Urban Homestead


Green Giants

They grow up to 80 per cent of their own food, mill flour by pedal-power, brew their own biodiesel, and would rather water their plants than take a bath. Lucie Young meets the Dervaeses of Pasadena, poster family for a new way of living.

When Michelle Obama announced in March that she would be digging up part of the White House lawn to plant a victory garden, she joined the expanding ranks of people, including the Queen, who have decided to grow their own veg. Time magazine recently reported that sales of compost and soil are up 500 per cent in America. In Britain sales of growbags are up fivefold, and finding an available allotment is a competitive sport on a par with getting your children into a good nursery school.

But America’s first family of ‘grow your own’ isn’t the Obamas, it is the Dervaeses, who live in a run-down, gang-infested part of urban Pasadena, California. Their website pathtofreedom.com, which details their ‘sweaty struggle to learn a new way of living’, has become so popular internationally that it receives five million hits a month and has fans across the globe in China, Uzbekistan and Benin. Rumor has it that if the family accepted mainstream advertising on their site, they would be millionaires by now.

For the past eight years, the Dervaeses have worked their 4,356 sq ft garden (including the front drive, which is covered in buckets of strawberries) and have produced over 6,000 lbs of fruit and vegetables a year. From their modest tenth of an acre, which wraps around the front and back garden, situated 150 yards away from an 11-lane motorway, the family produce enough food to meet 80 per cent of their dietary needs in summer and 50 per cent in winter (the remainder is anything they can’t grow, such as oil, flour, rice, butter ad cheese). They even have enough excess to sell to local restaurants.

When I pull up to the Dervaes family’s trim little green and red craftsman’s cottage, it is 8.30am. Jules, the father of the family greets me on the porch and tells me I am just in time for lunch. The Dervaeses may live in the city, but they work farm hours. Breakfast is it 5am and after a brief stint answering a mountain of emails, they begin tending their crops and mucking out the animals. ‘We can’t pick anything now, it would wilt,’ Jules explains as the clock approaches 9am.

It is already a sweltering 38C outside and the Dervaes family – Jules, 61 and three of his children Anais, 34, Justin, 31, and Jordanne, 25 (their mother left in 1989) are gathered in the kitchen packing freezer boxes of dainty edible flowers and salad greens to send to Oprah Winfrey for her Earth Day TV special, which will feature a two-minute clip about the Dervaes homestead (as they call it). Fame has nearly doubled the number of tasks the family has and extends an already grueling 15-hour workday by several hours.

Jules and Justin take me on a tour of the back garden. When the family first moved here 25 years ago, it was covered in concrete and junk. Now it is bursting with life and colour. ‘It ‘s a south-west facing garden,’ Jules says. ‘It is the best for growing fruits and vegetables. Our only problem is the pecan tree in the neighbour’s garden that shades our area.’

As we walk through the 50 raised beds of vegetables, ducking under swaying pots of herbs and roses that hang from a trellis entwined with beans, peas and grapes, a pygmy goat called Blackberry, sneaks up behind me and steals a page out of my notebook and a bantam hen whizzes between my legs. Ignoring the upstaging wildlife, Jules explains: ‘We practice what we call square-inch gardening. We plant as close as we can go. The lettuce seeds are just sprayed together, I let nature figure it out.’ The idea is that closeness discourages weeds and keeps soil moist by minimising evaporation.

There is a breathtaking profusion of fruit trees and bushes layered into the borders – espaliered apples, figs, peaches, kumquats, loquats, guavas, lemons, oranges, limes and apricots are all kept small so they don’t dwarf the vegetables and edible flowers growing underneath. Finding the right microclimate for each plant is the key and it’s the reason why Jules has repeatedly failed to grow blueberry bushes, he says. ‘Every time I planted them they would die. I would buy another batch and the same thing. In the end, I got two plants to stick, but I only harvested two berries at a cost of about $100 each. I was stupid. I was trying to plant them where I thought they should be. I moved them 10ft and they thrived.’

As Justin busies himself potting up a few of his favorite Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes, Jules tries to explain that their mission isn’t simply about creating an edible organic garden – it is a far more ambitious project. ‘I am trying to reverse modern progress, trying to take a step forward by taking a step back. We are supposed to be enlightened people but we are not acting like it. The global warming crisis that is threatening our very survival is the red flag telling us to reverse our course. So I am trying to live a simpler life and wean us off everything we don’t need.’

Basically, for the past eight years, the family has taken the eco mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ to its logical extreme. They don’t buy anything they don’t absolutely need. They make do and mend with old clothes and secondhand furniture and reduce to a minimum bought-in resources such as petrol, electricity, water and food. It is a lifestyle that requires all the pluck and determination of old-fashioned pioneers.

