MediaJules Dervaes of Path to Freedom

Jules Dervaes, founder of The Path to Freedom, interviewed by David Room of Global Public Media

David Room: Tell me about the path you have chosen.

Jules Dervaes: Ok, it’s an unusual one because we decided to stay here and do something about our situation here and now. And so we started in our own back yard and started first of all to see how much we could grow … grow our own food because of the threat to the food supply by the genetically modified organisms they are putting in foods today. So we decided to do our best, what we can, right here and now and it’s a path to self-sustainability, self-sufficiency.

DR: Tell me what you have here.

JD: Ok, we have over 350 different varieties of flora. And we are trying to get a taste of everything, a diversity. We are making enough for ourselves and the surplus we provide for customers that want to buy fresh local-harvested produce.

DR: Who’s buying your local harvest?

JD: Right now we have several caterers. We have some small restaurants and we have friends and individuals that we’ve contacted that know we are here and they want to stop by and buy our produce.

On getting started and being self-sufficient…

JD: Basically I liked gardening but I used to do it as a hobby. And then when the threat to our food supply came about I decided I better get serious about it and do it to protect myself and my family and to survive in a world that’s going to change on me. So I said, I better do something about it … take personal responsibility. And this is what came out of that decision: first to grow our own food and then we got into other things like energy, getting off the grid, we got solar panels, and we are making biodiesel.

DR: How much food are you producing a year?

JD: We started out with a little bit over a ton and that was three years ago, and last year we made over 6,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables from a fifth of an acre of land. It gives us about 75% of our diet in the summertime. We are able to cut out the store quite a bit and maybe just pick up basic commodities that we can’t grow here. And then we sell the surplus to buy some of the stuff we can’t grow. So we only really figured out what 6,000 pounds is, we just know we can live off of it and we can sell some of the surplus.

On gardening principles and soil…

DR: What gardening techniques have influenced you?

J D: First of all the organic garden movement and then lately we’ve been looking up Bill Mollison at Permaculture. And then my own father, he had his own separate techniques. If we took a tour around this place you could probably see my father’s influence in my place. He was organic and he was doing this before it became fashionable. He was an old-timer. Also the French biointensive method, we also rely on that.

DR: How important is it for you to build the soil?

J D: Feeding the soil is the critical factor in everything. Most people take the other approach and try to feed the plant. But feeding the soil, once you have the good soil and develop that, that’s almost like the magic thing you want to get to. The state of the soil you want to get to is a healthy, viable, living, breathing soil where the plants just grow of their own accord. You don’t have to beg them, or induce them to grow, or fight off the insects. That’s what you are looking for, is a good soil.

DR: Do you actually grow crops for the sole purpose of feeding the soil?

J D: Yes, we do have green cover crops and anything else that doesn’t mature we turn it back in. We grow a lot of things we don’t even use but we turn it back to the soil, let the soil use it. We are not taking everything and leaving nothing. We grow it, if we don’t use it we turn it right back into the soil. And then we also have the animals that we feed the vegetables to and they give us their fertilizer, they give us their manure for fertilizer. So we are doing it in different ways.

DR: Tell me about your closed loop philosophy.

J D: One of the samples we have that we like to show the children when they come out here is that we’ll take cuttings from our vegetables that we can’t use and that we can’t sell and they are overgrown and we feed them to the bunnies. The bunnies make their droppings and the droppings go into the worm bin and the worms turn into castings which go back to feed the plants. So right away one person said, “oh that’s a closed loop … you closed the circle.” And that’s what we are aiming for, to do that.

On public reactions and community…

DR: How do youth react when they come to your garden?

J D: Well, it’s nice to have support and it’s nice to have the comments because we feel we are doing something worthwhile. And to see the faces and to see the ideas spring up, that’s priceless to see that. We are happy to share it and to see that it might make a difference in people’s lives. The kids are looking at it different. They say they didn’t know this could happen. They think that all food comes from the supermarket. You know, they didn’t believe that we could … one person said, “oh, I see it, this is your supermarket, this is where you get your food.” I said that’s exactly right. They always think you only can get it in one place. We showed them differently. And the adults, they look at it as freedom to maybe break free and develop their own business or help them get a better standard of living by producing their own food, not having to pay supermarket prices. So they’re pleased to see that you can do so much with what you have. So it’s a good feeling. They seem to have a sense of thankfulness that they have seen it, a sense of thankfulness that they have been here.

DR: Tell me about the connections to the community.

J D: We have started this year to give more tours and more workshops to bring people out here and see if they can also … and we can learn and work along with them and get further along the path because we’re bringing in movie screenings, we’re bringing in experts, we’re bringing in people who can talk about Permaculture. And this is a nice meeting place in the garden. We’ve had knit-outs right here where people knit around and use our facilities. So it’s old fashioned, it’s homey, it’s a nice way to live.

On energy and where we’re heading…

DR: Give us a little bit of where you think we’re headed with respect to energy and how that influences what you do here.

J D: We’re conscious of the energy. We’re in southern California. A lot of people need relief from the heat. We are conscious of the fact that life is tied to the grid. And we’ve been trying conscientiously to extract ourselves from the situation by using Energy Star appliances and taking steps where we can save a little bit here, save a little bit there, not do so much, recycle. And now we have taken a big step by buying solar energy for the place. After that we decided that well, let’s take a look at our vehicle because we know there is going to be a problem with oil in the future, and not available, and high prices, so we decided to make our own. And we set up a situation here where we can brew biodiesel, homebrew biodiesel in our garage out of waste vegetable oil. And it costs us approximately 70 cents a gallon to make it.

DR: Can you tell us any challenges or issues you see about biodiesel?

