The Dervaes family seem like they’ve come from another time. Only instead of on the prairie, they’ve settled within the city limits of Pasadena, where Jules Dervaes and his children Justin, Anais and Jordanne grow over 6,000 pounds of food, power their computers with solar panels and make their own biofuel on a fifth of an acre in the front and back of their house. They are the focus of a new film by Robert McFalls called Homegrown, which tells the story of eco-pioneering, showing viewers a picture of what our not-so-distant future could look like if we were to live up to our eco-ideals.
The story is a simple one: Jules Dervaes dreamt of cultivating the land, but found himself living in the city without the means to resettle somewhere with acreage. One day, after years of thinking about leaving, he decided instead to do away with his lawn, which he considered too much upkeep for very little return. So the family began to grow edible flowers, later moving onto food and animals (they have chicken, geese and goats). Once they got on this track to self-sufficiency, it was easy to jump to changes in the way energy was being used on their homestead.
Though the film paints a captivating portrait, the poignancy of Homegrown doesn’t rest on this particular family’s ambitions as much as it delivers a new vision of the future food system. What the Dervaes are doing, in some ways, is not new. At one point in recent human history (in my case, my grandparents all grew up on farms) we knew our way around a garden patch. Instead, this film shows that after the industrial revolution has come and gone, and the infrastructure that made us great is already in place, our cities having sprawled, how will we reclaim land and provide for ourselves in a world without easy oil? We will, by necessity, have to get smart about our consumption. We will have to make better use of urban space for garden plots. The Dervaes are so admirable precisely because their effort shows that growing enough to feed a family and more is possible with less land than we’d assumed. In other words, they make a great model.
This is the first film by director Robert McFalls, who spoke at the screening at Green Screens, a regular environmental films showcase at Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. He said he was looking for a story about family and persistence. As a food policy wonk, I could have used more specifics on the food, the planting and planning. But then, after saying that to myself at the end of the film, I realized that the Dervaes have a helpful website that could fill in those blanks for me.
Living in the city is at once the most and least ecological choice; you must endure the pollution, crowded conditions and lack of land but you don’t need a car to go to the farmer’s market, and are in contact with like-minded people with whom you can set-up a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Many, including Michael Pollan and Vandana Shiva, are now speaking out on the three-fold energy, food and global warming crisis, saying that these three issues are so intimately connected that they must be dealt with together, and right now. In their way, the Dervaes are doing exactly that. Their genius in growing food in the city is the ability to sell it to local restaurants, creating a relationship between a chef who must have food to serve in order to stay open, and an urban farmer who brings produce by bike or biodiesel car.
But their life is by no means easy. They don’t take vacations, or buy many foods they don’t grow themselves. They often eat the same things again and again. And I could not help but wonder why the grown-up Dervaes children don’t have significant others, and whether or not they will ever move out of their father’s home. Maybe the Dervaes are re-thinking community too, while they are at it. Should we stay close to our families, and create support networks, maybe we would be better adjusted and happier than our doppelganger typing away in a skyscraper cubicle. But it brings into question the notion that President-elect Obama has brought up in his speeches: will we be willing to sacrifice in order to better the planet for all of its inhabitants? Or will we keep going at the rate we are now and see what happens?
Perhaps what we are seeing in Homegrown is a future food system in the making, where, instead of sprawling fields, everyone has a little bit of earth planted.