At first glance, it appears as if the family is still living in 1917, the year their house was built. Paraffin lamps sit on the dining-room table (‘we hardly ever switch on the electric light – people think we are not at home in the evenings,’ Anais says). Their pink sitting-room is cosily furnished with secondhand sofas covered in homemade crocheted blankets and old cushions and the window pelmets are concocted from old bedspreads stuffed with paper. ‘The idea is to be green without costing too much green,’ Anais says, patting down her homemade apron and leading me into the kitchen where she is in charge of the cooking. Here the sagging wood cupboards are filled to bursting with 800 canning jars brimming with preserved fruits and vegetables. This is their storehouse for the winter months when the crops offer little variety.

All the kitchen appliances are hand- or pedal-powered. Some are bought from Amish catalogues or camping stores and include a hand-cranked liquidiser and an old-fashioned mouli. Others, such as a smoothie maker and grain grinder, both driven by bicycle power, are home made inventions. Some days Anais bakes outside in the solar oven (a simple box with aluminium reflectors to capture the sun’s rays). But today she is cooking pasta indoors on a conventional gas stove.

In search for ways to reduce their electricity bill, the family forgo may things the average westerner would consider necessities. The house has no air conditioning to deal with the 40C-plus California summers and there is no central heating. Instead they have a stove in the living-room that runs off scrap wood. ‘We have hot-water bottles in winter and sleeping bags that are rated to -20C,’ Anais says. By cutting these corners, the 12 solar panels on their roof cover 70 per cent of the family’s electrical needs.

Nevertheless, the Dervaeses afford themselves one or two luxuries, including a massive fridge which keeps their produce fresh for delivery to restaurants, an old television to watch their favorite Charles Dickens and Jane Austen adaptations and reruns of the 1970s sitcom The Good Life, and three computers to host their eight websites. These include ubranhomestead.org, which carries Anais’s blog about what the family eats every day; dervaesgardens.com, which lists what produce is available to buy; peddlerswagon.com, which sells green household items that have been road-tested by the Dervaeses; and freedomseeds.org, which sells their favourite seeds.

As the family tucks into a lunch of pasta with chives, parmesan and fresh garden peas and a mixed green salad, I realise that this is one of the most flavourful dishes I have ever tasted. In my six years as a food writer, the only other time a chef’s food tasted this good was at Alice Water’s home in Berkeley, California. There the fruit and vegetables had the same juiciness, crunchiness and vividness as the Dervaeses’ produce. Jules insists that the taste is a reflection of the richness of the soil. ‘When we first started gardening eight years ago, it didn’t taste this good,’ he says. Like many an urban garden, their soil was depleted from years of neglect and pollution. The mineral content has been painstakingly enriched over the years by adding their own animal manure and compost.

What they cannot grow themselves, they barter for or buy in bulk from the local food co-op. In the pantry are 50lb bags of sugar, rice, flour an oats and a cheese block the size of a small iron girder. They hope to reduce their shopping bill even further when their two goats start producing milk and Anais can make butter, cheese and yogurt.

Considering the pains the family takes with their food, it is a huge surprise to learn that only eight years ago they were regulars at the local Taco Bell, Mexican food’s answer to McDonald’s. Jules’s ‘Alamo’ as he calls it, was the day in 2001 when the local papers reported that genetically modified corn, intended for animal feed, had been accidentally used in Taco Bell’s produce. ‘I hit the roof,’ he says. ‘How could I trust these food producers anymore? I had to protect my family from this mad experiment. I turned radical and decided to grow as much of the food as we possibly could’.

Until then, the family grew a sprinkling of vegetables, but not enough to make a dent on their grocery bill – ‘we were tied to the supermarket’ Jules says. But the year after the GM corn scare, they cultivated every available inch of their garden using imported nitrogen-rich soil and nursery-grown plants. They even went into credit-card debt to pay for it all. The result was a bumper crop of 2,300lbs of fruit and vegetables.

That miraculous first year is somewhat less surprising when you discover that Jules comes from a long line of Belgian nursery owners and had been gardening organically most of his life. Anais and Jordanne proudly produce a handful of yellowing early-20th-century nursery catalogues for the family business, Boomkwekerijen – Pepinières De Coninck-Dervaes in Maldegem, Belgium. They were, Jules tells me, suppliers of trees and flowering plants to Belgian royalty.

Jules’s father, a second generation immigrant and an executive for Standard Oil in Florida, practiced chemical-free gardening and passed his passion on to his son. In the early 1970s, after Jules married his college sweetheart, Mignon, and moved to New Zealand to try a life of self-sufficiency in a remote part of the South Island, he developed his first organic vegetable garden, and when a swarm of feral bees landed on the building next door he thought, free bees for me. With the knack of the opportunist, he managed to coax them into a series of hives and so began a lucrative honey business.

