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Urban Homesteading: Big City Meets Little House on the Prairie

Warning: Some posts may cause drastic changes in your lawn, excessive seed buying, frenzied bouts of planting and the overwhelming desire for hand-cranked goods. We are not responsible for family and friends possibly labeling you as a "nut".

— "disclaimer" at bottom of the page; "Little Homestead in the City," the blog of Path To Freedom™ "The original modern urban homestead."

Those new to urban homesteading start by growing their own food (organically, of course) on a city lot. Some urban homesteaders produce fifty per cent (50%) or more of their diet on a lot as small as a half acre. Urban homesteaders tend to be good conservationists, exploiting alternative energy sources such as wind, solar energy, bio-fuels and even potentially hydroelectric. They economize by composting waste and re-purposing and re-using goods. Typically, an urban homesteader will can or otherwise preserve their harvest so they can enjoy it throughout the seasons. Where legal, urban homesteaders raise bees and farm animals; chickens, goats, pigs and the like. Finally, urban homesteaders tend to make the home the center of their universe; working in home-based businesses and often home-schooling their children.

For many urban homesteading is a goal; they do the best they can to be as independent as possible and conserve as many resources as possible. However, for some, urban homesteading is what life is all about every hour of every day.

Meet the Dervaes Family of Pasadena, California

Jules Dervaes is founder and director of Path To Freedom, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing urban homesteading. He lives with his son, Justin Dervaes (described on a website as "addicted to plants"); and daughters Anais (her Facebook page describes her as a "Urban Homesteader & 21st century Laura Ingalls wannabe") and Jordanne (described on a website as "Jane Austen meets html"). Together, they operate what appears to be about eight or so websites in some way connected with urban homesteading. The family's website FAQ page reveals that Jules Dervaes divorced his wife and that's why she's not in the picture. The site says that Justin, Anais and Jordanne still see their mother regularly, and that she even fills in when office work in the family business becomes overwhelming.

The family's story is colorful and certainly not mainstream. Everything centers around their tiny yet very productive family homestead in California, located on less than an acre in a low-income neighborhood in Pasadena. On a 1/5 acre lot, there's a 1500 square foot residence; the rest (about 3900 square feet) is an organic garden/farmyard which has produced up to three tons of fruit and vegetables in a year. They also keep goats, ducks and chickens.

The Dervaes family submits that there are ten steps toward becoming a true urban homesteader (re-printed from www.urbanhomestead.org):

1. Grow your own FOOD on your city lot.

More than 50% of diet, organically, on an urban lot (approx. less than half an acre*) with visually appealing landscaping. *Depends on square footage of house, location, and climate zone.

2. Use alternative ENERGY sources.

E.g., solar, wind, in conjunction with energy efficiency and conservation measures to reduce usage.

3. Use alternative FUELS & TRANSPORTATION.

E.g., bio-fuels and/or alternative methods of transportation (bicycle, walk, public).

4. Keep farm ANIMALS for manure and food.

Practice animal husbandry.

5. Practice WASTE REDUCTION.

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without, compost it, re-purpose it.

6. Reclaim GREYWATER and collect RAINWATER.

Practice water conservation and recovery.

7. Live SIMPLY.

…in the manner of past eras. Develop back-to-basics homemaking skills, including food preservation and preparation.

8. Do the work YOURSELF.

Learn to do home and vehicle maintenance, repairs and basic construction.

9. Work at HOME.

Earn a living from the land or hand work done at home. Develop a homebased economy.

10. Be a good NEIGHBOR.

Be conscious and considerate of your surroundings – ask yourself, “Would I want to live next to me?” Offer a helping hand for free. Urban homesteading is a community-based way of life, not a business opportunity. Be a neighbor, not a business person.

The Dervaes's submit, in part, that "Path to Freedom is a noncommercial, family-operated venture. We devote countless hours to this site, and, despite the opportunity for profit, we remain committed to keeping it an advertisement-free forum." The non-profit, ad-free website, however, links not only to the Peddlar's Wagon merchandise site, but also to Freedom Seeds.org (a marketer of organically-grown, environmentally-compatible, non-genetically-altered seeds) and to Der Vaes Gardens (yes, the spelling is different, ostensibly to capitalize on Mr. Dervaes's family history in the Belgian flower industry) ("since 1995" a marketer of organically-grown produce and edible flowers to restaurants, caterers and the public).

The Der Vaes Gardens website states that they tithe ten per cent of their product.

