A Family Farm in the Midst of Suburbia

From homemade fuel to an outdoor shower, a family makes an impact on the earth.


May 15, 2008— -- Is it neat, or is it slightly odd that in this Los Angeles community -- it's called Pasadena -- a suburban mix of nice restaurants and well-tended front lawns, there is a home wedged in with the other houses where the entire front yard is edible?

It's true. At 631 Cypress Avenue, there is not one thing that cannot be eaten. Nothing. Kale, chives, pepper, pinapple, guava, Swiss chard, even edible flowers along the side of the house, and into the back yard.

It is Jules Dervaes' fifth of an acre. His little family farm, in the midst of American suburbia, his way of breaking free without really going anywhere.

"We eat rich, I'm telling you," said Dervaes. "And the way we live, it just seems like something you would dream of."

The "we" he speaks of are his kids, who grew up on the farm. Three out of four of them have stayed on into their 20's and 30's, and they don't have other jobs either because what they don't eat, they sell.

Not that it was easy for them when they were little, and their dad, to save money, stopped watering the front lawn and started preparing to plant crops there.

"We had a rough go in the neighborhood," said Dervaes, chuckling. "My children had issues with other children wanting to know, what's up with your dad?"

He is able to laugh now partly because his property became quite beautiful, but also perhaps because of the independence it gives him.

"The world has become more dependent on supermarkets, on corporations, on the gasoline station, on government, and we're just trying to do it ourselves," said Dervaes. "We're trying to make ends meet -- we're trying to put food on our table just like pioneers did in the old-fashioned west not so long ago."

Dervaes isn't an anarchist. And he doesn't hate money. What he hates is working 9 to 5 for someone else and being a slave to paying bills.

"Growing your own food is recession-proof," said Dervaes. "You don't have to worry about the prices. When you depend on other people, you become powerless. You get a pink slip. Now what do you do? You know, where are you going to get a job? You get high gas prices and you can't afford it, what do you do now? So we figured this was the answer, just to see how much we could do ourselves."

It's something he aspired to most of his life, as a beekeeper in New Zealand, a small-scale farmer in Florida, and always something of a free spirit seeking independence.

But food is only one small part of it. Practically anything that the typical Americans spends money on, Dervaes and his kids figure out a way to either, make borrow, or buy cheaply.

For their clothes, "we go to the stores like the thrift stores that we can," said Dervaes. "We like second-hand goods. They're well-made and we can make good use of them."

Most of the furniture in the house was inherited, so to speak. Some was lifted from various curbsides before the garbage truck got there.

Then there's the question of heat and light. For that, the Dervaes' have solar panels on the roof and outdoor showers where the water's warmed by direct sunlight.

"The water goes into irrigating the fig tree and the banana and all the flowers around here," said Dervaes. "It doesn't ever go into the sewer." And in the kitchen, which has no electrical appliances except for the refrigerator, there's even a hand-cranked blender

And the real money-saver lately is their car. It's a diesel engine, but they never buy fuel. Instead, his son, Justin, makes it out of waste vegetable oil he collects from local restaurants. It costs them a dollar a gallon.

And at a certain point, the car, the crops, and their persistence made the family, rather than strange, into an interesting part of the community. Neighbors began dropping by to buy eggs and vegetables. Schoolchildren visit on field trips. They even have an Internet business selling earth-friendly farm tools and products. The family of four lives on $30,000 a year.

"We eat rich, I'm telling you," he said. "And the way we live -- it just seems like something you would dream of."

Late one afternoon, Justin gassed up the car with his home-brew fuel, and the Dervaes family made the rounds of restaurants they supply with fresh vegetables. One such eatery is Elements, a new restaurant with a superb chef named Onil Chibas, who loves their produce and names one of his salads after the family.

The Dervaes' lifestyle at this point depends on there being enough people who will pay 13 dollars for a salad. Otherwise, they don't have that market for their vegetables. They also depend on nature being nice to them. They need rain.

Then there are the social consequences of their profound frugality. How or where are these three young adults who are at home all day every day going to get to meet other people?

"We're looking for farmers," said Anias Dervaes. "I'm looking for a farmer, my sister is looking for another farmer. But farmers are hard to find in LA."

And so her dad who likes solutions has been organizing potluck dinners for like-minded folks, in part to expand the family's social horizons and of course the entertainment doesn't cost a dime, but more important, it's homemade, homegrown, practically a part of the garden.

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