dinner menus for the week around it.
“There’s a real movement among chefs to know where your produce comes from. And I can tell customers, ‘Up the street and around the corner,’ ” McCardy adds.
There’s not enough room for the Dervaes family to grow all their own food. But with the money they make in the summer from specialty crops, such as heirloom tomatoes, they buy what they can’t farm — cheese, condiments, spaghetti, rice and beans. They don’t eat meat but occasionally have fish. They don’t make much, Anais says, but “we don’t spend much either.” Solar panels run the house and biodiesel operations. The produce pays the water bill; scrap wood eliminates heating bills.
OVER lunch at a dining table appointed with gas lamps, a delicious botany lesson of a salad fresh from the garden and Justin’s homemade elderberry wine, Dervaes pulls out old photos. In one, there’s a strapping fellow with bushy dark hair standing next to a tilled patch in a green landscape. It’s hard to recognize, but the farmer is Dervaes, homesteading in New Zealand when he was 27.
Time may have exerted its will in some ways, but it didn’t dislodge his back-to-the-land dream. He left New Zealand after Anais was born to be closer to family. (He and the children’s mother divorced in 1989.) He encountered his share of detours but found he didn’t have to go far to live the life he’d imagined in the ’60s when he scoured Mother Earth News.
So if you always wanted that place in the country, it might be right under your feet.
“There’s always this thing of where someplace else it could happen,” Dervaes says. “I had that for a while. I needed more land. If only. If only I had more acreage … hey, wait a minute, what about what you have?”