After Anais was born in 1974, Jules and his family moved back to the US so that his parents could be near to their only grandchild. Having grown up in relative luxury, Jules’s adult life seems surprisingly hardscrabble. In Florida, the young family lived in a trailer home that ‘made this place look like a palace’ he says. And while he sometimes taught maths in schools and colleges, he mostly did unskilled labour, picking oranges and mowing lawns to make ends meet. Then, in 1984, the family sold up and moved to Pasadena so that Jules, a follower of the radio evangelist Herbert V Armstrong, could attend religious college in hopes of becoming a preacher. But when Armstrong died, Jules left the church and the family was stranded in the middle of Pasadena’s least desirable neighbourhood.

Things went from bad to worse when Mignon left Jules in 1989. ‘The stress of the church break up dismantled the marriage,’ he says, adding simply, ‘I wanted the children and she didn’t contest that.’ (Mignon now lives in New Orleans, but ‘still assists with some of our endeavours,’ Jules says.) After that, the family embarked on a particularly dire period, which they refer to as ‘the brown years’, when Jules decided they were too poor even to water their front lawn and they covered it over with mulch. It was the talk of the neighbourhood. In the end Jules bought a pack of wildflower seeds in an attempt to conceal the mud, and when the flowers burst into life the next winter, Jules (who had been reading an article about local restaurants using edible flowers), realised he had a lucrative business growing in his front garden

For 10 years the family sold edible flowers to a dozen restaurants and caterers, but they still fell short financially, so the children collected cans and bottles to recycle for cash and made leather handicrafts to sell at art fairs, and Jules did the occasional bit of lawn maintenance. The dotcom crash in 2000 wiped out their business – ‘edible flowers were considered an unnecessary luxury,’ Jules says – but a year later the family embarked on its radical self-sufficiency project.

The Dervaeses now supply four or five restaurants and caterers with fruit and vegetables, Jules and Jordanne are doing today’s deliveries in the family’s beaten-up 1988 Chevy Suburban truck. It is powered by home-brewed biodiesel, which Justin makes from recycled vegetable oil (provided free by their restaurant clients).

As we rumble through the historic center of downtown Pasadena, Jules chuckles ‘How do you like the French-fried fragrance?” Actually I can’t smell a thing. But Jules continues, ‘The emissions are a lot healthier than gasoline or black diesel. They are not toxic to the environment.’ Their bio-diesel cost only $1 a gallon to make, but like everything in the Dervaes family’s life, it requires a lot of sweat equity. From start to finish it takes 30 hours to brew 30 gallons in a makeshift contraption Justin copied off the internet – basically an old water heater, some pipes and an oil drum. Justin doesn’t have to be present for the whole process – only the 3 hours it takes to pump the oil through the system by hand.

Waiting for us at a chic little restaurant called Elements is the chef and owner, Onil Chibas, who has been buying the Dervaeses’ greens, edible flowers and duck eggs for four years. He insists that I try two of his dishes, which employ Dervaes produce, and while I eat a heavenly goat’s cheese salad followed by a duck salad, he tells me. ‘If Jules could grow enough produce, I would never buy anything else. His vegetables are amazing. Everyone comments on them.’ Jules, who has been perusing the latest menu, is chortling over a dish, which is described as using ‘Dervaes organic garden greens’. ‘Next they are going to be writing “eggs by dawn” he grins, referring to one of the family’s ducks.

Back at the homestead, dinner is served at 3.30pm, and then there is another five hours of work before flopping in front of the television (or more often these days sitting up late into the night updating all their websites). Everyone helps out in the garden (planting, watering and weeding) as well as doing additional chores. For Justin, this includes fixing up the homestead and acting as farm manager, keeping meticulous records of what the weather is like each day and what organic fertilizer is used. For Anais it is acting as mother of the brood, cooking, ordering household supplies and cleaning. For Jules it is developing PowerPoint lectures for universities, talking to the media and the family’s fan base. And for Jordanne it is writing the computer code for the websites (in typical DIY spirit she taught herself how by rummaging about on the internet) and tending to what she calls ‘the crazy funny farm’.