Surfing through their blog, one gets the feeling this is kinda like a Martha Stewart of urban homesteading. Boy, are these folks busy. But urban homesteading is hard work. Maintaining eight websites is time-consuming, hard work. Beside doing all that, they appear regularly at conservation/environmental shows and fairs, and have appeared on network television. And a blog is a regular (sometimes daily) commitment of time.

And what a blog it is. For example, click on an article about greywater (home wastewater from washing and laundry; not from toilets, kitchen sink or disposal) and you find an explanation of how to use greywater for irrigation, how to handle greywater, and a discussion of the California laws governing the need of permits to install greywater irrigation systems. Other blog posts are listed under the "resources" heading. Then, finally, there's a "Products" heading, which, in this case conveniently opens a window displaying a "toilet lid sink" that enables one to wash one's hands and have the drainage go into the toilet tank. Half of the flush-water is routed up to the spigot of the sink for hand-washing. It's cold water, only.

The product description doesn't tell you how many gallons of water you'll save a year by using the device. It's $89.00 plus shipping and handling. (If you're in Canada, they explain, shipping and handling of this item is an additional $40.00.) However rest assured that, according to the site, "Portion of each sale goes to the Natural Resources Defense Council for the protection of our nation’s water resources." Just for thoroughness' sake, I looked up the Natural Resources Defense Council. They're quite an organization with powerful spokespeople and a significant national profile. They also post this on their website, under "NDRC: Donating the Proceeds of Sales or Events:"

DISCLAIMER

As we do not have the staff resources to review each business and vendor that contacts us about donations, we cannot allow any business or individual to imply a formal affiliation with NRDC. Our Board of Directors requests that you include the following disclaimer on any web page, printed material or email message that mentions "Natural Resources Defense Council" or "NRDC" as the recipient of proceeds from sales or events:

" {Insert name} is not affiliated in any manner with the Natural Resources Defense Council or any of its programs, projects or websites."

Oops. I'm sure it was an oversight but the Dervaes family plum forgot to add the required disclaimer. Well, it's alright. They're good people. God-fearing people. Let me explain.

While I was looking all over the page for the required NDRC disclaimer, I did come across an interesting admonition: "A day of rest, a Sabbath request. We ask that wherever you may live to refrain from purchasing from this website between Friday sunset and Saturday sunset." Wow. If you read that, you're assured that these are some good, religious folks here. Wouldn't it make more sense for them just to shut the thing down for the Sabbath? I clicked on the associated link for more information. A page comes up entitled "Our Sabbath" that discusses the virtues of not working, not consuming, but being reflective and spending time with family. They cite the Hebrew tradition of Sabbath-keeping, as well as Genesis 2:1-3.

A silly scene just popped into my sick little head. Fancy a troll, lurking about the internet, who comes across that request. Do you think he/she would buy something out of spite; do you think someone would actually spend money to offend these folks? Can you see someone whose heart's filled with hatred and whose funds are unlimited just going to town, say, at 11:00 on Friday night buying environmentally-friendly stuff? Stranger things have happened.

An Earth-Care Ministry

Click on the "our non-profit status" tab on any of their webpages and you're directed to a page entitled "Our Outreach," which discusses everything they do (and also provides contact information for filming and interviews). The website's FAQ page directs one to the page where they ask for the money. Therein you can find the disclaimer (their typos): "Dervaes Institute, established in 2006, is an earth-care ministry and a California\r\nCorporation Sole under California Corporations Code Section 10000-10015\r\nand is tax exempt under IRS Code § 508(c)(1)(A)."

A Kinder, Gentler Urban Homesteader

I've always been uneasy with the moniker "urban homestead." It's the title of our book (what else could we have called it?), but it' not really accurate. The activities we describe are also practiced by suburbanites and people in rural places. And "homestead" is not technically accurate--all the readers of our book, I'm fairly certain, either own or rent their property.

— Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne, in their blog Homegrown Evolution

On the other side of the intensity spectrum are the duo of Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne. Their blog, Homegrown Evolution, is written very matter-of-factly, with the occasional self-deprecating humor. They chronicle their failures as well as their successes. They wear their passion like comfortable clothes. They've written a book, "The Urban Homestead" (2008, Process Media, CA) which was favorably reviewed by none other than The New York Times ("Home economics as our great-grandparents knew it" bleated the Times reviewer.)

More than anything else, Ms. Coyne and Mr. Knutzen write not about their own achievements, but the achievements of other kindred spirits. They're all about resources for the beginning urban homeasteader. This couple knows, seemingly, everybody who's anybody (nearly) in the Urban Homestead biz. They list dozens of blogs and websites authored by their colleagues in the side-bar of their own blog. Nearly every one of their blog posts lists at least one individual or group involved in urban homesteading.

