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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Family’s Urban Farm a Model of Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency

August 17, 2012 |

What began as the Dervaes family’s endeavor to grow all of their own produce has developed into a thriving urban farm that grosses significant sales and exemplifies local, sustainable living. Located in Pasadena, California, the garden sits on 1/10 of an acre, and provides a blueprint for other urbanites to reduce their environmental impacts while lessening their dependence on conventional food and energy systems.

In the early 1970’s, Jules Dervaes grew wary of the world’s debilitated food infrastructure and growing environmental problems. Responding to these concerns, Dervaes moved to New Zealand to learn how to grow his own food. While overseas, he homesteaded in an abandoned gold mining town, and became a bee-keeper. After returning to the United States, Dervaes lived on 10-acres in central Florida until 1985, when he and his family moved to their current home in Pasadena.

“Going from 10 acres to 1/10th of an acre was a major challenge,” says Dervaes. “Add to that the urban environment and the arid climate of the Los Angeles area. Continuing our garden in this different landscape has posed many difficulties, but we are constantly adapting our processes.”

To address the challenge of growing food in a limited space, the Dervaes family started small and grew incrementally. Beginning with a modest portion of the yard, they gradually expanded into other areas. Dervaes replaced his lawn with edible landscaping, and eventually began planting on every available space.

“We grow vertical wherever we can manage,” explains Dervaes. “We have pole-beans and grape vines on fence-lines and arbors. We also use container gardening to incorporate spaces that would otherwise be considered barren, like on top of concrete.”

The Dervaes family also uses crop diversity to address space constraints.

“We practice a very quick rotation of crops,” Dervaes expands. “The climate here is arid, but allows for 365 days of gardening. This constant gardening is good, but it is also exhausting for workers and for the soil. We have to use all of our waste materials to keep our soil from being depleted.”

In addition to providing sustenance to plants, careful soil maintenance also helps Dervaes Gardens to conserve water.

“Keeping the soil healthy and sponge-like is a major priority. The original soil here couldn’t retain water, so we practice lots of mulching to ensure that the soil is nutritive and useful to our plants,” Dervaes notes.

Due to the local climate, conserving water is a prominent concern for Dervaes Gardens. They house ground crops on raised beds as a means of concentrating plants and minimizing water needs. The garden also takes advantage of microclimates created by the house and other surrounding structures, leveraging typically undesirable shade areas to protect sensitive crops from the searing Southern California sun.

Another innovative yet “back-to-basics” practice that keeps Dervaes Gardens’ water needs in check is hand watering. Rather than installing an imprecise, non-intuitive irrigation system, Dervaes maintains a close, human observation of the garden’s hydration.

“The watering system is my son, Justin,” Dervaes quips. “He knows what to water, how much, and how often. We are very careful not to water unnecessarily, and having a human making these decisions means we are able to conserve. A person is able to be responsive to diverse needs and circumstances—is the plant young or established, is it a hot or cool day? This close human engagement allows us to maintain a high level of biodiversity.”

Fine Tuning the Business Model

When the Dervaes family finally reached a surplus with their crops, they brought samples of their produce to local restaurants. Initially, selling to local food retailers was a profitable venture, but the economic downturn of 2008 saw some restaurants closing their doors. When Dervaes Gardens began to feel the constraint of a shrinking customer base, they sought a direct connection with consumers.

Dervaes Gardens now features an on-site farm stand and an online request system. The farm stand is open every day except Saturday, and Dervaes reports a growing demand for fresh, local, organic produce.

“Customers can look on the website to see what produce is available and place their orders. My daughter, Jordanne, runs the website, while my other daughter, Anais, gets the produce bagged and ready for customers when they arrive at the farm stand,” says Dervaes. “While we do occasionally have a surplus or a shortage, we are working toward consistently providing for our customers. We are continuing to refine our system, and pride ourselves on creating relationships with our customers.”

Dervaes Gardens is the core of Jules Dervaes’ Urban Homestead model, a sustainability focused “throwback to village community, where people who have fresh food share it with neighbors and friends in exchange for other forms of support.”

Dervaes’ Urban Homestead project consists of ten elements, which Dervaes teaches to help households to live healthily and sustainably—including use of alternative energy and transportation, waste reduction, self-sufficiency and simple living.

“Outreach is a major priority for us,” explains Dervaes. “People want to learn how to live more sustainably because they are realizing that we are in trouble. We receive worldwide requests for information about how to set up a system like ours. So many people say, ‘This is like the old country!’ or ‘This is how my grandma used to do it!’ What we offer here is an alternative to a purely technological future. Our goal is to bring hope to you and your community.”

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