It is easy to miss at first, but tucked into a dinky 250 sq ft space around the back of the garage are eight chickens, five ducks and two goats. ‘You generally treat them like dogs, ‘ Jordanne says while massaging the hooves of Lady Fairlight, a patently blissed-out Nigerian dwarf goat. One of the most striking things about the animal enclosure, beside its smallness, is the fact that there are no unpleasant animal odours. None. ‘People think animals equal smell,’ Jordanne says. ‘But animals looked after badly equals smell. My neighbour’s dog has more of a smell.’ The reason for this, she says, is their diet : the animals eat the same delicious vegetables as the family, and the chickens and ducks get supplementary protein by picking grubs out of the mulch and wood chips underfoot. ‘If the food is full of chemicals it makes them weaker and their digestive system doesn’t work as well, so they are smellier’.

As the Dervaeses and their animals enjoy robust good health, they have little need of vets or doctors – just as well, since the family avoids vaccines and medical drugs, believing they do more harm than good. The Dervaes children have no dental fillings and if the get sick they ‘tough it out’ with a homebrew of Swedish bitters prepared by Anais. For the animals, Jordanne has devised her own holistic remedy bag that includes baking soda and yogurt for when the goats get upset stomachs, arnica and massage for when a duck strains its leg and a homemade probiotic slurry for when the chickens develop problems with their crop (a pouch in their throat that predigests food).

It seems obvious that the Dervaeses’ lifestyle is far healthier for the planet and for them than the way most of us conduct our lives – guzzling gas, drugs, electricity, oil, chemicals, plastic, and consumer goods and living over-scheduled stressed-out lives. But my main worry before visiting them was the emotional toll this intensive lifestyle might have on the younger family members. It seemed odd, even cultish, that three adult off-spring would be still living at home, unmarried and working six days a week. Surely they ought to be cultivating families and partners of their own?

A fourth Dervaes child Jeremy, 28, dropped out of the homestead project four years ago. ‘He wanted to fit in’ Jordanne says by way of explanation. But the others seem confident, independent and happy to be living what Anais calls ‘a purpose-driven life’. On Saturday, their day off, they go for outings and hikes with friends (Jordanne usually brings along her goats) and the family holds a monthly potluck dinner for 30 friends. But none of them has a romantic interest. Jules says he has asked ‘the children’ to put their romantic lives on hold ‘until we can make a move’.

The move they are planning is to a larger piece of land where they can create a community of like-minded people. ‘We want a couple of hundred acres and anticipate a village of 60 families,’ Jordanne says. ‘We want somewhere with mates and children,’ Anais says. ‘And we want more bees,’ Justin says. This plan isn’t a mere fantasy. They’ve been making offers on properties for the past two years.

Jules, who has been listening to his children talk excitedly about the new venture, says he is considering buying 600 acres ‘somewhere in South America, somewhere safe but isolated’. The financing of the project, which Jules estimates at several million dollars, will come from the ‘villagers’ or future residents, who will each purchase their own individual homestead. The family’s income is currently about $40,000 (from sales of their produce and items on their websites plus donations to the Dervaes Institute, set up in 2006 to support the Dervaeses’ mission), but not nearly enough to finance a utopian vision.

To Jules, the most important consideration for their new community is that it is located ‘somewhere that has water’. Southern California’s dismal rainfall is a huge financial drain. In the US, tap water is metered, so every drop counts. The family use a whopping 880 gallons of water a day in summer. ‘Here we can go for nine months without seeing a drop of rain,’ Jules says, adding that the state is currently in a three-year drought.

With characteristic thrift, the Dervaeses uses very little water for themselves. They wash only once a week with soap (in summer they bathe outside in the solar shower) and they wash their clothes only when necessary (Anais claims to have worn the same overalls every day for two weeks). Despite what some would view as a third-world approach to hygiene, they don’t appear grimy at all. The bulk of the water is spent on watering the plants and the animals. ‘The chickens are living better than the humans,’ Jules jokes.

But none of the family members seems to resent the sacrifices they constantly make – quite the contrary. And while Anais, Justin and Jordanne admit that their childhood was sometimes hard, especially being teased about their secondhand clothes and their parents’ odd ideas such as home schooling (which was illegal at the time), their ‘difference’ is now what is getting them all the positive attention. ‘After a big piece appeared in the LA Times, some of the neighbours have become quite proud of us,’ Jordanne says.

And while other childhood friends got into gangs and ‘really screwed up their lives’, Anais says, they feel content and confident that they can solve anything. ‘People treated us as stupid because we didn’t have a normal education,’ she recalls. ‘But for us it meant that we weren’t confined in how to do things. Our friends feel they have to take a class in how to compost. We just do it.’

It is a lifestyle that the Dervaeses believe everyone can adopt in some way – even if you don’t have a back garden, green thumbs and grown children to help with the chores. The concept, according to Anais, is not really about gardening at all. ‘It’s about people and community. It’s about going back to sharing and recycling and reducing and doing without and doing it together.’ The key is to start in some way, no matter how small.

© 2009