California Family Lives Off the Energy Grid

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In Pasadena, Calif., Jules Dervaes and his family have already begun living the change that many suggest is needed to combat global warming. They use appliances powered by hand-cranks, and the lawn is trimmed by goats.


All right, we've just thought globally. Now to a family that's acting locally.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited a family that's gone seriously green in Pasadena, California.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: On a surprisingly gray day in Southern California, Jules Dervaes is walking me through what's left of his front garden. He points out fruit and vegetable plants that perished in the extended cold snap here. He thinks it's part of a larger problem.

Mr. JULES DERVAES (Farmer, Pasadena, California): Yes, I say this is my up close and personal introduction to global warming. Because we see it, we felt it, and now you see the results of it, and we feel the results that we don't have produce that we have that we need to sell.

BATES: That's a big deal, because Jules and his adult children grow fancy produce that's cherished by several local caterers and restaurants. They're doing this on a small city lot perched near a freeway. All the power used to fuel their business and their cozy 1917 bungalow is green. Jules opens the gate to the business end of the property, the backyard.

Mr. JULES DERVAES: We have...

GRIGSBY-BATES: Oh, there is really a farm back here.

Mr. JULES DERVAES: Yes, it is. It's a highly productive micro-farm.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Raised beds are planted with baby lettuces and broccoli. Apple trees are wired on a fence to spread horizontally to save space. There are poles for tomatoes and green beans, which will be planted in warmer weather.

The garage is at one end of the yard. Its roof is loaded with solar panels that provide the Dervaeses with two-thirds of their electrical power. The other third they buy from the city and it's produced on a wind farm. Jules says the way his family lives isn't only an environmental choice but an economic one, which helps in a crisis like this recent cold snap.

Mr. JULES DERVAES: We decided a long time ago, we weren't going to, you know, be indebted to debt. We were going to be kind of free of that, and so now when we take a hit like this, we're not going to be, you know, knocked down and out. Knocked down, but not out.

GRIGSBY-BATES: The tiny farm hatched free-range chickens and ducks, which produced gourmet eggs that fetch premium prices. There are four different composting systems on the property. Five, if you count of these two little goats.

Mr. JULES DERVAES: Oh, that's Blackberry. That's we have a Blackberry and a Fairlight right here. Yeah, that's you. Blackberry.

GRIGSBY-BATES: The goats are pets, but they really do dispose a surplus produce and the clippings from vines and trees. The Dervaes family has been environmentally thrifty for about 20 years and they farmed this way for six. Anais, the oldest daughter, says when she and her siblings were kids, they were just going along with their dad's program. Now they fully embrace it.

Ms. ANAIS DERVAES: Growing up and seeing the situation of the world and the global warming and the effects that consumerism is having on everybody, then we started making the choices ours. What we were, you know, grew up with made sense now.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Jules Dervaes says he and his children aren't crazy. They're just determined not to be slaves to energy prices, or contributors to already rampant pollution. They are especially conscious of the need to conserve water. In a tiny bathroom, a small sink sits on top of the toilet tank. It's an eco-conscious Japanese model.

The water used for hand washing flows down to be saved for the next flush.

(Soundbite of toilet flushing)

Mr. JULES DERVAES: So when you use the washroom, you wash your hands and save water before it even touches the bowl.

GRIGSBY-BATES: The front-loading washing machine is also a big water saver. The family uses it for big loads - linens and blue jeans. But for little things?

Mr. JULES DERVAES: This little tin washing machine.

GRIGSBY-BATES: It's the same model popular in Amish homes; basically a drum filled with soapy water with a stick attached to it. That's agitator and it has to be operated by hand. While a lot of conservationists would praise him as forward-looking, Jules says he's inspired by the Amish, folks most people think are firmly rooted in the 19th century.

Mr. JULES DERVAES: Because they have done it so long and so well, that we look to them to see what ideas we can incorporate, you know, bring it up to date and bring it into our world.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Living with a dad who thinks the Amish got it right would probably scare most 28-year-old guys. But Justin Dervaes says he loves farming. Heirloom tomatoes are his favorite and he wants to stick close to home.

Mr. JUSTIN DERVAES: It's different. People tell us, you know, it's smells difference, you know. It feels different. We're like, well, feels and smells like home to me.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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