What they don't make mention of is anything to do with the Dervaes family nor any of the Dervaes family's enterprises.

Yardstead.com

The folks over at yardstead.com, Jason and Kathleen, do feature one blog post about the Dervaes family. The title of the post is "The Dervaes Family: Inspiration to the Yardstead." Inspiration! Now that's more like it.

The rest of yardstead.com is an organization of how-to articles quite similar to ones that you'd find on any of the other sites mentioned here. Step-by-step instructions for the novice farmer helping one avoid common mistakes. The blog is obviously supported by Google ads. It's possible that the manufacturers of some of the products the blog highlights have paid a premium to be featured, too.

Learn How

So you wanna become an urban homesteader? You can actually go to urban homesteading "college" at the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland, California, USA. Founded by K. Ruby Blume, the school offers a diverse curriculum covering all aspects of becoming independent of conventional means of sourcing food, energy, even home repairs.

To read Ms. Blume's biography is to get an idea of the progressive, enlightened, jack-of-all-trades kind of person who's passionate about urban homesteading: (from the Institute of Urban Homesteading's website)

K.Ruby Blume is an educator, gardener, beekeeper, artist, performer and activist, with 20+ years experience gardening in an urban setting. She has studied everything from permaculture to organ massage and has taught herself cooking, canning and fermentation techniques, as well as how to set tile, install a sink, do electrical wiring, tend a beehive and repair a motorcycle. She has experience with a multitude of art media including ceramic, mosaic, glass, textile, printmaking, puppetry, collage, assemblage, costume design and photography. Ruby is known for her work as founder and artistic director of the non - profit arts group, Wise Fool Puppet Intervention, and has performed and exhibited her work throughout the Bay Area and beyond since the mid-80s. The product of three generations of teachers, Ruby's experience as an educator extends back thirty years. She has taught music, art, puppetry, design, theatre, gardening, beekeeping, stiltwalking and more to people ages five to ninety-five. Ruby has studied and taught body-based healing, massage and sexuality. She holds certificates in massage and somatic sexology and continues to practice and teach both in the Bay Area and Germany.

Wow! She can tend a beehive, repair a motorcycle, teach you to stiltwalk, and help you in the bedroom, to boot! Hereinabove I called Jules Dervaes the Martha Stewart of urban homesteading... maybe this woman's better-suited to that title. Ms. Blume's website gives you further clues into what makes this woman tick. Among her interests are Mead-making, motorcycles, and support for everyone from sex workers to radical peace efforts. She identifies her politics as "anarchist."

Interestingly enough, the biographies of all of Ms. Blume's faculty are similar in that they describe people whose interests are diverse yet include a focus in things to do with conservation, farming, and home-based living.

Classes are segmented into five categories: Garden; Animal Husbandry; Kitchen; Water, Power & Building; and Health & Beauty. Additional offerings are made on a "Special Events" basis. Course costs are on a sliding scale and average between $20-$40 and $75-100 (for a butchering course which includes supplies). A course called "Backyard Chickens" was so filled up ($30-$50) that they had to add an additional date!

Are You An Urban Homesteader?

I, for one, get tired just looking at the pictures on these websites of long, neatly organized rows of healthy plants burgeoning with ripe produce. It's an enormous amount of work to "grow your own" in any sufficient quantity to start seriously avoiding trips to the grocery store. My fear, too is that my lack of a green thumb, when translated into the animal husbandry skills that one needs to become an urban homesteader, would result in a barnyard full of dead poultry.

It's a fact that I'm all for communal living as a way to conserve both resources and money. I can dream about our little commune being surrounded by organic gardens, greenhouses and a little barnyard where chickens make noise, ducks quack and goats... er, goats make whatever kind of noises goats do. Perhaps the efforts of the fine advocates for urban homesteads above have jogged me into action, subliminally.

What we can learn from urban homesteaders is that there is a better way to live. Maybe these methods are considered old-fashioned in our microwave-ready, drive-thru, cell-phone world. But I ask you, have you ever eaten a few ears of fresh corn and a beefsteak tomato off of the vine, by candle-light? I have, once, years ago. It's glorious, just glorious.

 

SOURCES:

Website of the Dervaes family in Pasadena, California, USA

another website of the Dervaes family

Website of "Ellen," from the San Francisco Bay area, California, USA

website of Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne which explores urban gardening, farming, do-it-yourself, and other topics related to urban homesteading

Commercial website dedicated to urban homesteading/farming issues and products

Website of the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland, California, USA

Website of K. Ruby Blume, Founder of the IUH

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