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Dervaeses: Poster Family For Green Living    [Click to read entire article]

This 2009 article provides a much more in-depth view of the Dervaes family of Pasadena, California which is famous for their Urban Homestead on 1/5 of an acres where they grow 6,000 lbs (3 tons) of food a year -- meeting 80% of their food needs and earning $20-$30,000 from local restaurants. When the family first moved to their home 25 years ago, it was covered in concrete and junk. Now, it bursts with life and colour. It’s a south-west-facing garden --  best for growing fruits and vegetables.

It is a lifestyle the Dervaeses believe everyone can adopt in some way – even if you don’t have a back garden, green fingers 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.                            Excerpts are copied below.

Jules explains that their mission isn’t simply about creating an edible organic garden. It is a 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."

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 old clothes and secondhand furniture, and reduce bought-in resources such as petrol, electricity, water, and food. It is a lifestyle that requires the 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. The idea is to be green without costing too much green," Anais says. She is in charge of the cooking. The cupboards are filled to bursting with 800 canning jars brimming with preserves, fruits, and vegetables. This is their storehouse for the winter months when the crops offer little variety.


As the family tucks into a lunch of pasta with lemons, 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 Waters’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 and 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 take with their food, it is a surprise to learn that only eight years ago they were regulars at the local Taco Bell. 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. How could I trust these food producers any more? 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. The result was a bumper crop of 2,300 lb 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. They were, Jules tells me, suppliers of trees and flowering plants to Belgian royalty.

Jules’s father, a second-generation immigrant, practised 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, he developed his first organic vegetable garden, and when a swarm of bees landed on the building next door, he coaxed 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. In Florida, the young family lived in a trailer home. While he sometimes taught math, he mostly did unskilled labour, picking oranges and mowing lawns. Then, in 1984, the family moved to Pasadena so Jules, a follower of the radio evangelist Herbert V Armstrong, could attend religious college in hopes of becoming a preacher. However, 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 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 covered it over with mulch.

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 business growing in his front garden.
 For 10 years, the family sold edible flowers to a dozen restaurants and caterers, but the dotcom crash in 2000 wiped out their business. However, 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.

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."


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 they get sick they 'tough it out’ with a homebrew of Swedish bitters prepared by Anais. For the animals, Jordanne has devised a 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.

It seems obvious that the Devaeses’ 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 overscheduled 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 offspring 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 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 we 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 have 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 use 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.


However, none of the family members seems to resent the sacrifices they constantly make – quite the contrary. While Anais, Justin, and Jordanne admit 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.
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 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 fingers 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.

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