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November 2004: Path To Freedom

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Jules Dervaes came for a tour of the Willits Mini-Farm and told us about his urban homestead project in Pasadena. It sounded so interesting we asked him to write an article to share with our readers. Their website - - shows other projects the family is involved in.

I was born in Tampa, Florida, in 1947. My paternal grandparents immigrated to Florida from Belgium, in 1902. Horticulture was a part of the Dervaes heritage. The family had owned and operated a well-known nursery and landscape business in Belgium, and my grandfather was a landscape specialist in Florida. My father was an active gardener; however, ornamentals and tropical plants were his specialty-not food production. As a youth I was college bound, headed like everyone I knew for the corporate world.

When I was nearly 26 I wanted to know where our food comes from, and I became interested in growing food as a way of life. Mother Earth News helped my interest grow, and this led me to emigrate in 1973 to New Zealand, where in an abandoned gold town on the South Island I began my homesteading journey. I experienced a taste of freedom during that time until circumstances brought me and my family back to Florida and thereafter to Pasadena, California. We thought of Pasadena as a "stopping-off" point. We intended on someday moving to the country. We wanted acreage and lots of it.

For many years I felt something was missing in my life. I wondered why we couldn't all become independent as our farmer-forefathers were before us. The freedom they tasted came from making a living the old-fashioned way; they had to earn it from the soil. Before Path to Freedom, my beliefs brought me in the direction of simple living and environmental awareness. When water conservation became an overriding issue in the 1990s as California was going through a severe drought period, I did away with my moisture-challenged lawn, replacing it with wildflowers and drought-tolerant plants and, eventually, with edible landscaping.

In the fall of 2000 I had an angry reaction when I heard that US biotech corporations were bent on introducing GMOs into the food supply. Not wanting to be GM'ed myself, I knew I had to protect my family from this mad experiment. I was being cornered because I had no other convenient (cheap) way of getting genuine food anymore. Even though for many years I had been gardening, I hardly relied on these plantings for our "daily bread." My family was tied, as we always had been, to the supermarket. Because of this threat to the very seeds of life of our home, I turned radical. I aimed to get as much food for our dinner table as we could possibly grow ourselves. We decided to make a go of it on the one-fifth acre (8,700 sq ft) we had. But there were nagging doubts at every turn: There is no room here.

With lines drawn in the dirt, we proceeded to fanatically plant, trying to use every available space in the four corners of our small world. And, after the first year in 2001 of gardening for real, were we ever shocked when the final tally showed the harvest coming in at over 2,300 pounds. I knew we could do more for we had only scratched the surface of our anemic, worm-challenged soil. And, as I began to look around, something incredible was happening. My small place was growing larger right before my eyes.

Three of my four adult children are currently working with me on this project. It's been difficult for them, especially early on, since this was a different lifestyle which brought about some isolation here in the city. A lot of what we are doing is new, and therefore, it hasn't been an easy 'row to hoe.' They have had to make some sacrifices today for what-I hope-they see as a better future tomorrow.

Of course, it's a jungle out there, so we also continue to face daily difficulties which keep us always on our toes. Everything is so tight that it makes for one heck of a busy, stressful situation but one that is, nonetheless, truly rewarding-physically, emotionally and spiritually. Smallness has meant better manageability, greater concentration of effort, and more firsthand knowledge. As a special bonus, our downsized acreage has forced us to innovate and to keep innovating. And that has made all the difference in the world. Last year, our harvest expanded to over 6,000 pounds from 4,800 sq ft!

As I began to see our own path to freedom take shape, I knew there were others who felt the same way I had: discontented with their city way of life. Having once been on a search for what was missing in my life, I hoped to show an example of what can be done. First, we put up photos on the website, along with stats and a monthly diary. Later some people asked to come over and see our yard. When a garden class from a local high school came for a field trip, we began thinking of giving tours. This year has been extremely busy, especially since this is the first year we began to host events at Path to Freedom. Our schedule has been filled with tours and a variety of workshops and lectures. We would estimate that a combined total of 500 people have attended the 19 events we have hosted so far in 2004. Since we started giving tours 4 years ago, we estimate that approximately 1000 people have visited. Our website outreach is worldwide with an average of 30,000 visitors per month from over 100 countries.

Throughout my adult life, I've always been conscious about the environment and what we should do to reduce our impact on the earth. One of my motivations was the belief that you may not be able to change the world, but you can at least change your footprints on this earth.



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