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O, pioneers in Pasadena

One family unplugs from technology and lives off the land. Even the blender is pedal-powered.

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.

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