J D: It’s not the solution, but it is a solution. We’re looking at it only as a stopgap, kind of a band-aid. There are problems with it. Not everyone’s going to make it. It still relies on methanol. Things still have to be figured out. But we think it’s something we can do now, as opposed to wait, and maybe rely on the government to come up with something. We felt we had to take matters into our own hands and this was one way we felt that we were empowered to do something and made us feel good about it. And even though it’s not going to answer everybody’s … not many people will be able to do the same thing we’re doing, but it allows us to think about new things and think about what we want to do next. And we still have to do that, we still have to find the right solution somewhere down the road that will make sense for everybody. Well, we want to go back to basics, and we want to go back to where we don’t rely on mechanical energy and carbon fuels. So you can take a point with bicycle power and just hook up your own bicycle to some kind of grain mill we have, flour mill. And that works and we’ve heard of people doing the same thing with teeter-totters to pump water, and other things that people use that, mechanical motion that you can get out of your own hands or own feet, own legs. And that makes a difference. If you can put out your own energy then you are freeing yourself, you’re getting back to where you are not making any footprint on the earth hardly at all. So that’s our aim, is to be free of making a mess. We don’t understand and we’ve got ourselves into a situation that we are going to have to extract ourselves from. And this is one way, we just go back to the old-fashioned way, take a bicycle, put it together with a mill, and then you can grind flour. So we feel that’s something very simple and everybody can do it.

On the challenge of getting started…

DR: What would be the primary challenges for someone else who comes here to visit and sees this, … thinks this is a great thing, … for them to get started?

J D: I guess the time. You have to make sure, it’s going to take a while, you have to be patient. The natural system is not going to deliver the goods like the man-made systems. We want instant gratification. But if you are in it for the long haul, you have to buckle down and wait. This is sometimes beyond people’s capacity to be in it for the long haul.

DR: What, if any, structural barriers exist for widespread adoption of this in the LA area? And I’m talking about potentially other city ordinances or anything that …

J D: The City of Pasadena has been nice. We haven’t had any problems. We meet the codes if we are not doing it for a business and if we don’t have people pulling up here and we don’t sell right off our place here. And we have some animals but they’re pets so as long as we are not into sales of these animals we’re ok. And the rest of this I think is new and we’ve asked the City of Pasadena what about composting toilets, if it’s ok, and they don’t have a law on the books. We are kind of ahead of the curve right here. And so sometimes they don’t even know what we’re doing. They never heard about anybody doing it like this in the city so we’re kind of uncharted territory. And we’re just keep pushing the envelop and to get to the next stage. And we hope to get there and not to make any problems with the city. So another thing, keeping bees would be something we would stay clear of. Keeping bees in the city, because we can’t maintain control over the bees. So we thought about raising bees for honey but we’re thinking that that’s a little bit more than we can handle right now and for the city too. It would probably cause a problem.

DR: How quickly do you think that motivated people could transition from buying their petrol-intensive food to this way of life?

J D: I’ve been gardening all my life so it’s different. So you really have to want to garden. So if that desire is not there that’s going to be kind of hard. I had the desire to garden from my father so that helped me out tremendously. He gardened so I was able to just pick up where he left off. But what you see here is three and a half years now of intensive labor. I have had help from my family and I’ve been pushing at it all the time. I don’t go to bed at night without thinking about it, how to do better and improve. So it’s going to be a long haul and it’s going to be a hard journey, there is no doubt about it. But if you want to do it, we’re showing you that it can be done. It’s just that we take steps where we do it one at a time. And you don’t want to push any more than that. You want to do what you can do when you can do it. Anything, that goes for any kind of plantings or any kind of things you want to see that you can do like with the bicycle or with solar. Just do it and then after that step take the next step. That’s all we can ask, that’s all I ask of myself is just keep on moving down the path. And it will take a while and I just say that you have to put your heart in it and you have to expect difficulties and things that don’t work out. We’ve had, we’re doing trial and error. I tell people that we do things by the seat of our pants. We don’t have a manual. We are always experimenting. And I think that’s what America used to be good at was to get themselves out of a crisis they would experiment themselves out of a crisis. And we’re just trying to do our part to see what we can do to develop a better future for our family and for other people.

DR: Is there any advice that you have for people who want to get started, specific things to start with?

J D: One would be feed the soil, would be to get your program based on a good soil. So whether you have to mix it or buy it. We bought ours first, it’s just to get started. To kick-start ourselves we had to buy it. You can’t deny it. We’re not going to wait twenty or thirty years. We bought local or bagged soil and it got us started so we that we grew our first crop. And then once that gives you success, and success breeds success and then you are on your own. You start to add back to it and say you buy less and less. And one day we hope to be free of that and have it totally our own. You have to get stuff from the system, from the stores until your yard, your soil is good enough to sustain it. A little bit at a time, that’s all. Another thing would be to grow something your family likes. Then grow some more. And then if you have more than you need, see if your neighbors want it. And see if you can trade with your neighbors. And start the ball rolling.

DR: It sounds like it takes several years to get started. Given our oil predicament, is there some urgency?

J D: Yeah, there’s definitely some urgency. That’s why we don’t have any moments to spare. We help people if they want advice. We have it on the web site and we give them advice in person or on the phone. So we’re actually helping people to get started and to start it now before it’s too late. But it’s still going to take time. That is why it’s urgent, is we know there’s a gap before we get to where we want to go. So it means that it’s even more urgent because things are going to take a long time before they turn right. It just didn’t happen over night. As it happened, this was a three-year project so people have got to expect that. So that means we are even more anxious to get going, you can’t waste another moment or anything.

DR: Where can they find more information?

JD: pathtofreedom.com is where we put up all the stuff that we do here on the net and other articles and other advice. And people really get a kick out of looking at what we have to offer on the Internet.

MediaJules Dervaes of Path to Freedom